Questioning witnesses during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the state of the right to vote in the United States on Wednesday, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) called last month's national elections an "embarrassment" and called for Congress to help states take steps to build an electoral system that is truly free, fair and open.
"It is an embarrassment to this country when we have an election where there are six-, seven-, and eight-hour waiting lines and I am really concerned -- troubled -- by what seem to be the motivations behind more aggressive registration and voter ID laws," Senator Coons said at Wednesday's hearing.
"Denial of access to polling places, whether through very long lines or aggressive purges of the polls or through a variety of other tactical or technical means, has a significantly greater impact on the ability to exercise the franchise," Senator Coons said. "I was truly disturbed and troubled about what may have motivated some of the changes and decisions that may have been taken in Florida and their impact on access to the polls."
MP3 audio of Senator Coons' comments and questioning at the hearing is available here: http://1.usa.gov/Tzj6Jn
The 2012 presidential election saw extraordinarily long lines and a myriad of voting issues in more than a dozen states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Virginia, South Carolina, Montana, Tennessee, Hawaii, Arizona, Rhode Island and more.
While questioning Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Senator Coons noted that electoral disenfranchisement disproportionately impacted minority voters.
"Access to the ballot is diminished by long waiting times and we should be concerned about disparate impact," Senator Coons began. "A recent study by Hart Research showed that in this election, 22 percent of African Americans and 24 percent of Latinos had to wait more than 30 minutes or longer, but only 9 percent of Caucasian or white voters had to wait 30 minutes or longer. "
Perales described the trend as "very discouraging" and noted that the challenge was often compounded by work and family needs, which draw away many Americans who lack the free time to wait on a long line to cast their votes.
To address these challenges, Senator Coons introduced a bill in early November to make substantial improvements in the administration of elections to make voting faster and more accessible. The Louis L. Redding Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely (FAST) Voting Act of 2012 would create a competitive grant program to encourage states to aggressively pursue election reform. The states that demonstrate the most comprehensive and promising reform plans will earn a greater portion of the grant funding.
"Our history suggests that, in the absence of determination and rigor, we may lose one of the most foundational civil rights in our history," Senator Coons said at Wednesday's hearing, urging Congress to act to confront this challenge.
The FAST Voting Act would authorize a federal program that would award grants based on how well applicant states are able to improve access to the polls in at least nine specified ways, including:
Providing flexible registration opportunities, including same-day registration;
Providing early voting, at a minimum of 9 of the 10 calendar days preceding an election;
Providing absentee voting, including no-excuse absentee voting;
Providing assistance to voters who do not speak English as a primary language;
Providing assistance to voters with disabilities, including visual impairment;
Providing effective access to voting for members of the armed services;
Providing formal training of election officials, including State and county administrators and volunteers;
Auditing and reducing waiting times at polling stations; and
Creating contingency plans for voting in the event of a natural or other disaster.
The program would also require an assessment of steps the state has taken to eliminate statutory, regulatory, procedural and other barriers to expedited voting and accessible voter registration.