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Chris C.
Democrat DE

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  • Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

    by Senator Christopher A. Coons

    Posted on 2013-01-23

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    COONS (for himself, Mr. Warner, Mr. Whitehouse, Mr. Blumenthal, and Mrs. Gillibrand): S. 85. A bill to provide incentives for States to invest in practices and technology that are designed to expedite voting at the polls and to simplify voter registration; to the Committee on Rules and Administration.



    Mr. COONS. Mr. President, we are no longer in an election year, which makes this the perfect time for this Congress to take action on real and meaningful election reform. Regardless of which candidates we voted for last November, we can all agree that in the world's greatest democracy, in the year 2013 we should put in place systems which ensure every voter will be able to cast their ballot without unnecessary delays, redtape, or restriction in our next elections. That is why I am looking forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate, with leaders in State and local governments across the country, and with folks in the U.S. Department of Justice to discuss ways we can reform our election process to make voting more accessible for more Americans.

    In his second inaugural address delivered just this Monday, President Obama made a point to tie voting rights to civil rights. President Obama spoke of the long American march toward justice. He said: And the first steps of that march--of the journey toward a better, fairer, more equal society, one where every American, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or economic status, has the same shot at success--has always started at the ballot box.

    President Obama mentioned Seneca Falls, a central moment in the movement for women's suffrage, and Selma, the emotional heart of the fight for equal access to voting rights for African Americans. He said: Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.

    He is right.

    The 2012 elections were a wake-up call to those of us who treasure the right to vote. All over our country--in blue States and red States--Americans saw their fundamental right to vote eroded by exceptionally long lines, confusing rules, and widespread voting machine malfunctions. There were problems in more than a dozen States documented in the media.

    There were voting machine irregularities in Pennsylvania and Colorado; error-ridden voter rolls in Ohio; delays counting ballots in Arizona; voters waiting in lines 5 hours long in Virginia and 8 hours long in Florida. We have to do better than this.

    As Americans, the right to vote is in our DNA. So just days after these 2012 elections, which had such widespread problems, I introduced the FAST Voting Act, the Fair, Accurate, Secure, and Timely Voting Act, along with Senator Warner and colleagues in the House, Congressman Connolly and Congressman Langevin.

    Our bill challenges States to implement commonsense changes well before the next election. It would provide incentives and competitive grants to those States that can turn around their poorest performing polling places, improve the administration of their elections, and make voting faster and more accessible to all voters.

    As a former county executive myself, I know States and local governments are laboratories of democracy. When it comes to administering elections, many States and counties are getting it right. We can learn from them and replicate their successes elsewhere in the country to ensure these same problems do not plague the next national elections.

    For example, Florida was one of many States with rampant election problems in 2012. There were long lines, limited early voting, and other issues that may have disenfranchised as many as 49,000 Floridians, according to a study by Professor Theodore Allen of Ohio State University.

    Floridians such as Richard Jordan waited more than 3 hours in a line that just was not moving to try and cast his ballot on election day 2012. He had already worked a 10-hour shift that day. He was exhausted, his back hurt, he was hungry, and ultimately in anger decided he could not wait anymore. He simply gave up and walked away. He was denied the opportunity to cast his ballot by an unprepared, underresourced, or just incompetent election system.

    On behalf of voters across the State such as Richard, earlier this month Florida's elections administrators presented Florida's Governor Rick Scott with a list of reforms they would like to see implemented to prevent these problems from happening again. Governor Scott admitted that his own State's election process was clearly in need of improvement. He said he agreed with some of the election supervisors' proposals. In my view, this is a very positive step forward, and one which should be undertaken in every State where there is documented need for stronger, fairer, faster, and freer elections.

    [[Page S218]] In my view, the government can and should play a role in incentivizing that process to ensure that election improvements are made to last. It can help States move forward in using available technology, and it can ensure States do a better job of enforcing laws that are already on the books.

    For example, the National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as the motor voter law, requires States to allow voters to register when they renew their driver's license at the DMV or at other governmental agencies. Yet there are substantial and credible allegations that some States all across this country--whether blue, red, or purple--are not fulfilling their obligations under this act.

