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Letter to Judiciary Committee on Voting Rights

December 18, 2012

Dear Senator:

On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association (NEA), we would like to provide our views in advance of this week’s hearing in the Judiciary Committee on “The State of the Right to Vote After the 2012 Election.”  We commend the Committee for holding this timely and important hearing on an issue critical to our democracy.  

NEA believes the right to vote, and to have one’s vote counted, is the most basic tenet of a democratic society.  The Voting Rights Act (VRA)—our nation’s most successful civil rights law—has had remarkable success in ensuring access to the voting booth.  Congress enacted it in response to persistent and purposeful discrimination through literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, threats, and violence.  The VRA has enfranchised millions of racial, ethnic, and language minority citizens by eliminating discriminatory practices and removing other barriers to their political participation.   

Yet, despite the success of the VRA, it is clear that voter inequities, disparities, and obstacles still remain for far too many voters.  The right to vote is under attack by a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process. The stories from this year’s Election Day highlight the importance of federal action in this area.  Voters waited for up to seven hours to cast their constitutionally protected vote in some states; malfunctioning electronic vote machines undermined confidence in the voting process; and false, misleading information about voting requirements caused chaos.  

The stories from Election 2012 are just the tip of the iceberg.  Voter suppression and intimidation are still very much alive in our nation.  We have seen in recent years a very troubling increase in misleading and fraudulent information about elections, voter intimidation, and robocalls designed to suppress the vote guaranteed every citizen by the U.S. Constitution.  In addition, there have been an unprecedented number of anti-voter initiatives considered in state legislatures – proposals and laws enacted to require photo identification, eliminate same day registration, shrink early voting windows, change student voting requirements, and other techniques designed to make it harder for people to vote. 

At least 19 states have enacted anti‐voter measures through 25 laws and two executive actions and there are still 27 bills pending in six states. These measures place an unfair price on the elderly, student, minority, and low-income populations. For example: 

  • Photo ID laws affecting 3.2 million eligible voters were signed into law in 8 states.  21 million Americans – 11 percent of eligible voters –do not have government issued IDs. (The right to vote under attack, 2011). This number includes 18 percent of all eligible voters over 65 and 25 percent of all African-Americans. (Citizens Without Proof: A Survey of Americans’ Possession of Documentary Proof of Citizenship and Photo Identification, 2006).  A 2011 Advancement Project report shows that 15 percent of those earning less than $35,000 per year are without ID. (Source: What’s wrong with this picture?, 2011).  Substantiated cases of voter fraud make up only 0.00005 percent of nationwide ballots cast. (Voter suppression: The real voter fraud, Milwaukee Courier 2012). Underlying documentation, such as a birth certificate or naturalization papers, is often necessary to obtain a state issued photo ID. Many people don’t have ready access to their birth certificate, for example, and getting copies usually costs money. 
  • Shortening Early/Absentee Voting Periods.  A number of states have passed or considered measures that impede the actual casting of ballots by registered voters by placing new restrictions on the early and absentee voting processes. Overall, 34 percent of voters in the 2008 general election cast ballots before Election Day, up from 22.2 percent four years earlier, according to data from the Associated Press and Edison Research. These changes inflict particularly harsh burdens on minority communities, who rely heavily on early voting periods to cast their ballots.
  • Voter Registration Drive Restrictions.  From 2000 to 2008, registration groups registered tens of millions of new voters, including close to nine million in 2008 alone. (US Census Bureau, Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2008).  States nevertheless proposed and implemented burdensome restrictions on third-party registration organizations – driving many from conducting any efforts in 2012.

    Implementing these unnecessary changes in the voting laws – such as public awareness campaigns, provisional ballots, and election official training – is costly and strains tightening state budgets. Indiana’s voter photo ID law cost the state $10 million over four years.  Missouri recently estimated the cost of implementing a photo ID requirement at $20 million just in the first three years. 

NEA supports legislation that would open access to the ballot box through system modernization and simplification, ensure the integrity of the voting process, and protect accountability of results. For example, we support same-day registration, alleviating burdens for people with disabilities, training for poll workers, protections against deceptive practices and intimidation and establishment of a national voter hotline on voting related issues.  Each of these is critical to ensure that every citizen is able to exercise his or her constitutional right to vote.   

NEA is working aggressively to call attention to and combat initiatives and practices that deny or restrict the right to vote.  We thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments and look forward to working with the Congress to ensure fair and open elections across the nation. 

Sincerely, 

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations