(The Root) — It's been an eventful couple of days in the world of voting rights, with a variety of political and legal factions ramping up efforts to protect access to the polls. From Congress to the courts to the Obama campaign, here's the latest election-protection news you need to know.
A Bill to Modernize the Election Process
On Thursday, House Democrats introduced the Voter Empowerment Act, legislation designed to simplify, strengthen and expand access to the election process. Among other provisions, the bill would do the following:
* Authorize online voter registration
* Authorize same-day voter registration and allow voters to update their registration data onsite
* Require universities that receive federal funds to offer and encourage voter registration
* Prohibit voter caging (the practice of sending direct mail to names on the voter rolls, and using any returned mail as the basis for purging registered voters), designating the practice as a felony
* Establish a national voter hotline
* Set standards for voting machines to ensure accurate tabulation
"The bill will protect voters from restrictive voting measures that have been enacted in states across the country over the last year," said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in a statement explaining the bill's aim to roll back some of those laws, using congressional authority to enforce the 19th, 24th and 26th amendments of the Constitution. "These measures make it harder for millions of eligible voters to register or vote, and disproportionally affect our service members, the disabled, minorities, young people, seniors and low-income Americans."
(That said, it's unlikely that this bill will actually move past the Republican-controlled House.)
An Online Tool From the Obama Campaign
On Friday the Obama campaign launched GottaVote.org, a one-stop shop of a website for voting information about the varied rules of new state voting laws.
The interactive site, also available in Spanish at VotemosTodos.org, shows users whether or not they are registered to vote, directs them to their respective states' voter-registration form, provides state-customized lists of which forms of ID or paperwork are now required at the polls, sends reminders of key dates and deadlines and dispatches alerts on the status of voting rights in their state.
According to Michael Blake, national deputy director of the Obama campaign's Operation Vote initiative, "The importance of the site is saying very clearly, 'Yes, there may have been changes, and yes, others might have made it harder, but we're giving you a simple way to learn about how you can get registered, how you can get engaged and how you can make sure that you vote this coming Election Day.' "
Another Court Upholds the Voting Rights Act
Also on Friday, a federal appeals court upheld the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — the provision that requires nine states with a history of voting discrimination to get federal permission to change their election procedures. Shelby County, Ala., sued the U.S. Justice Department in 2010 on the grounds that the law encroaches on state sovereignty and is no longer needed all these years later (it was originally enacted in 1965 and reauthorized for another 25 years in 2006).
Two members on the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit disagreed with Shelby County and co-signed an earlier judgment made by the D.C. District Court affirming the Voting Rights Act. Upon reviewing the record (including 626 voting changes that have been blocked by the attorney general since 1982, and more than 800 proposals that have been withdrawn or modified in response to Justice Department requests for more information) and hearing arguments from attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, they ruled that Section 5 is still necessary.
Writing for the majority, Judge David Tatel summarized the court's decision: "After thoroughly scrutinizing the record and given that overt racial discrimination persists in covered jurisdictions notwithstanding decades of Section 5 preclearance, we, like the district court, are satisfied that Congress' judgment deserves judicial deference."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.