WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, citing long lines and hours-long waits at polling places last November, want to change the narrative on voting rights.
Democrats are urging mandatory early-voting periods and same-day registration, trying to shift the focus to making it easier to cast ballots from Republican efforts to curb alleged fraud, which studies show is virtually absent. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, is chief sponsor of legislation backed by more than 80 percent of House Democrats.
“This is an attempt to change the debate away from so- called voter fraud, where little exists, to empowering people to actually get to the polls and vote,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid now at the lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
The effort has yet to draw any support from Republicans, who control the House and can block Senate legislation. They question the necessity for the federal government to tell states how to run elections. And while Obama cited voting rights in his inaugural address and may promote the issue in next week’s State of the Union speech, his budget, gun-control and immigration priorities will compete for time and attention.
The voting-rights measure could appeal to independents, said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, Wisconsin-based advocacy group. Except for “a narrow partisan minority, most people favor making it easier for Americans to vote,” she said.
Democrats have “reached out publicly and privately” to Republicans on the issue, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and a bill co-sponsor. “We’re still hopeful some Republicans will support this effort,” he said.
So far, no one has, with some key Republicans voicing concern about Washington encroaching on a state responsibility.
“If some precincts have long lines, it’s a fairly simple matter for state and local election officials to add machines, split precincts, or make other changes to solve the problem without the federal government interjecting itself,” said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican and a former secretary of state who oversaw elections, also said states alone should decide how to proceed.
“There are no one-size-fits-all solutions,” she said. “Therefore, forced changes to state election procedures, especially the sweeping changes proposed in this legislation, are of particular concern.”
Critics of a federal measure say it could make it harder to ensure that only those eligible cast ballots, said Horace Cooper, an adjunct fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington-based research group that wants limits on government regulations.
“It undermines the debate we’ve been having,” said Cooper, a proponent of laws compelling voters to show identification. “These changes risk increasing voter fraud rather than see to it that Americans have access.”
Still-vivid pictures of voters waiting for hours buttress calls for early balloting and other changes, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the democracy program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
“It’s one of the things that is motivating people,” Norden said. “We don’t think people should have to faint while waiting in line for nine hours. Voting shouldn’t be that difficult or complicated.”
Democratic constituencies were the ones most affected last November, a survey shows.
Black voters, who cast 93 percent of their ballots for Obama in 2012 according to a CNN exit poll, and Hispanics, who gave 71 percent of their votes to the incumbent Democrat, waited an average of 20.2 minutes, according to a study by Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
The wait for whites, who backed Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 59 percent to 39 percent, averaged 12.7 minutes.
Even so, plenty of Republicans also stood in those lines, Stewart said. “Legislators would be too clever by half to think this is a Democratic problem,” he said.
It’s the reversal of the fight over voter-ID laws enacted by Republican-controlled legislatures. The Brennan Center reported that 25 percent of voting-age blacks, 16 percent of voting-age Hispanics and 15 percent of voting-age Americans in households earning less than $35,000 lacked the identification required by the laws. The center also found voter fraud occurring 0.00004 percent of the time in Ohio in 2004.
The issue of protecting voters’ rights is also before the U.S. Supreme Court as justices weigh a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires federal approval of rules changes in all or part of 16 states with a history of discrimination. The Justice Department used that provision to successfully push back against voter-ID laws in some states on the grounds that they were biased against minority voters.
New voter-ID laws have been introduced in 22 states, though some would relax requirements enacted earlier, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirteen states have introduced measures to allow voters to register on Election Day, according to the NCSL.
Some states are also looking at reducing waiting periods at polling places. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has called for longer early-voting periods, reversing legislation he signed into law in 2011. Voters in that battleground state waited an average of 45 minutes, more than anywhere else, Stewart’s study found.
Common Cause President Bob Edgar, a former Democratic representative from Pennsylvania, said Republican voter-ID laws spurred increased turnout from groups angered by the legislation. Republican efforts to make it easier for them to vote could translate into more support for the party, he said.
“The Republicans will win more elections not by restricting the vote but by appealing to the voters,” said Edgar, whose Washington-based advocacy group supports changing voting laws. “I would say to Republicans, “Take a look at this last election. If you really want to be a viable political party, work collaboratively, fix the election system. Then let’s compete fairly.’”