Mr. COONS. Mr. President, like millions of Americans, on November 6, just over a month ago, on election day, I stood at the polls and I cast my vote, and 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. 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 called the election for President Obama, but Andre Murias, an 18-year-old first-time voter in Miami Dade County, FL, was still in line waiting to cast his ballot. Andre had been in line at South Kendall Community Church for nearly 5 hours by the time he cast his ballot just before midnight, and that is nothing compared to the 7 and 8 hours many other Floridians waited to cast their ballots during the State's condensed early voting period. ``This is a mess,'' one voter said. ``It is chaos.''
Rashell Hobbs, another first-time voter, waited 5 hours in Chesapeake, VA. ``This is just horrible,'' Rashell said. ``There is no reason it should take this long.''
Voters across the country had other challenges or problems voting. Voters in Pueblo, CO, 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.
Voters in Pennsylvania reported a similar problem, although in that case it was the President for whom they were seemingly unable to vote.
Poll watchers in Davidson County, TN, 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 am sure, by commitments of family or work to choose not to spend hours standing in line to exercise that most fundamental of American rights--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.
In Ohio, Wisconsin, 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 is why I introduced the Fair, Accurate, Secure, and Timely--or FAST--Voting Act of 2012, along with Senators WARNER and WHITEHOUSE. And I am grateful that Congressmen CONNOLLY and LANGEVIN in the House have introduced it and are cosponsors 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 encourages States to pursue reforms in a different field, in education. States that demonstrate the most comprehensive and promising reform plans win a greater portion of the grant funding in that model. Instead, 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 9 different ways: through flexible registration opportunities, including same-day registration; through early voting at a minimum of 9 of the 10 calendar days preceding an election; through what is called no-excuse absentee voting; assistance to voters who do not speak English or have disabilities or visual impairments; effective access to voting for members of our armed services; formal training of election officials, including State and county administrators and volunteers; audited and reduced waiting times at poorest performing polling stations; and, as we learned given that Sandy, Superstorm Sandy, occurred close to the election, contingency plans for voting in the event of a natural or other disaster that compels a delay of an election.
These are the big areas mentioned in this FAST Voting Act, making it easier to register, making it easier to vote early, making it easier to vote absentee, shortening lines, better preparing for catastrophes, making it easier for Americans to exercise their right to vote.
This is a good one, and I am 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 and 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 Nation Association of Counties. Counties have different roles in different States. There are more than 3,000 counties 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 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 the barriers that were put in front of those who came out to vote, and finding the best solutions; rather than imposing or compelling, incentivizing and leading in a way that I think State and local officials will respond to well 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 Pew Conference, today and tomorrow, on voting in America is bringing together some of our Nation's foremost experts and scholars. For that we are grateful to the Pew Charitable Foundation.
The Judiciary Committee on which we serve has a hearing announced this coming week and I applaud Chairman Leahy and Senator Durbin for highlighting the need to get to the bottom of what happened in 2012 and championing the need to get reform. Other Members, Senators GILLIBRAND and BOXER, have introduced bills as well and I look forward to working closely with them to harmonize our bills and making sure we have the best approach moving forward.
In addition to serving on the Judiciary Committee, I am chairman of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. 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 of 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 which 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 Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely Voting Act is one critical way we can try to fix our elections and make sure what happened across our country in 2012 never happens again.