    In talking with elections administrators from around the country, it is clear to me that compliance with existing law is not complete. We have to do more to ensure voters are afforded the rights given to them under current law and that State agencies are doing what is required to simplify the registration process to maintain uniform and nondiscriminatory voter rolls and provide widespread registration opportunities. Enforcing existing law is just part of the solution to the voting problems we saw across our country in 2012.

    We also have to look forward at ways to deliver the best and most efficient voting process to all Americans. There is still much more we can do to meet that goal, and I think part of the solution is the mechanism of the FAST Voting Act.

    Our legislation focuses on cost-effective reforms, such as making it easier to register online and ensuring citizens who move to a new jurisdiction can easily transfer their voter registration. If we use modern technology that we already have at our disposal, we can make it easier for all eligible American citizens to cast their ballot and ensure every vote is counted.

    President Obama was right to mention election reform alongside the most essential civil rights struggles in our country's history in his inaugural address on Monday. Making it harder for citizens to vote is a violation of their civil rights. Long lines are just another form of voter disenfranchisement. Running out of ballots can be just another form of voter suppression. The fact is access to vote is denied when registration is cumbersome or inaccessible and when early voter vote- by-mail options are just not available.

    Let's do something now when we are no longer hamstrung by election year politics in the Senate so that changes that last and make a difference can be implemented well before the next election.

    As someone who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and who often speaks with foreign heads of State, civil society leaders, and voting advocates from around the world, it is an embarrassment that in 2012 our Nation could not overcome the simple challenges to ensuring fair and accurate elections all across our country.

    If we ignore these assaults on America's civil rights that we saw last November, we are certain to have to endure them the next time around. We cannot stand by and allow that to happen. Our democracy needs to be a model to the rest of the world for how to ensure that every citizen gets to exercise the right to vote.

    Let's find a way to come together to put meaningful election reforms in place now before we deny one more American their fundamental right to vote for the candidate of their choice.

    Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.

    There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: S. 85 Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.

    This Act may be cited as the ``Louis L. Redding Fair, Accurate, Secure, and Timely Voting Act of 2013'' or the ``FAST Voting Act of 2013''.

    SEC. 2. INCENTIVES FOR STATES TO INVEST IN PRACTICES AND TECHNOLOGY THAT ARE DESIGNED TO EXPEDITE VOTING AT THE POLLS AND SIMPLIFY VOTER REGISTRATION.

    (a) Purposes.--The purposes of this section are to-- (1) provide incentives for States to invest in practices and technology that are designed to expedite voting at the polls; and (2) provide incentives for States to simplify voter registration.

    (b) Reservation of Funds.--From the amount made available to carry out this section for a fiscal year, the Attorney General may reserve not more than 10 percent of such amount to carry out activities related to-- (1) technical assistance; and (2) outreach and dissemination.

    (c) Program Authorized.-- (1) In general.--From the amounts made available under subsection (h) for a fiscal year and not reserved under subsection (b), the Attorney General shall award grants, on a competitive basis, to States in accordance with subsection (d)(2), to enable the States to carry out the purposes of this section.

    (2) Number of grants.--A State may not receive more than 1 grant under this section per grant period.

    (3) Duration of grants.-- (A) In general.--A grant under this section shall be awarded for a period of not more than 4 years.

    (B) Continuation of grants.--A State that is awarded a grant under this section shall not receive grant funds under this section for the second or any subsequent year of the grant unless the State demonstrates to the Attorney General, at such time and in such manner as determined by the Attorney General, that the State is-- (i) making progress in implementing the plan under subsection (d)(1)(C) at a rate that the Attorney General determines will result in the State fully implementing such plan during the remainder of the grant period; or (ii) making progress against the performance measures set forth in subsection (e) at a rate that the Attorney General determines will result in the State reaching its targets and achieving the objectives of the grant during the remainder of the grant period.

