Voter suppression and intimidation are still very much alive in our nation. From misleading and fraudulent information about elections to voter intimidation and robocalls designed to suppress the vote, deceptive voting practices are often aimed at depriving minority communities of their voice in our democracy. The United States Constitution guarantees and protects the right of every American citizen to vote, and we have a duty to protect and ensure that right.
Unfortunately, we have seen a resurgence of deceptive voter practices in recent years. In 2006, during my own election to the U.S. Senate, thousands of minority voters in Maryland were targeted for misleading information designed to suppress their vote. Nationwide, there have been numerous reports of efforts to suppress the minority vote by putting out wrong information about election dates and location of polling places, along with suggestions that voters who had outstanding parking tickets would be arrested if they tried to vote.
To put an end to this type of deceptive voter practice, I recently joined with U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) in re-introducing the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2011. This bill is designed to protect voters across the nation from election fraud and voter intimidation by creating criminal penalties for deceptive voting practices and by giving individual voters the right to take action.
Our bill would specifically allow for criminal penalties of up to $100,000 and up to five years imprisonment for those found guilty of deceptive campaign practices. If deceptive practices are found to have occurred before Election Day, the U.S. Attorney General can take corrective action to halt distribution of such information and to set the record straight. After federal elections, the Attorney General also would be required to report to Congress on the allegations of deceptive practices and the actions taken to correct such practices.
Deceptive voter practices are not pranks and they threaten our democracy. Since the end of the Civil War, there have been numerous efforts to ensure the right to vote for all citizens. In 1870, Congress ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution stating “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race [or] color. ...” The Amendment also gave Congress power to enforce the article by “appropriate” legislative action.
Unfortunately, for another 100 years African Americans faced poll taxes, literacy tests and outright harassment and violence when they attempted to vote. It took the passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to end the discrimination of Jim Crow laws and regulations denying African Americans their full voting rights.
Deceptive voting practices are not a matter of free speech or a First Amendment right. In reality, such practices threaten the very integrity of our electoral process by attempting to rob voters of their right to vote. It is time for Congress to act once again to put an end to tactics that are deliberately intended to suppress or mislead voters.