The Obama administration is signaling support for a forthcoming Senate bill that would impose tough criminal and civil penalties on individuals who make and distribute campaign literature with false information intended to deceive voters and suppress turnout.
Attorney General Eric Holder will announce in a major speech on voting rights in Texas on Tuesday night that Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) will introduce the bill on Wednesday. The bill will be “narrowly tailored” to respect provisions of the First Amendment, according to Cardin’s office. It will apply to “only a small category of false communications that occur during the last 90 days before an election, such as literature listing the wrong date or time for the election, giving inaccurate information about voter eligibility, or promoting false endorsements of candidates.” A nearly identical bill was introduced by Schumer and then-Sen. Barack Obama back in 2007 but never passed.
In his speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library And Museum in Austin, Holder will call for election systems “that are free from fraud, discrimination, and partisan influence” and will say that protecting the right to vote and combating discrimination “must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but as a moral imperative.” Holder’s speech also offers a challenge:
As concerns about the protection of this right and the integrity of our election systems become an increasingly prominent part of our national dialogue – we must consider some important questions. It is time to ask: what kind of nation – and what kind of people – do we want to be? Are we willing to allow this era – our era – to be remembered as the age when our nation’s proud tradition of expanding the franchise ended? Are we willing to allow this time – our time – to be recorded in history as the age when the long-held belief that, in this country, every citizen has the chance – and the right – to help shape their government, became a relic of our past, instead of a guidepost for our future? Holder will say the country had seen “all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping people away from the polls – from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot,” according to his prepared remarks. His speech cites several instances of suppressive tactics being deployed in recent years — misleading fliers distributed in Milwaulkee in 2004, mailings to mostly Latino voters in California in 2006 and a 2010 suppression campaign involving anonymous robocalls telling mostly African-American voters to “relax” because their candidate had won.
Referring back to his early days as a line prosecutor at DOJ, Holder dismissed those who believe making it easier for people to register to vote will lead to more voter fraud.
“Let me be clear: voter fraud is not acceptable – and will not be tolerated by this Justice Department,” Holder will say. “But as I learned early in my career – as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, where I actually investigated and prosecuted voting-fraud cases – making voter registration easier is simply not likely, by itself, to make our elections more susceptible to fraud. Indeed, those on all sides of this debate have acknowledged that in-person voting fraud is uncommon. We must be honest about this.”
He added that ensuring the integrity of election systems “depends on whether the American people are informed, engaged, and willing to demand common sense solutions” that can make it easier to vote.
Politicians, he’ll say, “may not readily alter the very systems under which they were elected. Only we, the people, can bring about meaningful change.”