WASHINGTON — Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., last week launched an effort to counter the erosion of one of Lyndon Baine Johnson’s biggest accomplishments as president: the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which established a formula to require certain states with a history of discriminatory voting laws to clear any new voting statutes with the Department of Justice.
Leahy called the 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder “disastrous,” adding, “almost as soon as that decision came down, efforts were made to block people from voting.” Since the Shelby decision, dozens of states have instituted strict voter ID laws, a number of which have been struck down by the courts.
A federal appeals court struck down a 2013 South Carolina voting law in 2016, and described the new voting rules as an effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Standing in the ornate room Lyndon Baines Johnson Room Wednesday, Leahy gave a smilarly scathing indictment of new state laws that he said are “unconstitutional voting restrictions … aimed primarily at minorities.”
Leahy hopes to override new restrictions at the state level with clear federal guidelines. He announced legislation Wednesday that would require states to automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they interact with certain state and federal agencies, unless they decline.
“The right to vote is one of the most sacred rights guaranteed by our Constitution,” Leahy said. “We are a stronger country the more Americans participate in our democracy.”
The Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017 would do away with the patchwork of state voting laws and mandate a proactive approach to voter registration by the government.
A section of the legislation would also provide for more convenient, online registration. Citizens would be able to make address changes or update other crucial information on the web. Leahy’s bill would implement privacy protections for the voter data collected by government agencies.
A 2016 report by the Brennan Center estimated that an automatic voter registration could save administrative costs and add 50 million eligible voters to the rolls.
Article 1, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution gives states the authority to set the “the times, places and manner” of elections, “but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such regulations.”
Eight states, including Vermont, have instituted automatic voter registration programs in recent years. Vermont’s law, which passed in 2016, created a system whereby Vermonters could be automatically registered to vote when they go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a driver’s license or other form of identification. State officials estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 new voters would be registered through the DMV by the end of the first four years, a significant uptick in a state of 620,000.
In February, VTDigger reported that a glitch in the system resulted in some noncitizens being incorrectly registered to vote. Secretary of State Jim Condos, who has championed the law, said the glitch resulted in a “very small number” of inappropriate registrations, adding “no ineligible voter voted.”
The highest turnout in Vermont’s history was in 2008, when 72 percent of the state’s eligible voters cast ballots. In 2016, participation was 68 percent.
So far, only two Democrats have come on board as co-sponsors of the automatic registration bill: U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.