We have just begun a new year, a new session of Congress and a new term for President Barack Obama. But as we look forward to 2013 and beyond, we cannot forget the lessons learned from the past few years. The 2012 election season saw an abrupt reversal of America’s long tradition of expanding voting access. Voters were alarmed by the fact that more than 41 states had introduced, and in many instances passed, legislation that would make it harder for them to vote. These changes are now well-known — voter ID restrictions, cuts in early voting hours, reduced registration opportunities and executive actions making it harder to restore voting rights. Advocates and experts sounded the alarm — in the media, the courts and elsewhere — to ensure no voter would lose their rights. The result: Far fewer voters were affected by these changes than originally predicted. The voters won. But what now that the 2012 elections are over? Does that mean that the work is done and that problems that were so feared just a few months ago are behind us? On the contrary.
On election night, and again during his inaugural address, Obama affirmed his commitment to a voting overhaul. With the State of the Union next week, Obama has the opportunity to outline his ideas to fix America’s election system. Although most voters, thankfully, were able to cast ballots on Election Day, many of the problems inherent in our system still exist.
We are now at an important moment. We must heed the warnings of 2012 and make sweeping changes to our broken election system so the right to vote cannot be threatened again. Last month, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other congressional leaders responded to that call with the Voter Empowerment Act.
The VEA is a comprehensive bill that seeks to address the core problems that led to voter frustration and disfranchisement in 2012. The key component, based on a Brennan Center proposal, would modernize the voter registration system as we now know it. It would add more than 50 million eligible Americans to the rolls, cost less, increase accuracy and curb opportunities for fraud.