Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced Monday that the Committee will hold a hearing to examine Americans' access to the voting booth and the continuing need for protections against efforts to limit or suppress voting. At the December 19 hearing, the Committee will look at how the barriers to voting explored in previous hearings held by Leahy and by Constitution Subcommittee Chairman Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) affected the right to vote in the 2012 elections.
"Our Nation has grown stronger as more people have been able to exercise the right to vote," Leahy said. "Yet for the first time in generations new barriers to voting have risked reversing that progress and turning away from our Constitution's core values."
Numerous reports before and during the 2012 elections highlighted the adverse impact of various laws and practices on the voting rights of many Americans. Limitations of voter registration and early voting, misleading political advertising and robocalls and onerous and confusing voter identification requirements led to complications on Election Day. In some cases, voters were required to wait for hours in lines to vote, provisional ballots were used in place of regular ballots in many states, and some voters were wrongly denied the ability to cast ballots at all. The Committee will hear testimony on how these barriers affected voters during the 2012 elections and explore possible solutions to ensure that all Americans are able to exercise their right to vote in future elections. The hearing comes as the Supreme Court is set to review a challenge to Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act -- a key section of the law that protects the fundamental right of all Americans to vote free from discrimination. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized nearly unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006 after nearly 20 hearings about the continuing need for those protections.
"We are a stronger Nation when more Americans are able to exercise their right to vote, and this year, we have been reminded anew of how important protecting that right continues to be," Leahy said. "Without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, laws that discriminated against millions of Americans would be in place and the fundamental rights of many Americans to vote would be diminished. We also saw Section 5 work the way it was intended when we reauthorized it to ensure that the laws that are passed in states are not discriminatory."
This year alone, a panel of three federal judges found that one state's redistricting map intentionally discriminated against minority voters in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and that the state also failed to demonstrate that its new voter identification law would not impose a greater burden to minority voters. A separate panel of three federal judges approved South Carolina's voter identification law under Section 5, noting that South Carolina legislators passed a less restrictive law than they desired specifically in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
"A spate of recently passed state voting laws seemed designed to restrict voting by making it harder for millions of disabled, young, minority, rural, elderly, homeless, and low income Americans to vote," Durbin said. "The long-lines, increased use of provisional ballots, and changes to voter registration rules in the last elections have raised new and troubling questions about the ability to protect every eligible citizen's right to vote. I look forward to this hearing as we continue to ensure that our elections are fair, transparent and open to all."
Leahy and Durbin were both cosponsors of the 2006 law that reauthorized and updated the Voting Rights Act -- a law that was named in honor of Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and Cesar E. Chavez. Leahy has made the issue of voting rights a key focus of the Judiciary Committee and chaired a hearing in September that examined the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions on the electoral process. Durbin has chaired various other Subcommittee hearings this year to review deceptive practices and barriers to voting, including field hearings in Florida and Ohio.