Dec 19 / Michelle Rupp

Congress Holds Hearing on State of Voting Rights

Today, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing to address The State of the Right to Vote After the 2012 Election. The hearing focused on the problems encountered during the 2012 election cycle and the continued necessity of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

The following is an extensive summary of today’s hearing with testimony from U.S. senators and witnesses, including voting rights advocates, state officials, and elections officials.

Opening Statements

“Our work is far from done. Barriers to voting continue to exist and evolve,” said Sen. Leahy at the opening of the hearing. Prior to the election, the committee held hearings on the new barriers that were being erected and heard testimony about renewed efforts to disenfranchise millions of would-be voters through purges and photo ID laws. The 2012 election showed that unnecessary and avoidable problems occurred, including purging of voter registration lists, restrictions on early voting, and problems with voter registration.

These barriers remind Sen. Leahy of the poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses of the past, barriers that have no place in “modern America.” In 2006, Sen. Leahy worked to reauthorize and renew the Voting Rights Act, with nearly 20 hearings held between the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on House Administration’s Subcommittee on Elections. Those hearings show that the Voting Rights Act continues to be effective and necessary, and that without reauthorization, the efforts that have been made thus far would be undermined.

Sen. Durbin recalled hearings he attended with Sen. Nelson in Florida and Ohio for the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. When he asked election officials in both states what evidence of voter fraud or abuse had led to the changes in state law, and what prosecutions there had been, the election officials could not come up with any examples. Sen. Durbin expressed concern that statutes that make it harder to vote are politically motivated, and that “legislators know hundreds of thousands of people will not be able to obtain photo ID in time to vote.”

He also expressed concern about increasingly high numbers of provisional ballots, which are disproportionately used by minorities.

Sen. Whitehouse similarly expressed concern that voting restrictions are politically motivated and accused Republicans of using “hostage-theory type negotiating” in the state legislatures to pass voter suppression bills.

Sen. Coons stated that he has a “sinking heart and growing concern” as he watches the “steady whittling away” of Americans’ ability to exercise the right to vote. He has submitted a bill—FAST—to improve timeliness and accuracy by encouraging states to compete for Federal funds, while other bills have been submitted that are similarly intended to improve elections. In the 2012 election, 22 percent of African-Americans and 24 percent of Latinos waited in lines of 30 minutes or longer, compared to 9 percent of whites. According to Sen. Coons, Congress has a duty to “reauthorize, strengthen, and extend” the Voting Rights Act.

Witness Testimony

Florida’s H.B. 1355—for which the state sought preclearance before a three-judge panel in Washington— was a major topic of discussion in today’s hearing. According to Sen. Nelson, what happened in Florida took place against a broader Republican campaign to restrict voting in at least a dozen states. H.B. 1355, among other things, made it more difficult for people who moved from one county to another to vote, requiring that they vote provisional ballots if their ID did not match their new address; increased restrictions on voter registration drives (including a 48 hours turnaround period to turn in completed applications); and shortened early voting (including the elimination of early voting on the last Sunday before Election Day, a time when African-Americans and Latinos at higher rates than other groups).

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist emphasized that the government is for the people and by the people, not the other way around: “Throughout our history, America has taken steps to make voting easier and more accessible, until this year.”

Crist said that H.B. 1355 was designed to make it harder for certain Floridians to vote and to encourage a “certain outcome.” He criticized Gov. Rick Scott for refusing to take action to increase the number of available voting hours, which resulted in lines as long as six and seven hours on Election Day. Crist emphasized his support for national voting standards, including a lengthy in-person early voting period and laws that would allow alternatives to signature matching as a form of ID verification for mail ballots. With regard to the latter, Crist mentioned problems that people like his mother may face with signature-matching: she had a stroke and can no longer sign documents with her right hand, rendering her signature a mismatch with the one on the state file.

Matt Schultz, Secretary of State of Iowa, said that Americans do not vote, in part, because they lack confidence in the “integrity of our elections.” Schultz has taken many measure to catch election misconduct, including dedicating an agent to investigate such conduct through the Iowa Dept. of Public Safety and implementing a controversial list-matching program to find duplicate registrations across states by matching voter registration records to Social Security death records and lists of non-citizens. In an attempt to determine citizenship of voters, Schultz is also trying to gain access to the Department of Homeland Security’s SAVE Database.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-SC) represents a rural county with a population that is largely minority and low-income with many people were born on farms with a midwife in attendance. It is challenging and expensive to drive 70 miles each way to a Department of Motor Vehicle office to get a “free” photo ID, she said, and many people are not able to get the underlying documentation required. For example, many births were recorded in family Bibles, so there is no birth certificate to obtain, and women who have recently changed their name (such as by marriage or divorce) have to incur additional expense to ensure the name on their ID matches the name on their voter registration.

