By Mike Lillis - 05/17/12 11:28 PM EDT
House Democratic leaders on Thursday introduced legislation to streamline Americans' trips to the polls.
The bill is a response to a slew of recent state legislation — some proposed, some already law — setting stricter standards for voters to register or cast a ballot.
Supporters of those state efforts — including new picture-ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements — say they're necessary to weed out ineligible voters and maintain the integrity of elections. But critics contend they're designed to suppress eligible voters, particularly minorities and low-income Americans who tend to vote Democratic.
"In this age of technology, our country is moving backward, not forward," Lewis said Thursday as he introduced the bill in the Capitol. "People died for the right to vote, and some of them were people I knew. I hope and pray we do not return to the days of overt discrimination before we decide to do something about it."
Other Democrats piled on.
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the assistant Democratic leader and another veteran of the civil rights struggle, said the new state restrictions would "roll back our hard-fought access to the ballot boxes." Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said the reforms are "exactly the wrong way to go." And Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the rules "are usually targeted" to exclude minorities.
"We know who the victims are," Gonzalez said.
At issue are a growing number of state laws recently enacted — usually by Republican lawmakers — in the name of preventing voter fraud. Since the start of 2011, at least 14 states have passed — or are about to pass — new voting restrictions that will affect this year's presidential election, according to New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice. Eight states have passed new photo-ID laws, quadrupling the number before 2011, while the number of states with proof-of-citizenship requirements has doubled over the same span, the Brennan Center found.
In all, 176 restrictive bills have been proposed over the last 18 months in 41 states, according to the Brennan Center.
Rep. Robert Brady (Pa.), ranking member of the House Administration Committee, condemned a new Pennsylvania law that requires voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. Those without such an ID, he said, need to produce a birth certificate and a Social Security card to get one. Those without a Social Security card need to show a government-issued photo ID.
"So you have to get a photo ID to get a Social Security card to get a photo ID to vote. It's ridiculous," Brady said. "These laws do absolutely nothing — zero — to encourage more democracy and our democratic system."
The Democrats' bill seeks to lower the hurdles to voting, making online registration universal, allowing all eligible voters to register on Election Day and providing funds to train poll workers. The legislation would also require all federally funded universities to conduct registration drives.
One thing the bill does not do is prohibit certain ID requirements, a move the Democrats defended Thursday.
"Voter ID is not a problem. Everybody that goes to vote shows some form of ID," Clyburn said. "The big problem has been the process … you go through to get there."
The Democrats decried the cost of some required IDs, comparing them to the poll taxes that discouraged poor citizens from voting generations ago.
Lewis said that 51 million Americans are not registered to vote "and it is harder for them to register today than it was just one year ago."
"We must not be silent," Lewis said, "while leaders we elect take away our voting rights."