U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, voiced his support on Tuesday for legislation that creates new civil and criminal penalties for misleading voters with the intent of causing them not to vote. Senator Coons is a cosponsor of the bill, the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2011.
"We hold ourselves out to the rest of the world as a beacon of democracy," Senator Coons said at a hearing on the bill Tuesday. "I think we can all agree that we should be protecting the right to vote and ensuring that all those who have the right to vote can do so freely and fairly."
The Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2011 would amend federal criminal law to prohibit any person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, from knowingly misleading voters regarding: the time or place of holding any federal election, the qualifications for or restrictions on voter eligibility for any such election, or an endorsement. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced the legislation in December.
Senator Coons' questioning at Tuesday's hearing focused on several types of voter fraud, including how young voters can be intimidated through social media channels. The Senator asked Tanya Clay House, the director of public policy for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, "What means can we take to help deter the chilling, disturbing ways new media has been used to suppress voters?"
Ms. House responded that, "It's much more difficult to try and stop these tactics if we do not have laws preventing them. We work to try and get the corrective information out about these misleading attempts through election protection and through a new smartphone application."
In 2008, messages were sent to some Facebook users falsely stating that the election had been postponed a day in hopes of depressing turnout. Students at some universities, including Florida State University, also received text messages as part of the misinformation campaign.
Senator Coons also asked about the increased presence of "challengers" at polling locations as a method of voter intimidation, noting that this disturbing and rising trend has targeted minority communities.