Monday, November 19, 2012

Congressional Democrats introduce two new bills to address electoral reform

Posted By on Mon, Nov 19, 2012 at 9:31 AM

Almost 10 years ago, in the aftermath of the 2000 election debacle in Florida, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. The bill helped states modernize their voting systems, and mandated the use of "provisional ballots," which was established to make sure that every voter whose eligibility was in question at the polls could still vote (though often those votes are not counted).

In Florida that meant getting touch screen voting machines to overcome some of the problems from 2000, such as the infamous "Butterfly Ballot" in Palm Beach County. But touch screen voting fell out of favor after Democrat Christine Jennings lost a controversial race to Republican Vern Buchanan in 2006 — a race where Jennings and others claimed thousands of votes were lost due to the machinery. Gov. Charlie Crist moved the state back to paper balloting by 2008.

After the 2012 elections, calls for voting reform have returned, especially after some people in Florida had to wait anywhere from four to six hours to vote. Last week, St. Pete House Democrat Darryl Rouson introduced electoral reform legislation; now there is new federal legislation being proposed in the form of two different bills (incidentally the Associated Press has a detailed story on why voters in some Florida counties endured longer waits than in other counties).

The FAST Voting Act is being sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Vermont's Chris Coons. The bill would create a competitive grant program (à la Race to the Top) that would "encourage states to aggressively pursue election reform."

The legislation would do the following:

Authorizes a federal program that would award grants based on how well applicant states are able to improve access to the polls in at least nine specified ways, including:
Providing flexible registration opportunities, including same-day registration;
Providing early voting, at a minimum of 9 of the 10 calendar days preceding an election;
Providing absentee voting, including no-excuse absentee voting;
Providing assistance to voters who do not speak English as a primary language;
Providing assistance to voters with disabilities, including visual impairment;
Providing effective access to voting for members of the armed services;
Providing formal training of election officials, including State and county administrators and volunteers;
Auditing and reducing waiting times at polling stations; and
Creating contingency plans for voting in the event of a natural or other disaster.

The program also requires an assessment of steps the state has taken to eliminate statutory, regulatory, procedural and other barriers to expedited voting and accessible voter registration.

In a statement, Coons said the voting irregularities and delays that happened in a number of states can't happen again.

"Long lines are a form of voter disenfranchisement, a polling place running out of ballots is a form of voter suppression, and making it harder for citizens to vote is a violation of voters' civil rights. The FAST Voting Act is a creative way to jumpstart states' election reform efforts and to ensure that what happened last week doesn't happen again."

Another election reform bill was introduced last week by San Francisco Bay Area Congressional Democrat George Miller. His legislation, called the Streamlining and Improving Methods at Polling Locations and Early (SIMPLE) Voting Act, would:

• Requires all states to provide for a minimum of 15 days of early voting in federal elections.
• Requires states to ensure that each voting precinct has sufficient poll workers, voting machines and other resources to ensure that voting lines do not exceed one hour, whether on Election Day or during periods of early voting.
• Requires states to have contingency plans in place to resolve situations in which long lines nevertheless develop.

In a statement, Miller said, "Americans shouldn't have to wait for hours and hours to cast a ballot — and the fact that they had to do so in the 2012 election is absolutely unacceptable," Miller added. "Voting is one of the most fundamental rights in our democracy and we must ensure that that right is protected. What we're proposing here is a very simple solution. We're saying give voters in every state the opportunity to vote early so that they won't be left out on account of a last minute illness, a change in work schedules, or unavoidable emergencies, and make sure that there are enough resources on Election Day so that voters casting their ballots in person are not forced to choose between waiting hours to vote or not voting at all."

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