Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On the Introduction of the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017

The right to vote is among the most sacred rights guaranteed by our Constitution.  It forms the foundation for our democracy and inspires countless people across the world still striving for a meaningful opportunity to engage in the political process and shape their futures.

My friend John Lewis has often said that “the right to vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.”  I could not agree more with him.  America is a stronger and greater country when more Americans participate in our democracy.  We are better when our citizens hold their elected representatives accountable and voice their opinions on the critical issues facing our country.  We can take a historic step to foster even greater participation in our democracy simply by modernizing the way Americans register to vote.

Today, I am proud to introduce the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017.  This bill would require states to automatically register citizens who are eligible to vote when they interact with State and Federal agencies.  Americans would have the option of declining automatic registration, but this bill would provide for a registration process that is easier for our citizens, and one that is more efficient and accurate.  

The bill I introduce today streamlines 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 one can be unfairly penalized for inadvertent registration, and punishment is limited to cases of intentional registration fraud or illegal voting.  This bill also includes important privacy protections, and makes clear that the information used to automatically register individuals will remain secure.  These are common sense reforms that would not only help Americans vote, but also help maintain accurate and up-to-date voter registration rolls.

Last year, Vermont became one of the states leading the country on improving our citizens’ access to the ballot by becoming one of just eight states to approve automatic voter registration.  I want to commend Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos for his outstanding work on this issue and for the people of Vermont. 

State election officials estimate that tens of thousands of Vermonters will now be registered to vote because of this new law.  Implementing these types of reforms nationwide will make our country stronger and increase participation of a broader electorate.  A recent study by the Center for American Progress on Oregon’s automatic voter registration law that went into effect in January 2016 found that more than 272,000 people were added to voter rolls, and 98,000 of them were new voters in the November 2016 presidential election.  That is a remarkable success story, and hopefully other state legislatures will take notice.  The Brennan Center for Justice, which has been a leading voice protecting Americans’ right to vote, concluded in a 2015 report that a comprehensive, nation-wide automatic voter registration plan has the potential to increase voter registration by 50 million eligible voters.  This would not only save money and increase accuracy, but it would also reduce the potential for fraud and protect the integrity of our elections. 

I would like to thank the Brennan Center for Justice for its work on this issue and for working with me on this bill.  I would also like to thank Senators Durbin and Klobuchar for joining me as original cosponsors.  Congressman Brady of Pennsylvania, the Ranking Member on the House Committee on House Administration, has been a leader on this issue and is introducing a House companion bill today. 

All members of Congress should support this legislation.  We should all strive to make sure that our constituents have access to the ballot box and are able to have their voices heard.  This is of course just one reform we must make to ensure that our citizens’ voting rights are protected.  In the coming weeks, I intend to reintroduce legislation to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.  It has now been almost four years since the Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Shelby County v. Holder, and we have seen the effect of that disastrous ruling as states have attempted to enact discriminatory voter ID laws and other measures intended to prevent minority voters from going to the polls.  That is disgraceful, and we must do better.  Congress must act to ensure that millions of Americans are not disenfranchised.

The right to vote should not be a partisan issue.  It is a right that forms the basis of our democracy, and it is incumbent on all Americans – Democratic and Republican – to ensure that no American’s right to vote is infringed.  Modernizing our voter registration system is one significant step forward.

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