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Mr. COONS. Mr. President, like so many Americans, I stayed up late last Tuesday night to watch the election returns come in.
It was 11:38 pm on the East Coast when the Associated Press called the election for President Obama, but at that late hour, Andre Murias, an 18-year-old first-time voter in Miami-Dade County, Florida, was still waiting in line to cast his ballot. Andre had been in line at the South Kendall Community Church for nearly five hours by the time he voted, just before midnight. Five hours--that is appalling. Yet, some Florida voters waited even longer--as much as 7 or 8 hours--during the State's condensed early-voting period.
Rashell Hobbs, another first-time voter, waited for five hours in Chesapeake, Virginia. ``This is just horrible,'' Rashell said. ``There is no reason it should take this long.''
Rashell, I agree.
Voting machine irregularities were experienced in States across the country by voters of both political parties. In Colorado, voters said they checked the box on the touchscreen panel to vote for Mitt Romney, but that the machine kept switching their pick to President Obama, while in Pennsylvania, voters reported the same problem in reverse, that their selection of President Obama was registered as a vote for Governor Romney.
It wasn't just new technology that caused issues. Poll-watchers in Davidson County, Tennessee, could only stand by as would-be voters saw the long line of people waiting to cast their ballots and drove away. In Philadelphia, long-time registered voters who showed up to cast their ballots discovered their names simply weren't on the rolls any more.
More than a dozen states, including Ohio, Wisconsin, South Carolina, New York and Montana, experienced some kind of breakdown in the administration of their elections.
This is the United States of America. The right to vote is in our DNA. We have to get this right.
That is why today, I am introducing the Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely Voting Act of 2012--the FAST Voting Act.
Making it harder for citizens to vote is a violation of voters' civil rights. Long lines are a form of voter disenfranchisement. Running out of ballots is a form of voter suppression. The fact is, access is denied when registration is cut off months before the election and where early vote and vote-by-mail options are not widely available. This particularly matters for the men and women of our armed services, who are currently stationed overseas and have no choice but to vote by mail.
As widespread as the problem is, there are States that are getting it right. These states continue to be laboratories of democracy, and we need to learn from them.
The FAST Voting Act creates a competitive grant program in the model of Race to the Top, which has encouraged states to aggressively pursue education reform. The states that demonstrated the most comprehensive and promising reform plans win a greater portion of the grant funding.
Instead of spurring education reform, 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 ways: flexible registration opportunities, including same-day registration; early voting, at a minimum of 9 of the 10 calendar days preceding an election; no-excuse absentee voting; assistance to voters who do not speak English as a primary language or who have disabilities, including visual impairment; effective access to voting for members of the armed services; formal training of election officials, including State and county administrators and volunteers; audited and reduced waiting times at the poorest performing polling stations; contingency plans for voting in the event of a natural or other disaster, such as Superstorm Sandy, which impacted voting in New York and New Jersey, and would have only needed to take a slight turn to dramatically impact my home State of Delaware.
The stakes are high, and the importance of achieving these electoral reforms is paramount. When tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of Americans have their right to vote denied or compromised, we have to take action.
The implications of these voting irregularities are felt far beyond our shores. I am the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, and I worked and studied in South Africa during its apartheid regime. One of the most inspiring sights I have ever seen was during the first ever free and fair election in that nation, when South Africans stood in line for up to two days to cast their votes. Members of our subcommittee meet regularly with African heads of State, and all of us, Democrats and Republicans alike, stress with these leaders the vital importance of free and fair elections. So when we still have substantial voting issues in our own elections, that is a cause for deep concern.
We have the opportunity to send a message to first time voters here at home, as well as those fighting for democracy overseas, that every vote counts and every voter will be counted.
When States prevent their citizens from exercising their fundamental right of ballot access, whether deliberately through the law or regulations, or accidentally because of incompetence or lack of preparedness, it is a violation of voters' civil rights.
The FAST Voting Act is one way to try to fix our elections and make sure what happened across our country last week does not happen again. I look forward to working with my colleagues of both parties to move this important solution forward.
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