By U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.)
Fifty years ago this year Congress passed the first major civil rights bill since Reconstruction. It set an important precedent by establishing the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) as a guarantor of the right to vote.
Specifically, the law established the Commission on Civil Rights, a six-member bipartisan commission with the power to investigate allegations that certain citizens are being deprived of their right to vote. It also empowered the Attorney General to prevent such interference through federal injunctions, and created the Civil Rights Division within the DOJ to oversee civil rights enforcement.
Today, under the Bush Administration, the DOJ has failed to carry out its duty to ensure that all Americans are able to vote. Instead, we have a DOJ that has stood by while attempts have been made to disenfranchise minorities by using misleading campaign materials with incorrect dates for Election Day, threatening voters with parking tickets, taxes or convictions that could lead to arrest, and threatening naturalized citizens with incarceration.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in June I chaired a hearing about voter deception throughout the country. The list of voting rights violations is long. Here are just a few:
-- In 2006, Virginia votes received automated phone messages falsely warning them that the Virginia Election Commission had determined they were ineligible to vote and they would face severe criminal penalties if they tried to vote;
-- In 2006, Latino voters in Orange County, CA, received mailing from the California Coalition of Immigration Reform warning them that if an immigrant votes it is a federal crime and they will be arrested. (Immigrants who are naturalized citizens have the same right to vote as any other citizen.); and,
-- In 2004, American Indian voters in South Dakota were prevented from voting after they did not provide photo IDs upon request, a violation of federal law.
The list goes on, including in Maryland during the 2006 election in which flyers were distributed in predominately African-American neighborhoods falsely claiming that the candidates had been endorsed by their opponents party and by prominent figures who had actually endorsed another candidate. In Maryland in 2002, flyers were handed out in Baltimore City with the wrong Election Day, and these flyers also warned voters to pay their parking tickets before voting.
The federal government has a responsibility and duty to make sure that those responsible for preventing others from exercising their right to vote are held accountable. I have co-sponsored the Prevention of Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation in Federal Elections Act, S. 453, which would criminalize voter intimidation. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL),also have sponsored the measure. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved this legislation on Sept. 6, and I am hopeful that the full Senate will consider this legislation this Fall.
President Bush recently nominated former District Court Judge Michael B. Mukasey as Attorney General. I expect to closely question Judge Mukasey on these issues during his confirmation hearing.