March 5, 2009

Senate Bill Would Outlaw Notorious Voter Suppression Tactic

11 Senators Introduce Legislation to Sharply Limit Frivolous Challenges to Voter Eligibility

Washington, D.C. – Political operatives would be unable to challenge a person’s right to vote (or register to vote) based solely on unreliable information if a Senate bill introduced today becomes law. U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Bill Nelson (D-FL), John Kerry (D-MA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chris Dodd (D-CT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) again offered legislation aimed at preventing the practice of “voter caging,” a voter suppression tactic which has often been used to target minority voters.

“Last year’s historic election proved that the right of an eligible voter to cast his or her vote is essential to our democracy,” said Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former U.S. Attorney and Rhode Island Attorney General.

“The practice of voter caging chips away at core protections in our democracy. The very legitimacy of our government is dependent on the access all Americans have to the political process. Rooting out partisan voter caging tactics requires us to give federal officials the tools and resources they need to investigate and prosecute organized efforts to suppress the right to vote. This bill will do exactly that,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.

“There’s no place for underhanded vote suppression schemes in our democracy,” said U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who’s proposed a series of other election reforms including direct election of the president by popular vote. “This particular bill guards against attempts by political parties to game the system.”

“Those engaging in tactics like caging have one goal – to cheat the system,” said Kerry. “This bill will ensure that anyone interfering with our basic right to vote by carrying out such tactics will face the consequences. We should be focusing our energies on encouraging citizens to vote, not restricting access.”

“Voter suppression and manipulation have no place in our democracy,” said Senator Schumer, Chairman of the Rules Committee, which had jurisdiction over the bill in the last Congress. “To ensure underhanded tactics do not threaten the strength and legitimacy of our government, we must protect the right of all people to have equal voice and equal access to the voting booth.”

“Ensuring eligible voters have free and open access to the ballot box is a fundamental right all Americans expect and deserve,” said Harkin. “This bill will ensure that suppression tactics by a political party do not influence our elections.”

“The use of this partisan technique by political parties and others threatens one of the fundamental pillars of our democracy – the right to vote,” said Dodd.  “This legislation will help protect voters against such underhanded tactics.”

Senator Sherrod Brown said, “Americans are struggling with an economy and housing market in crisis, but the right to vote should not be jeopardized by either. As we work together to rebuild this country, we need to ensure that Americans have equal access to making their voices heard and their votes cast. This bill protects American families and our democratic principles.”

The Caging Prohibition Act, which was first introduced in the 110th Congress, would prohibit interference with registration or voting based solely on unreliable information, such as a “caging list.” Caging is a voter suppression tactic in which a political party, campaign, or other entity sends mail marked “do not forward” to a targeted group of voters – often minorities or residents of minority neighborhoods. A list of those whose mail was returned “undelivered” is then used as the basis for challenges to the right of those citizens to vote, on the grounds that the voter does not live at the address where he or she is registered. There are many reasons that mail is returned undelivered, however; an eligible voter could be overseas on active military service or a student registered at a parent’s address.

The Caging Prohibition Act would mandate that anyone who challenges the right of another citizen to vote must set forth the specific grounds for that voter’s alleged ineligibility and describe the evidence to support that conclusion, under penalty of perjury. Following allegations in 2008 that Republican Party officials in Michigan, Florida, Indiana, and Ohio were considering challenging the eligibility of voters who were on a list of people whose homes were subject to foreclosure, the sponsors updated last year’s version of the Caging Prohibition Act to explicitly prohibit challenges based on the foreclosure status of a voter’s residence.

The Caging Prohibition Act has been endorsed by a diverse coalition of civil rights organizations, including the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and People for the American Way.

“Caging creates bad lists that are used to purge, challenge, and harass eligible voters,” said Justin Levitt, a voter registration expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “The Caging Prohibition Act would protect all Americans against operatives using uncorroborated, unreliable information to threaten their most fundamental rights. The time to put these safeguards in place is now, before we are swept up in the heat the next election.”


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