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Floor Speech: Senator Coons Calls for Passage of FAST Voting Act to Improve Access to Voting Rights

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. President, like many millions of Americans, on November 6, just over a month ago on Election Day, I stood at the polls, I cast my vote. Then when I got home, I stayed up late to see the results come in. I was still awake when President Obama delivered his acceptance speech. In those remarks, he said, "I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. And by the way, we have to fix that."

There is so much we have to fix. It was 11:38 p.m. on the East Coast when the Associated Press first called the election for President Obama, but Andre Murias, an 18-year-old first-time voter in Miami-Dade County, Florida was still on line waiting to cast his ballot. Andre had been on line at South Kendall Community Church for nearly five hours by the time he cast his ballot just before midnight. Five hours.

That's nothing compared to the seven and eight hours long that many other Floridians waited to cast their ballots during the state's condensed early-voting period. "This is a mess," one voter said. "It's chaos."

Rashell Hobbs, another first-time voter, waited five hours in Chesapeake, Virginia. "This is just horrible," Rashell said. "There's no reason it should take this long."

Voters across the country had other challenges or problems voting. Voters in Pueblo, Colorado, said they checked the box on their touch-screen panel to vote for Mitt Romney, but it kept switching their pick to President Obama. "I wonder whether my vote really counted," one Colorado voter said.

Other voters in Pennsylvania reported a similar problem, although in that case, it was the President for whom they seemingly were unable to vote.

Poll watchers in Davidson County, Tennessee, could only stand by as would-be voters saw the very, very long line of people waiting to cast their ballots and drove away. Pressed, I'm sure, by commitments of family or work or others, to choose not to spend hours standing in line to exercise that most fundamental of American rights, the franchise, the right to vote. In Philadelphia, longtime registered voters who showed up to cast their ballots discovered their names simply weren't on the rolls anymore.

Mr. President, in Ohio, in Wisconsin, in South Carolina, New York, Montana, more than a dozen states experienced some kind of basic breakdown in the administration of their elections in 2012.

This is the United States. The right to vote is fundamental to who we are. It is basic to our democracy. It is in our DNA. We have to get this right.

That's why I introduced the Fair, Accurate, Secure, and Timely (FAST) Voting Act of 2012. Along with Senators Warner and Whitehouse and I'm grateful that Congressmen Connolly and Langevin in the House introduced it and co-sponsors there.

In my view, long lines are simply another form of disenfranchising voters. Running out of ballots is simply another form of voter suppression. Incomplete and inaccurate voter rolls, disregarded voter registrations, misleading phone calls and mailing pieces, things that make it harder for citizens to vote, are simply a violation of voters' civil rights. We can and must do better. As widespread as the problem was in 2012, there are also many states that are getting it right, and these states, in my view, continue to be laboratories of democracy from which we should learn.

The FAST Voting Act creates a new competitive federal grant program, roughly modeled on "Race to the Top," which has encouraged states to pursue reforms in a different field in education. States that demonstrated the most comprehensive and promising reform plan win a greater portion of the grant funding in that model. Instead of spurring reform in the education field, the FAST Voting Act would inspire election reform.

This bill authorizes a federal program that would award grants based on how well states improve access to the ballot, in at least nine different ways. Through flexible registration opportunities, including same-day registration; through early voting, at a minimum nine of the ten calendar days preceding an election; through what's called "no-excuse absentee voting;" assistance to voters who don't speak English or have disabilities or visual impairments; effective access to voting for members of our armed services; formal training to election officials, including state and county administrators and volunteers; audited and reduced waiting times at the poorest-performing polling stations; and as we learned given that Sandy, Superstorm Sandy, occurred just a few days close to the election, contingency plans for voting in the event of natural or other disaster that compels the delay of an election.

These are the big areas, Mr. President, mentioned in this FAST Voting Act. Making it easier to register, making it easier to vote early, make it easier to vote absentee, shortening lines, better preparing for catastrophes, making it easier for Americans to exercise their right to vote.

I'm working with a host of civil rights and voter protection groups who work day in and day out on strengthening our electoral process. It encourages states and localities to find new, creative and local solutions that other states can learn from.

Mr. President, as you know, in my service prior to coming to this body, I was a County Executive and long active with NACO, the National Association of Counties. Counties have different roles in different states. There's more than 3,000 counties that spread across our 50 states, but in most states they are responsible, in part, for administering elections.

Many election officials are county elected officials and many voter boards are parts of county government. One of the things that I think is best about this bill, this FAST Voting Act of 2012, is that rather than mandating some specific response, it encourages and incentivizes state and local officials to put together plans for how to learn from the lessons of 2012, how to learn from the long lines and barriers that were put into place of those who came out to vote and find the best solutions rather than imposing or compelling, incentivizing and leading. In a way that, I think, state and local officials will respond well to and will accept and celebrate.

There is strong momentum. Although the election is now more than a month behind us, my hope is that we will continue to focus on the challenges of this last election and fix them before the next. The momentum, well, today the Pew Conference on Voting in America is bringing together some of our nation's foremost experts and scholars. And for that, we're grateful to the Pew Charitable Foundation.

The Judiciary Committee, Mr. President, on which we serve, has a hearing announced this coming week, and I applaud Chairman Leahy and Senator Durbin in highlighting the need to get to the bottom of what happened in 2012 and in championing the need for reform. Other members of this body have introduced bills, a well: Senators Gillibrand and Boxer. And I look forward to learning from them what their proposals are and working more closely with them to harmonize our bills and make sure we have the best approach moving forward.

If I can, Mr. President, I'll make one last point. In addition to serving on the Judiciary Committee, I'm the chair of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. And in that role, I advocate for free and fair elections with African leaders every day. The United States is often cited as their role model. We need to act like it and we need to earn it. What kind of message are we sending to electoral commissions, to heads of state, to members of civil society and advocates for free, fair and open elections in the rest of the world when we so visibly and publicly fail to deliver on that promise here in our own country? What kind of message are we sending to Andre Murias, a first-time voter? What kind of message are we sending to Rashell Hobbs? What kind of message are we sending to first-time voters about the value of their right to vote for whom so many fought, worked, struggled, sacrificed, even died in the course of our history? What message do we send to them when we allow modern-day barriers to be put in their place?

Voting is a fundamental civil right. And when states prevent their citizens from exercising that right, whether deliberately through law or through regulations or accidentally through lack of preparation or mere incompetence, it is a violation of voters' civil rights.

The FAST Voting Act, Mr. President, is one critical way we can try to fix our elections and make sure what happened across our country in 2012 never happens again.

Thank you.


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