10/29/2012 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

10 Years After the Help America Vote Act, Voters Face New Challenges

One week from tomorrow, Americans from coast to coast will line up at polling places eager to cast their ballots in a pivotal election. Through absentee and early voting, many have already made their choices. Our votes are our voices, but they will only be heard if those votes are properly and accurately counted.

The arrival of Hurricane Sandy just one week before Election Day -- and its lingering, unpredictable effects -- provides one of the strongest arguments why we must have in place a voting system that is as accessible and reliable as possible. In affected states, governors have a responsibility to make sure those in storm-affected areas can vote, including extending early voting opportunities and ensuring polling places and technology are ready on November 6th.

But, as we have experienced, nature is not the only potential impediment to ensuring Americans' voices are heard at the polls. In 2000, nearly 2 million votes went uncounted as a result of machine failures. That was unacceptable, and it's the reason I cosponsored the Help America Vote Act, which was signed into law ten years ago today. That groundbreaking legislation has already strengthened the security of states' voting systems and increased accountability to make certain that ballots are counted accurately.

The Help America Vote Act established the Election Assistance Commission to help states modernize their voting systems and improve voter access by testing and certifying voting technologies. It also mandated the use of "provisional ballots" for voters whose eligibility is in question, enabling them to cast votes that can be counted once their eligibility is proven instead of simply being turned away. Recognizing the challenges faced by voters with disabilities, our legislation made every polling place accessible and requires every location to provide at least one machine to serve the visually impaired.

To be sure, the Help America Vote Act was not a cure-all for every challenge confronting our election system, but it was an extraordinary recognition by Congress of the federal government's responsibility to all Americans, regardless of party affiliation, to protect their most basic right.

Now, a decade after Congress took bold and overwhelmingly bipartisan action to do so, we find the right to vote under threat once more. This time, the danger comes not from faulty machines but from discriminatory state laws that make it harder for many Americans to access the ballot box.

A number of states with Republican-controlled legislatures have enacted new requirements that mandate specific, state-issued photo-identification cards or licenses in order to vote. This disproportionately affects seniors, students, Latinos, and African-Americans, all of whom are less likely to possess the necessary forms of identification. In many cases, fees are required to obtain these new cards or licenses -- in effect, a modern-day poll tax. The new laws are also making it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives and are slamming shut the early voting windows that allow working Americans to vote on weekends before Election Day.

While these new laws are cloaked in the guise of a crackdown on voter fraud, no evidence of any widespread or pervasive fraud exists. In fact, proponents are hard pressed to back up their claims. Instead, we've been bombarded with stories of elderly and minority voters --- many of whom have voted in the past without incident -- who suddenly find themselves without any way to prove their eligibility on Election Day and worried they will be turned away.

In some instances, partisan motivations seem to be at play. One Pennsylvania Republican state lawmaker was quoted in June bragging that his state's new voter identification law "is going to allow Mitt Romney to win the State of Pennsylvania."

If voters are disenfranchised by these new rules, the legitimacy of our free and fair system of elections will be seriously undermined.

In response, I joined earlier this year with veteran civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, Assistant Leader James Clyburn, and other House Democrats to introduce the Voter Empowerment Act. Our legislation will protect Americans' right to vote by banning purges of the voter rolls, enshrining in law opportunities to hold registration drives and participate in early voting, and strengthening the Election Assistance Commission Congress created ten years ago. Unfortunately, the Republican-led House has not scheduled a single hearing on this bill or signaled that it will be considered by the House at all.

The Help America Vote Act was an important step toward making certain that our ballots are counted accurately, and the Voter Empowerment Act will ensure everyone can head to the polls to cast those ballots with the peace of mind that they won't be turned away and that their vote will be counted.

On this tenth anniversary -- and with a close election just eight days away -- we cannot allow the reforms we enacted to have been made in vain. Let's strengthen our voting system to continue ensuring the accessibility and accountability our people deserve. We cannot afford another election debacle -- whether by hanging chads or millions of eligible voters left hanging.