Democrats press vote reforms

Measures unlikely to gain traction in House

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Fresh from the November elections in which both parties complained that voters’ rights had been curtailed, House Democrats are pushing election reforms as a central tenet of their legislative agenda for the new Congress.

The move, spurred in part by the efforts of Republican-led state governments to scale back early voting, likely will fall on deaf ears in the GOP-controlled House. And the push has gained even less traction in the Senate, although Democrats hold a majority there.

But Democratic leaders in the lower chamber say they’re undeterred in their quest to make it easier for Americans to vote — an effort they say goes to the heart of democracy.

“The urgent need to address flaws in the electoral system became even clearer after our most recent election,” Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, chairman of the House Democrats’ Task Force on Election Reform, said Jan. 3, the first day of the 113th Congress. “It is crucial that we work to end voter suppression and civil rights abuses (and) make it easier for citizens to cast ballots.”

The task force, formed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, already this Congress has spawned several election and campaign-finance reform bills. One, the Streamlined and Improved Methods at Polling Locations and Early (SIMPLE) Voting Act, would require states to establish 15 days for early voting and require that nobody have to wait more than one hour in line to vote.

The bill also would provide the Justice Department greater authority to enforce federal laws and bring civil action against states and jurisdictions that don’t meet such federal goals.

“Americans shouldn’t have to wait for hours and hours to cast a ballot — and the fact that they had to do so in the 2012 election is absolutely unacceptable,” said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, when he introduced the measure Jan. 3.

Overall, 36 percent of voters said they didn’t wait in line to vote in 2012, compared with 42 percent in 2008, says a study by the Pew Center on the States that covered both Election Day voting and early voting. For those who did wait in line in 2012, wait times for early voting average 20 minutes, compared with 13 minutes on Election Day.

But some precincts throughout the country reported that even some early-voting lines took hours to navigate. And with early voting accounting for about 35 percent of all ballots cast nationwide in 2012 — up from 30 percent in 2008 — Democrats say that problem will get worse unless steps are taken.

Democrats say their efforts are in response to states like Florida, where the Republican-run Legislature in 2011 sliced the number of early-voting days from 14 to eight. They also eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the November elections, a move seen as undercutting turnout efforts by Democrat-leaning black churches, which traditionally have organized “souls to the polls” events on that day.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday distanced himself from the bill he signed into law two years ago and formally endorsed increasing the number of early-voting days back to 14.

Deborah J. Vagins, a senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said there has been a “massive uptick in the amount of voter-suppression legislation” passed at the state level since 2010. Those measures include limitations on early voting, voter-ID and citizenship requirements, restrictions on third-party voter registration, purging of voter rolls and criminal-disfranchisement laws.

The intent and impact of those laws, critics say, were to make voting more difficult for Democrat-leaning demographic groups, including ethnic minorities, students, voters with disabilities and the elderly.

The ACLU and other groups, including the Justice Department, successfully stopped, limited or postponed the implementation of many such laws in key states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.

But Republicans and conservative groups complain the House Democrats’ push to protect and expand early-voting measures is nothing more than a crass attempt to increase Democratic turnout at the polls.

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