U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke of the important role the judiciary system plays in safeguarding the political process against the evils of corrupt, closed, or fraudulent elections.
"Yesterday, I had the chance to host the chief justice of Kenya who is literally risking his life for judicial reforms to ensure free, fair and safe elections in Kenya in the upcoming year," Senator Coons said during a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday morning. "It's just a bracing reminder of how uncertain the path towards democracy is in other parts of the world."
Senator Coons' questioning at Wednesday's hearing expressed his concern that the Supreme Court in recent years has reviewed laws designed to ensure that the least powerful citizens are empowered to participate in the political process with skepticism, whereas election laws that may impair the rights of the least powerful to participate are given much more deference, like the Voting Right Act of 1965. Although that bill was reauthorized in 2006 by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, recent decisions by the Supreme Court have questioned whether the Act's requirement that certain jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination must "preclear" changes to their voting procedures with the Department of Justice.
Senator Coons asked Anthony Johnstone, an assistant professor at the University of Montana School of Law, why the Supreme Court wouldn't show greater deference to the Voting Rights Act, which passed the Senate in 2006 by a vote of 98-0.
Dr. Johnstone replied that, "With the Voting Rights Act you have the perfect example of an extensive record developed here with an overwhelming approval of not just Congress, but majorities of every delegation of the states subject to the preclearance requirement. If that political process can't be trusted to express Americans constitutional values through this article one body intended to express it, I don't know what would. If that Act is subject to suspicion, it's very hard to understand when Congress is acting within its authority to develop facts and reflect the constitutional judgment of the American people."
Senator Coons also raised the issue of a controversial Florida law that threatened volunteers in voter registration drives with stiff fines if they did not adhere to stringing procedures relating to the submission of completed voter registration. That law caused the League of Women Voters, which has conducted voter registration drives for almost 100 years, to suspend its operations in Florida. Senator Coons asked Elisabeth MacNamara, the president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, if there was evidence that Florida's voter registration law was necessary or simply an effort to prevent specific populations from increasing their registration.
Ms. MacNamara responded that, "It's part of our mission to make sure that every voter is registered. You pointed out that for 92 years we've been seeking out and researching laws that make it more difficult or less difficult for voters to register to vote. We understand, based on our own history, what it's like not to have a voice in our democracy. We have seen little to no evidence of this kind of voter misbehavior. Nor have any studies that we are familiar with confirmed any kind of widespread problem."
Senator Coons is an advocate for protecting voters' rights. He is a cosponsor of the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2011, which 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.