Quick overview of election reform bills introduced in Congress

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced a bill they're calling the "Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely
(FAST) Voting Act"
(S.3635) Text of Legislation. Under their proposal, states that "aggressively"
pursue election reforms would be rewarded with federal grants.

And
what kind of reforms are proponents looking for? It's not a short list,
but the Warner/Coons bill calls for flexible registration
opportunities, including same-day registration; expanding early voting;
"no-excuse" absentee voting; and "formal training of election officials,
including state and county administrators and volunteers."

The FAST Act is roughly modeled after the Race to the Top education initiative — it's a competitive grant program, not a set of federal mandates.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced a related proposal, the "Streamlining and Improving Methods at Polling Locations and Early (SIMPLE) Voting Act" in the House (H.R. 6591) Text of Legislation.

According to the CRS Summary the bill:

Requires a state to ensure that each polling place which allows early voting in a federal election is located within reasonable walking distance of a stop on a public transportation route.

Requires the Election Assistance Commission to issue standards for the administration of early voting in a federal election.

Requires each state to provide a sufficient number of voting systems, poll workers, and other election resources (including physical resources) at a polling place used in a federal election to ensure: (1) a fair and equitable waiting time for all voters in the state, and (2) that no individual will be required to wait longer than one hour to cast a ballot at the polling place.

Requires each state to develop, and implement to the greatest extent practicable, a contingency plan under which it shall provide any polling place on a federal election day whose waiting times exceed one hour with additional poll workers, machines, ballots, and other equipment and supplies, including a polling place at which individuals may cast ballots before the election date.

On Wednesday, Sen. Brabara Boxer (D-CA) introduced a similar bill, the "Lines Interfere with National Elections (LINE) Act" (no Thomas link yet)  Boxer Introduces Bill to Help Voters Avoid Long Lines on Election Day:

The bill would require the Attorney General, in consultation with the U.S.
Election Assistance Commission (EAC), to issue new national standards by
January 1, 2014 regarding the minimum number of voting machines,
election workers, and other election resources that are necessary to
conduct Federal elections on Election Day and during early voting
periods. The bill explicitly states that the goal of minimum standards
is to prevent a waiting time of more than one hour at any polling place.

Senator Boxer’s bill also would require states where voters endured long
lines to implement remedial plans to fix the problems before the next
federal election. Under the legislation, the Attorney General working
with the EAC would identify states that had a substantial number of
voters who waited more than 90 minutes to vote in the 2012 election.
Those states would have to comply with a remedial plan to ensure voters
would not face similar delays in the future.

[Update: Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) introduced a companion bill in the House, the "Voting Line Reduction and Online Registration Act" (H.R. 6632) Text of Legislation
.]

Here are some of the problems with these proposals:

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) created by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) is a zombie commission that currently has no appointed members (a Republican-backed bill to kill it outright passed the House). There is no functioning federal regulatory agency.

National standards are all well and good, but without a regulatory agency with the power to enforce those standards they are mere suggestions that many states will choose to ignore for partisan political purposes. These states will thumb their "states' rights" noses at the federal government — "what are you going to do about it?"

So here is a proposal Congress ought to consider. The conservative activist U.S. Supreme Court is believed likely to strike down Section 5 (preclearance) of the Voting Rights Act because it only applies to jurisdictions with a history of past discrimination and voter suppression. Because the EAC is a "zombie" regulatory agency, Congress should rewrite Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to give the Department of Justice regulatory enforcement powers over all 50 states (and local jurisdictions) for the national voting standards proposed in these bills. The DOJ has more than 45 years experience in reviewing and enforcing voting laws. It is the appropriate agency for regulatory enforcement.

Now, the states that are challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act are whining mightily that it is an undue regulatory burden on their state, and that it infringes upon their "states' rights" to conduct elections. This of course ignores the fact that this was precisely the very purpose of the Voting Rights Act.

Americans are citizens of the United States, and "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States" under the 14th Amendment. State laws that have the effect of disenfrachising voters by imposing undue burdens on voter registration and participating in elections violates the 14th Amendment. The federal government possesses the constitutional authority to "federalize" elections by imposing national standards, and to enforce those standards under the 14th Amendment. It can do so through amendments to the Voting Rights Act.

Many people are unaware that the "right to vote" is not expressly guaranteed in the Constitution. It is long past time for Congress to send an amendment to the states for ratification declaring that "The right to vote is a fundamental constitutional right that shall not be abridged by the states." This one simple provision would require the courts to impose the "strict scrutiny" standard of review to state laws, requiring a compelling state interest, rather than the far less burdensome "rational basis" standard of review. This would put the brakes on a lot of the partisan political actions we have seen in the past few years to suppress the vote.

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