Rep. Clyburn on Empowering Voter Rights

People wait in line to enter the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. The Supreme Court is embarking on a new t
People wait in line to enter the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. The Supreme Court is embarking on a new term that could be as consequential as the last one with the prospect for major rulings about affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As the Supreme Court prepares to decide the fate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it is important now more than ever to pass new federal laws to protect the right to vote. We need to establish uniform voting standards for federal elections to address the widespread voting problems of 2012. Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (D-SC), an original co-sponsor of the 2013 Voter Empowerment Act ("VEA"), introduced this bill as a means to make voting easier. Far from being easy, we've seen some of the ways that casting a vote was made extremely difficult in the 2012 election with new voter ID laws, shortening of early voting days, long lines and casting provisional ballots. Rep. Clyburn recently spoke candidly in an exclusive interview on why it is necessary to pass the Voter Empowerment Act.

The Voter Empowerment Act would bring our voting system in federal elections up to the 21st century with Internet modernization and registration, mandatory early voting, greater disabilities assistance, restoration of voting rights to convicted felons and same day registration and voting. It would apply only to federal elections, which are held every two years.

Among the ways to make voting easier, Rep. Clyburn says the current 30 day cut-off to register persons to vote before an election disenfranchises potential voters who may not make up their mind until the last-minute. The campaigns, candidate and ads are still in full swing 30 days before the election and up to Election Day. The last two presidential debates on October 16 and 22nd were held less than 30 days before the election. The Voter Empowerment Act would allow for same day registration and voting. As Rep. Clyburn states, "something might happen in 15 days to wet someone's appetite and get them involved in the process."

For all federal elections, the Voter Empowerment Act would require that states must hold 15 days of early voting with a minimum four hours per day near public transportation. Rep. Clyburn believes that "early voting should be a federal law for all federal elections. And the states can decide what they want to do with their own election." Early voting days for the 2012 election were cut in half in some states since 2008. The decreased early voting days in the 2012 election added to the long lines, chaos and disenfranchisement of voters. In Florida, an estimated 200,000 voters were disenfranchised in the last election due to long lines.

In modernizing and bringing voter registration up to 21st century standards, the VEA would allow citizens to register to vote by email, update any changes to their voter registration by email and require the State Board of Elections to notify voters who provide an email address of the place, address, hours and description of any ID needed to vote. And to further encourage greater participation of voters, universities would be treated as voter registration agencies and register students to vote at time of their enrollment of college. Those persons with disabilities would be able to vote by absentee ballot.

Probably the most controversial provision in the VEA is the right to restore the vote to convicted felons. The Voter Empowerment Act calls for a national standard to restore voting rights back to felony offenders who have paid their debt to society. "When people have paid their debt to society, they should get their voting rights back," says Rep. Clyburn. Those still serving time in prison would be ineligible to vote.

While everyone will not agree with all of the aspects of the Voter Empowerment Act, many will agree our present system needs to be fixed. It has 167 co-signers-all Democrats. The right to vote should not be a partisan issue. If Rep. Clyburn had his way, our right to vote would be as easy as 1-2-3.