As a result, the photo ID bill originally passed by the South Carolina legislature (and subsequently denied preclearance in its original form) is not “commonsense” for her constituents, particularly because there have been no reported cases of impersonation voting fraud in South Carolina. According to Mrs. Cobb-Hunter, it is only because of Section 5 that the photo ID law originally passed was improved. She also firmly stated that she does not live in a post-racial society in South Carolina, and it is important to understand the pattern of racial discrimination to which her community is still subject.

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett testified that Arizona’s 15 counties and their officials do the real work of running elections in Arizona. Voter registration is down slightly from 3.2 million to 3 million, since the state “cleaned up” the rolls in 2011, but voter participation has remained steady at around 75 percent. In 2004, Arizona passed Proposition 200, requiring proof of citizenship and ID at the polls. That law is in ongoing litigation. According to Secretary Bennett, our first right is the right to vote, but “right behind it, or perhaps equal to it,” is the right to know that our vote is not cancelled by an ineligible vote.  This year, two-thirds of Arizonans voted by mail, and there was a significant reduction in the number of people who had to return to the polls to show ID.

In response to a question from Sen. Grassley, Secretary Bennett denied that Arizona’s laws have restricted turnout, stating that Arizona currently has the highest percentage and total number of Latino voters than ever. Mr. Bennett and Sen. Durbin then disagreed about whether the rate of provisional ballots was higher in Arizona’s minority precincts, with Mr. Bennett asserting that the state’s data showed it was not, and Sen. Durbin asserting that a report by the Capitol Times showed that it was. According to Mr. Bennett, the most common reason for casting a provisional ballot in this election was that the elector had received a ballot by mail but showed up at the polls on Election Day to vote.

Finally, the committee heard from MALDEF’s Vice President of Litigation Nina Perales. She testified that some states have attempted to slow registration and participation of new voters. For example, since 2004, Arizona has required only new registrants to prove citizenship. As a result, over 30,000 individuals have been rejected from the rolls. The citizenship requirement imposes a special burden on naturalized citizens who obtained their drivers license before becoming a citizen: when the election official compares their information to the drivers license database, it will show the individual as being a non-citizen. In such a case, they may have to register in person to show their naturalization certification, because the certificate says on its face that it cannot be photocopied. This burden exists despite Arizona not having a single documented case of non-citizen voting, and despite Arizona identifying fewer than 20 non-citizens (most of whom were Canadian) on the voter registration rolls.

Ms. Perales also testified that in 2011, Texas eliminated voter registration cards, birth certificates, employment ID, and student ID as permissible voter ID. As an example of the result, Ms. Perales mentioned the case of two sisters from Texas who had student ID but not a driver’s license, because it was too expensive for them to be added to their parents’ car insurance. When they came to Washington, D.C. to testify, they were able to board the plane using their student ID, but were not able to vote using it. This is not uncommon: according to the state’s own numbers, Latinos in Texas are twice as likely to lack a driver’s license as non-Latinos.

Also in Texas, Latinos have comprised 67 percent of the state’s growth over the past decade, but the Texas legislature’s redistricting plan (later denied preclearance by a court) minimized their political strength.

Officials have expressed fears of noncitizen-voting, but there is no substantial evidence to prove it is an issue. Florida and Colorado have claimed the need to remove thousands of non-citizens from their voter rolls, but in Miami-Dade county there were only 13 non-citizen registrants, and in Colorado, 14 non-citizens were removed from the rolls but none had voted.

With regard to the impact of Section 5, Ms. Perales testified that it has been “critically important for” and “precious to” the minority community. For example, if Section 5 did not exist, then Texas’ discriminatory redistricting plan would have gone into effect while MALDEF and other minority groups struggled to put together the resources to bring a suit. As a result of Section 5, the election occurred under an interim plan that was more fair than the legislature’s plan.

 

The senators in attendance include the following: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Sen. Christopher Coons (D-DE). 

The witnesses were Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL); Charles Crist, former Governor of Florida; Matt Schultz, Secretary of State of Iowa; Gilda Cobb-Hunter, member of the South Carolina House of Representatives; Ken Bennett, Secretary of State of Arizona; and Nina Perales, Vice President of Litigation at MALDEF.

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