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July 26, 2013

Our nation needs uniform rules for absentee voting

by Rep. Susan A. Davis 

Recently, the Supreme Court handed down a major victory for voting rights. On Jun 17, the Court struck down Arizona’s Proposition 200, which requires proof of citizenship for voter registration, ruling that it violated the National Voter Registration Act passed by Congress in 1993. This ruling affirmed that Congress has the authority, granted in Article I, Section IV of the Constitution, to regulate states’ handling of federal elections. States should not be able to impose barriers to voting for eligible citizens, and Congress has the power and the responsibility to intervene to break down these barriers and protect voting rights.

The threat to voting rights from certain state and local governments is real, and Congress must intervene to level the playing field. In recent years, voters across the country have faced severe barriers to voting, including strict voter ID requirements, shortened early voting periods, and limited polling hours. In the 2012 election, many voters on the East Coast also faced challenges because of the damage and disorder caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Absentee voting can allow voters to sidestep many of these hurdles. It can eliminate the long lines and waits that have been exacerbated by limited polling hours, easing pressure on both poll workers and voters. In fact, in states with “no excuse” absentee voting, the 2012 Election Day wait time was 20% shorter than in states without. Absentee voting increases turnout among language minorities, who may need extra time to read over a ballot, and allows all voters to take their time when considering complex ballot initiatives.

Absentee voting was first introduced during the Civil War so that soldiers could cast their votes, but our society has changed, and servicemembers are no longer the only Americans who need flexibility in voting. Commuters, students living away from home, the sick and elderly, parents of young children, those who work long hours, nurses and ER responders who cannot take time off of work—all can benefit from absentee voting.

However, many states place barriers on absentee voting, as well. These barriers are enormous, unfair, and generally unnoticed, and they include eligibility requirements, excessive documentation, and complex bureaucracy. Rules and requirements for absentee voting are often arbitrary, and rarely consistent from state to state.

Almost half of states do not accept jury duty as an excuse to vote absentee, and several states do not accept work or student status as an excuse. In many states, old age is also not a valid excuse. Other states impose age requirements, which vary widely (for example, one must be 60 in Tennessee, 65 in Texas, and 75 in Georgia to take advantage of absentee voting).

Delaware requires a notary to verify work or school excuses, but provides a special exemption for state employees. Notarization is not free, making this requirement essentially a poll tax. In Virginia, those using pregnancy, illness, or religious obligation as an excuse must provide details on these private matters to election officials. This information then becomes public record—a massive violation of privacy for Virginia voters.

Virginians who wish to vote absentee also face bureaucratic hurdles. One Virginia election official admitted that his state’s absentee documentation requirements are so complicated that he has had to deny the absentee applications of US Congressmen and current US Supreme Court Justices. Mississippi does not even provide information on absentee requirements and does not provide absentee applications. Voters must consult the state code on their own to find out whether they qualify and what documents they must submit.

When given the opportunity, Americans are choosing to vote absentee. Absentee voting accounted for nearly 25% of votes cast in 2012 election, and that number is higher where absentee voting is not restricted. California has had “no excuse” absentee voting since 1978, and almost 50% of voting Californians vote absentee; in contrast, in states with strict requirements, such as Tennessee and Mississippi, only 5% vote absentee. With voter turnout at roughly 60%, we should be encouraging Americans to vote any way they can, rather than making it more difficult for them to exercise this right.

As the Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. ITCA confirmed, Congress has the authority to strike down state-imposed barriers to absentee voting. Congress must exercise this authority and  make the convenience of absentee voting available to all Americans by passing the Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act (H.R. 376), which would expand “no excuse” absentee voting to all states. This bill would still allow poll voting, but would also allow all eligible voters to vote by mail in federal elections without excuses, notarized forms, doctor’s notes, or other restrictions.

Voting is the bedrock of our democracy. The progress we’ve made in expanding voting rights—to minorities, women, and young adults—is not complete so long as eligible Americans face barriers to casting their votes.

This piece originally appeared in U-T San Diego.

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