    (d) Applications.-- (1) Applications.--Each State that desires to receive a grant under this section shall submit an application to the Attorney General at such time, in such manner, and containing such information as the Attorney General may reasonably require. At a minimum, each such application shall include-- (A) documentation of the applicant's record, as applicable-- (i) in providing various voter registration opportunities; (ii) in providing early voting; (iii) in providing absentee voting; (iv) in providing assistance to voters who do not speak English as a primary language; (v) in providing assistance to voters with disabilities; (vi) in providing effective access to voting for members of the armed services; (vii) in providing formal training of election officials; (viii) in auditing or otherwise documenting waiting times at polling stations; (ix) in allocating polling locations, equipment, and staff to match population distribution; (x) in responding to voting irregularities and concerns raised at polling stations; (xi) in creating and adhering to contingency voting plans in the event of a natural or other disaster; and (xii) with respect to any other performance measure described in subsection (e) that is not included in clauses (i) through (xi); (B) evidence of conditions of innovation and reform that the applicant has established and the applicant's proposed plan for implementing additional conditions for innovation and reform, including-- (i) a description of how the applicant has identified and eliminated ineffective practices in the past and the applicant's plan for doing so in the future; (ii) a description of how the applicant has identified and promoted effective practices in the past and the applicant's plan for doing so in the future; and (iii) steps the applicant has taken and will take to eliminate statutory, regulatory, procedural, or other barriers and to facilitate the full implementation of the proposed plan under this subparagraph; (C) a comprehensive and coherent plan for using funds under this section, and other Federal, State, and local funds, to improve the applicant's performance on the measures described in subsection (e), consistent with criteria set forth by the Attorney General, including how the applicant will, if applicable-- (i) provide flexible registration opportunities, including online and same-day registration and registration updating; (ii) provide early voting, at a minimum of 9 of the 10 calendar days preceding an election, at sufficient and flexible hours; (iii) provide absentee voting, including no-excuse absentee voting; (iv) provide assistance to voters who do not speak English as a primary language; (v) provide assistance to voters with disabilities, including visual impairment; (vi) provide effective access to voting for members of the armed services; (vii) provide formal training of election officials, including State and county administrators and volunteers; (viii) audit and reduce waiting times at polling stations; (ix) allocate polling locations, equipment, and staff to match population distribution; (x) respond to any reports of voting irregularities or concerns raised at the polling station; (xi) create contingency voting plans in the event of a natural or other disaster; and (xii) improve the wait times at the persistently poorest performing polling stations within the jurisdiction of the applicant; [[Page S219]] (D) evidence of collaboration between the State, local election officials, and other stakeholders, in developing the plan described in subparagraph (C), including evidence of the commitment and capacity to implement the plan; (E) the applicant's annual performance measures and targets, consistent with the requirements of subsection (e); and (F) a description of the applicant's plan to conduct a rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of activities carried out with funds under this section.

    (2) Criteria for evaluating applications.-- (A) Award basis.--The Attorney General shall award grants under this section on a competitive basis, based on the quality of the applications submitted under paragraph (1), including-- (i) each applicant's record in the areas described in paragraph (1)(A); (ii) each applicant's record of, and commitment to, establishing conditions for innovation and reform, as described in paragraph (1)(B); (iii) the quality and likelihood of success of each applicant's plan described in paragraph (1)(C) in showing improvement in the areas described in paragraph (1)(A), including each applicant's capacity to implement the plan and evidence of collaboration as described in paragraph (1)(D); and (iv) each applicant's evaluation plan as described in paragraph (1)(F).

    (B) Explanation.--The Attorney General shall publish an explanation of how the application review process under this paragraph will ensure an equitable and objective evaluation based on the criteria described in subparagraph (A).

    (e) Performance Measures.--Each State receiving a grant under this section shall establish performance measures and targets, approved by the Attorney General, for the programs and activities carried out under this section. These measures shall, at a minimum, track the State's progress-- (1) in implementing its plan described in subsection (d)(1)(C); (2) in expediting voting at the polls or simplifying voter registration, as applicable; and (3) on any other measures identified by the Attorney General.

    (f) Uses of Funds.--Each State that receives a grant under this section shall use the grant funds for any purpose included in the State's plan under subsection (d)(1)(C).

    (g) Reporting.--A State that receives a grant under this section shall submit to the Attorney General, at such time and in such manner as the Attorney General may require, an annual report including-- (1) data on the State's progress in achieving the targets for the performance measures established under subsection (e); (2) a description of the challenges the State has faced in implementing its program and how it has addressed or plans to address those challenges; and (3) findings from the evaluation plan as described in subsection (d)(1)(F).

    (h) Authorization of Appropriations.--There are authorized to be appropriated such sums as may be necessary to carry out this section.

    ______ By Mr. CARDIN (for himself and Ms. Mikulski): S. 103. A bill to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a special resource study of P.S. 103 in West Baltimore, Maryland, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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