PA’s Rep. Brady Pledges to Reintroduce the Automatic Voter Registration Act in 2017

In an email sent to pro-democracy activists, staff from the office of Pennsylvania Representative Robert Brady have expressed that the Representative intends to re-introduce the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016, which he sponsored last year along with 9 other representatives. This commitment stands as a rebuke to early signals from President-Elect Drumpf and his transition team that his administration will be pushing for ramped-up voter suppression laws in response to a purported epidemic of “voter fraud.”

In November, the President-Elect tweeted: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”, a claim that even close adviser Newt Gingrich criticized as baseless and ill-advised. While claims of widespread voter fraud have served as the rationale for a variety of voter-suppression laws, data suggest that the incidence of voter fraud is vanishingly small and a variety of Republican leaders have brazenly admitted that the intent of voter ID requirements and other voter suppression laws is to boost the party’s electoral prospects. These laws have proliferated rapidly since 2013, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Movement Strikes Back

“Voting Rights are innately non-partisan and advance the cause of all Americans”, says Deborah Simpier as she sits in her computer shop in the small town of Clatskanie, OR. Deborah is a volunteer activist who is helping to spearhead efforts to push voter suppression to the forefront of the federal legislative agenda in 2017.

Yet nationwide, a countervailing force has been gathering strength. In 2015, the Oregon legislature passed what is commonly known as the “motor voter” law, which in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election automatically registered 225,000 people solely by virtue of their interaction with the DMV, with the important feature that the system is “opt-out” rather than previous systems that required citizens to check a box to “opt in” to voter registration. Oregon’s law has been lauded as a success, with 43% (about 100,000) of those automatically registered under the law proceeding to vote in the 2016 election.

Since Oregon’s law was passed, California, West Virginia, and Vermont have passed similar measures. Critically, the measures in West Virginia and Vermont were passed with support across party lines. Connecticut implemented the policy via an agreement between the Secretary of State and the DMV. Meanwhile, historically “red” Alaska passed, by a margin of 65% to 35%, a ballot measure that automatically registers all who sign up for the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend.

At the federal level, a number of bills were introduced in 2015–2016 to block the current of voter suppression. A 2015 Automatic Voter Registration Act, introduced by Rhode Island’s Rep. Ciciline, garnered 108 cosponsors. In April of 2016, in the wake of Democracy Spring’s mass civil disobedience actions that saw over 1300 arrested for civil disobedience in protest of big-money corruption and voter suppression, Maryland’s Rep. Sarbanes issued a letter calling for hearings on Ciciline’s Automatic Voter Registration Act and 4 other bills that would have reversed Shelby County v. Holder, allowed for same-day registration and early registration for youth, and overturned Citizens United. The letter was signed by over 100 members of congress.

Rep. Brady’s Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 contained the same provision that was detailed in Ciciline’s 2015 bill. Yet it went further by expanding the number of institutions that could register more voters and providing for federal grants to assist states with implementation.

Deborah Simpier, a small business-owner from Clatskanie, OR, and volunteer with Democracy Spring, says she reached out to Brady’s office because “All citizens should have the right to vote and participate in our democracy.”

Simpier says that Rep. Brady’s response made her feel hopeful for the future. “Voting Rights are innately non-partisan and advance the cause of all Americans. I look forward to the introduction of this bill and speaking to each Congressperson with the confident knowledge that nothing is more essential to a healthy democracy than the right of their constituents to vote.”

Shifting the discourse

The Voting Rights Act has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. Yet voting rights in general and the Act in particular are poised to face challenges in 2017 in Congress, the Supreme Court, and at the state level. One such challenge is President Drumpf’s choice of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions called the Voting Rights Act “an intrusive piece of legislation,” and has denied the persistence of systemic racism.

Yet a recent meeting between Drumpf and Martin Luther King III, in response to which the President-Elect expressed interest in the idea of subverting the suppressive intent voter ID laws by adding a photo to social security cards, suggest that he may not move in lockstep with other Republicans bent on serving party interests at the cost of basic civil rights. And the bipartisan legislative victories in Vermont and West Virginia, along with the overwhelming success of Alaska’s ballot measure, suggest the possibility for a groundswell of popular support for rightful access to the franchise by all Americans.

For Simpier, optimism and persistence are key: “In the vast multitude of important issues of our time, we should not forget the fundamental issue, the right of every citizen to vote and participate in our democracy. We cannot progress as a nation if we suppress the rights of any person in any state. We boldly demand, with recognition to those who have fought and won voting rights battles before us, that all citizens of America be guaranteed the right to vote as an inalienable human right.”