Defending Every American’s Right To Vote

As my friend and civil rights icon John Lewis said, “The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. People fought for it, bled for it, died for it. Honor their sacrifice.” Honoring their sacrifice — his sacrifice — is now our job. We do that by making sure that not one more generation has to wage the same fight he did.

In the last election, we heard too many stories of people being purged from the voter rolls by their states. Of people blocked from voting because their name was missing a hyphen in the voter file. Of people driving great distances or waiting for hours to vote because polling locations were removed from their neighborhood. And we know that these stories are too often the result of blatant discrimination.

Despite all of those hurdles, record numbers of Americans turned out to have their voices heard. They turned out in the cold and the heat and the rain, and they waited in line because they know that the voting booth is the one place all Americans are equal and have an equal say in the future of this country and their place in it.

Protecting and expanding access to the ballot box should be our number one priority. But instead of working to fix those problems, states across the country are responding with new laws that will codify them. Hundreds of voter suppression bills have been introduced this year seeking to limit mail-in voting, create stricter voter ID requirements, enable more voter roll purges, and make it harder to register to vote. In Georgia, lawmakers rushed through sweeping legislation to limit voting rights and it has already been signed it into law. There hasn’t been an assault on voting rights like this since the Jim Crow era.

We claim to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people — but too often, the government has been in the business of deciding which people, exactly, get to participate. That must change. John Lewis told us that “we must not be silent while leaders we elect take our voting rights away. The vote is the soul and the heart of the democratic process. … I hope we will not return to the days of overt discrimination before we decide to do something about it.”

Now is the time to do something about it. Before John Lewis passed, we worked together for years on the Voter Empowerment Act. I’m proud to continue fighting for the bill and for the right to vote in his honor, and to have our legislation included in the For the People Act.

The Voter Empowerment Act starts by bringing the voter registration system into the 21st century and requiring states to make it possible to register and update your information online. That would make registering more accessible to everyone — especially people with disabilities or whose work schedules make it difficult for them to travel to register to vote in person. It would also restore voting rights to previously incarcerated people who have been released.

The Voter Empowerment Act will also address the reality that the rules for registration vary widely from state to state. Allowing for same day registration nationwide will make sure every state is playing by the same rules, and everyone has a chance to participate in our elections.

It also takes steps to protect voters from deceptive practices. When changes are made to a polling place’s location or hours, this bill would make sure that voters are given that information so they can make a voting plan based on the facts. It will also prohibit the distribution of false information about elections that discourages voting and hold those who attempt to misinform or intimidate voters accountable with prescribed sentencing guidelines.

And if voters do encounter issues when voting, this bill gives them somewhere to turn. It will make sure our volunteer poll workers, the engine of our elections, are well informed and well trained. It will also provide voters with access to a hotline that offers information on when, where and how to register and vote, and immediate assistance to voters encountering problems.

This bill recognizes that everyone eligible must have the chance to vote. And that every vote legally cast — including provisional ballots — must be counted. That is how elections work in a democracy.

We cannot in good faith tell people it is their right and duty to vote while knowing that laws and policies across the country make voting nearly impossible for too many people. The commonsense reforms in the Voter Empowerment Act would provide needed reinforcement to the guardrails of our democracy and help ensure that all Americans have equal access to the ballot box.

Let’s fight to protect John Lewis’s legacy and to defend every American’s right to vote.

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

United States Senator for New York. Official Senate Medium account.