Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On the Introduction of the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On the Introduction of the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016

July 14, 2016

My friend John Lewis often says that “the right to vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.” I could not agree more with him. We are a better and more representative nation when more Americans participate in our democracy, and we can help foster greater participation by modernizing the way we register our voters.

That is why today, I am introducing the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016, a bill to require states to automatically register citizens who are eligible to vote by working with State and Federal agencies. Individuals have the option of declining automatic registration, but this bill would provide for a registration process that is more efficient and accurate. Importantly, the information used by the agencies to automatically register individuals will remain private and secure, and can only be used for voter registration, election administration, or prosecution of election crimes.

The bill also takes steps to streamline the voter registration process, by providing for online registration and greater portability of registration when an individual moves to a different location in the same state. Under this bill, no individual can be unfairly penalized for inadvertent registration, and punishment is preserved only in cases of intentional registration fraud or illegal voting. These are all common sense measures that would make it easier for Americans to maintain accurate voter registration information, and they further help to ensure that our voter rolls are current and up-to-date.

My efforts in trying to extend automatic registration to every state is consistent with efforts in Vermont, which became just the fourth state to pass an automatic voter registration bill this past April. The state of Vermont and its superb Secretary of State – Jim Condos – have been leaders in improving access to the ballot box. I cannot offer enough praise for what they have done.

State election officials have estimated that Vermont could add 30,000 to 50,000 voters to the state’s rolls when its new automatic voter registration law takes effect after the 2016 election. Now imagine if we can provide similar improvements to the registration rolls for every state in this great nation. Our union can only become stronger and more representative with the participation of a broader electorate. According to a report from the Brennan Center released in September 2015, a comprehensive automatic voter registration plan could potentially add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls. Moreover, not only would it save money and increase accuracy, but it would also reduce the potential for fraud and protect the integrity of our elections.

There is no reason why every eligible citizen cannot have the option of automatic registration when they visit the DMV, sign up for healthcare, or sign up for classes in college. These are just some of the agencies or institutions that would work with the states to provide for automatic voter registration. We live in a modern world, and we should strive to have a registration system that reflects that.

I would like to thank the Brennan Center for Justice for working so closely with me and my staff on this bill. I would also like to thank Senators Klobuchar and Durbin for joining me in introducing this bill. A House companion bill is being introduced by Congressman Brady of Pennsylvania, the Ranking Member on the House Committee on House Administration. I am proud to join all of these individuals in fighting to increase access to the ballot box for all Americans.

The Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 is common sense legislation that all members of Congress should be able to support. However, this bill is part of a larger set of voting reforms that we must take on without further delay. We cannot talk about voting without mentioning the fact that this will be the first presidential election where the American people will be without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act since its original passage. It has now been more than three years since the Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

In that case, five justices severely weakened the Federal government’s ability to prevent racial discriminatory voting changes from taking effect before those changes occur. The ruling’s impact on voters across the country has been even worse than imagined. Before the ink dried on the Court’s opinion, elected officials in several states rushed to exploit the decision by enacting voting laws that disproportionately prevent or discourage minorities from voting. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 17 states have passed new voter restriction laws for the 2016 election. Millions of voters risk being disenfranchised for this election, and yet, this Republican majority – in both the House and the Senate – refuses to even hold a hearing on the issue.

The fundamental right to vote is too important for partisan politics. We must restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act to ensure that no American’s right to vote is infringed, and we must implement an automatic voter registration system to ensure that every American who wishes to vote is able to do so. This is an issue that cannot wait. It is long past time for Congress to respond with action.

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