Elections and Access to Voting
The right of all Americans to fully participate in our democracy is being threatened today in ways we haven’t seen since the civil rights and post-Watergate eras. In the 1960’s, passage of the Voting Rights Act gave all Americans equal access to our election process, regardless of race. In the 1970’s, The Federal Election Campaign Act brought a new era of transparency and accountability in campaign finance, and thirty years later Congress passed the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to rid the system of unchecked corporate soft-money. Unfortunately the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision undermines that intent, and the result is in more instead of less money in politics.
Across the country, several states are trying to turn the clock back on hard-earned advancements in voting rights. Voter suppression efforts and identification laws often restrict voting access for minority, military, disabled, and low-income voters, as well as seniors and college students. To address this issue I have signed on as a cosponsor of the Voter Empowerment Act, which will prohibit the egregious practices that are designed to prevent people from having their ballot counted.
The Supreme Court recently struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which for a half century has been essential to preventing states with a history of discrimination from disenfranchising minority voters. This ruling is very disappointing and wrongheaded. Almost immediately a number of these states moved to restrict voting rights for their citizens. I pledge to work with my colleagues in Congress to protect the right to vote. Congress must move quickly to reenact a new Section 4 to meet the court’s newly announced standards.
Recently I joined many of my colleagues in sending a letter to 3200 college and university presidents encouraging them to provide voter registration opportunities to their students, and to educate their students about requirements for voting. Greater voter turnout can only be achieved when our community institutions, in addition to government, are involved in expanding access to voting.
The Supreme Court’s opinion in Citizens United v. FEC has greatly impacted the funding of campaigns. Gone is the transparency and accountability that kept shadowy organizations with hidden backers from influencing our elections. The result of Citizens United has been to allow anonymous donors to drown out the voice of everyday Americans.
Citizens United is a constitutional decision that can’t be overruled by Congress without ratification of a constitutional amendment. In the meantime, Congress can require more disclosure. I have cosponsored the DISCLOSE Act, and have signed a discharge petition to request that the Speaker bring it to the floor of the House for a vote. Passing this bill will be a first step toward ensuring that all Americans know who is funding political campaigns. In the long term I support the DARE plan, which consists of four steps - Disclose, Amend, Reform, Elect - that will fix our broken campaign finance system. This plan includes:
• Disclosure of the donors to Super PAC-associated 501(c)(4) organizations, and corporations that are spending many millions of dollars to influence election outcomes.
• Amend the constitution to make clear that regulation of campaign finance does not violate the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.
• Reform the campaign finance system by setting up a publicly financed small-donor matching program.
• Elect candidates who support campaign finance reform.
All Americans deserve equal rights, including the right to marry, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. I am a proud cosponsor of both the Respect for Marriage Act, which will repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the Social Security Equality Act to extend Social Security benefits to same-sex partners. Additionally I have cosponsored bills to guarantee equal access to health care, COBRA benefits, family and medical leave, and other employment benefits.
I also strongly support legislation to end government discrimination against same sex couples in adoption and immigration. The Every Child Deserves a Family Act will eliminate bias against same-sex couples in state adoption laws, and the Uniting American Families Act will treat same-sex immigrant partners of American citizens the same as opposite-sex immigrant partners of American citizens for visa purposes.
Access to Justice
Our democracy relies on an accessible and effective justice system to adjudicate rights and wrongs. When I was in law school, I helped low-income families access quality legal advice through Legal Aid. More than 60 million Americans qualify for legal assistance programs and these attorneys assist the most vulnerable in our society, including military veterans seeking disability benefits, women seeking protection from their abusers, and families facing unlawful evictions. I have fought hard for full funding for legal aid, and I oppose efforts to eliminate funding for these vital programs.