07/01/2014 12:28 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

America Votes Act Protects Americans' Fundamental Right to Vote


Twelve nuns from St. Mary's Convent in Notre Dame, Indiana, were turned away from the polls when they could not show government-issued photo identification.

A disabled veteran who doesn't have a driver's license isn't allowed to use his U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs photo ID to vote in Tennessee.

And far too many seniors who have dedicated their lives to election access and civil rights can't get the ID they need to vote because their birth certificate was lost, because they were born at home, or because of a clerical error in their federal records.

A year after the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress has failed to fix the gaping hole left in our country's voting-rights law. As a result, partisan state legislatures across the country have been allowed to pass restrictive voting laws that disenfranchise citizens and undermine the foundation of opportunity on which our country is built.

Voters in 11 states will face more restrictive ID requirements this year than they did just a few years ago. And more than half the states -- 31 -- have voter-ID requirements of some kind in place for this year's elections. On top of voter-ID laws, states are restricting voter registration and limiting early voting, practices that unnecessarily make casting a vote more difficult.

Congress must act to stop laws that deprive citizens of their right to vote. The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, of which I am a cosponsor, is a necessary and momentous rewrite of the Voting Rights Act to reinstate federal checks on state laws restricting the vote. But it does not go far enough to rein in state voter-ID laws that are disproportionately depriving minorities, students, seniors and others of their right to vote.

Here is a novel idea: Instead of looking for ways to keep people from voting, we should be looking for ways to break down barriers for all people to fully participate in our democracy.

That's why I introduced the America Votes Act of 2013. This bill will counteract states' voter-ID laws by allowing voters who do not have the identification documents required by their state to sign a sworn statement attesting to their identity before casting a standard ballot at the polls.

Sometimes when I talk to people about voter-ID laws, they don't understand why requiring IDs to vote is such a big deal. They point out that we need photo IDs to drive or passports to fly internationally, so why shouldn't we need to have some sort of photo ID to vote?

There are two ways to answer that question.

First, as a practical matter, it turns out that a lot of people simply do not have IDs that meet states' voting requirements. Some people never drive or fly internationally. Some cannot afford the cost of the state ID, or to take the time off work to get it. Voter-ID laws kept nearly one in five African-American young adults from voting in the 2012 election, according to one study. Another study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that about one in 10 eligible voters overall does not possess a current and valid government-issued photo ID. That number gets far worse for seniors, people of color, low-income voters, students and people with disabilities.

Second, and perhaps more important, voting is a fundamental right given to us by the Constitution, a right that must not be abridged.

The 14th Amendment establishes equal protection for each citizen under the law, and the 15th Amendment prohibits federal and state governments from abridging voting rights based on race. Voter-ID laws are an insult to the Constitution because they disproportionately target seniors and minorities.

The 24th Amendment prohibits charging a poll tax or any other type of tax as a condition of voting. When state requires an ID that costs a fee, states are effectively charging a poll tax. (While some states offer free voter IDs, copies of birth certificates or other supporting documents are not always available and cost money to replace.)

I might feel differently about voter-ID laws if they were addressing a real problem. But voter-ID laws are, at best, a solution in search of a problem. Voter-ID laws are supposed to be designed to combat in-person voting fraud, when someone shows up and tries to vote using another person's ballot. But a nationwide study by News21, a nonpartisan news organization, found just 10 instances of in-person voter fraud between 2000 and 2010. In fact, there are more recorded instances of exploding toilets and shark attacks than there are of in-person voting fraud.

Fifty years after Freedom Summer, when three civil-rights workers lost their lives fighting for voting rights, our country is not living up to its constitutional commitment to empower all citizens with the right to vote. We should feel ashamed by this unacceptable reality. Ask your member of Congress to cosponsor the America Votes Act.

Our country's history is marred with incidents of voter intimidation and suppression. To stop that history from becoming our future, we must recommit to protecting the vote for all eligible citizens.