ACLU Says Flawed Provisions in Election Reform Legislation Threaten to Take a Step Backward

February 25, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — While applauding the spirit of a major election reform bill in the Senate, the American Civil Liberties Union today objected to a number of flawed provisions in the legislation, saying they turn a good bill into legislation that would represent a significant step backward for voting rights in America.

“The problem provisions in the new compromise Senate bill would erect new barriers to voting and have a chilling effect on voter participation,” said LaShawn Warren, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “The spirit of the bill is a good one – election reform is the paramount civil rights concern today. Certain flawed provisions, unfortunately, threaten to exacerbate the very problems the legislation is intended to solve.”

The bill, called the Equal Protection of Voting Act of 2001 (S. 565), is a bipartisan compromise version of previous election reform legislation and is being considered on the Senate floor this week. Primary sponsors include Sens. Kit Bond, R-MO, Mitch McConnell, R-KY, Chris Dodd, D-CT, Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Robert Torricelli, D-NJ. The ACLU today joined with other civil rights groups in calling for a significant fix to the bill in a news conference.

Specifically, the ACLU objects strenuously to a section in the bill that would require first time voters who register by mail to produce photo identification. Requiring the use of photographic identification and/or other documents as a pre-condition for voting would have a disparate impact on voters with disabilities, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans. Further, such a provision would disproportionately impact out-of-state students, many of whom are new residents in the area where they attend school, and homeless men and women who have neither the means to acquire photo ID nor a local address.

The ACLU also said it was concerned with the so-called “safe harbor” provision in the bill. While S. 565 explicitly requires states to comply with its reforms by 2006, it prohibits the Department of Justice – the agency responsible for enforcing compliance – from bringing civil litigation against any non-compliant state until 2010, a measure that the ACLU says effectively makes the deadline for compliance meaningless.

The ACLU’s Warren, however, pointed to two positive amendments that she said would significantly improve the bill: the Wyden-Schumer amendment, which would allow states that already use affidavits or signature matching to verify voters’ identities to retain their systems, and the Kennedy amendment, which would ensure that national election standards are met in a timely fashion.

“It is essential that something be done to reform our broken electoral system before the 2002 elections to prevent a reoccurrence of the voting problems that were so glaringly highlighted in the 2000 elections,” Warren said. “Without fixes, this bill, unfortunately, is not the answer.”

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