By Emmanuel Catalan

On March 19, 2015, members from the House of Representatives such as John Lewis, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn reintroduced The Voting Empowerment Act while Kirsten Gilibrand introduced a companion bill in the Senate.[1] In light of the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma on March 21, 2015, the President, members of Congress, and advocacy organizations deemed it imperative to amend the following laws: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Military and Overseas Empowerment Act of 1986, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002.[2] All of these bills were amended to combat against the recent efforts by individual states to roll back voters’ access to polls and registration.[3]

The Voting Empowerment Act would allow individuals to register online, which would lift constraints on time and the ability to physically get to a poll.[4] Moreover, this law mirrors the practice of ten states that allow eligible voters to register the same day of election.[5] Additionally, the law allows for individuals with felonies to vote so long as they are not serving a current felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility at the time of election.[6] Currently, over eight states, including Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa, disallow individuals who have felonies regardless of them serving in prison at the time of election, to vote.[7] In fact, out of the approximately six million potential voters who are disfranchised in the United States due to felony convictions, about a quarter of them come from Florida.[8] This bill could potentially reduce the number of disfranchised voters because of felony convictions. As long as the person completes his or her sentence, without being on parole or probation, the person automatically gets his or her voting rights restored.[9]

Finally, this bill requires all universities that receive federal funds to offer and encourage voter registration to their students.[10] This bill would also allow for citizens under eighteen years old to register so long as they reach eighteen years old prior to the next election.[11] This is helpful because it encourages more people to vote and this is one less thing that the person has to worry about because he already registered when he was sixteen.

The Voting Empowering Act of 2013, now reintroduced in 2015, falls short in a number of ways, such as reinvigorating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.[12] The new act should make a new formula under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that makes Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act effective again.[13] That being said, this bill comes along way in facilitating voters’ access to the polls. Given the recent attempts for lawmakers to roll back the clock on voting rights, it is all the more imperative for this bill to become law. But due to the current composition of the House and Senate and Congress’s inability to function as an institution, it is unlikely that this bill will pass anytime soon.

[1] House and Senate Democrats Reintroduce Comprehensive Voting Rights Bill, Congressman John Lewis Representing 5th District (Jan. 23, 2013),; see also Clyburn Co-sponsors Voter Empowerment Bill, Greenville Online (Mar. 27, 2015, 12:11 AM),

[2] Newsroom America Feed, Lewis, Hoyer, Clyburn, Conyers and Brady Reintroduce Voter Empowerment Act, Newsroom America (Mar. 19, 2015 4:49 PM)

[3] Letter from Wade Henderson, Pres. & CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to U.S. House of Representatives (Mar. 18, 2015) (on file with author).

[4] H.R. 12, 114th Cong. (2015).

[5] Election Day Voter Registration, My Time To (April 6, 2015 4:00 PM),

[6] Voter Empowerment Act of 2015, H.R. 12, 114th Cong. (2015).

[7] Map of State Criminal Disfranchisement Laws, American Civil Liberties Union (April 1, 2015 4:55 PM),

[8] Amy Sherman, Voting-rights activist says one-quarter of disenfranchised felons in U.S. live in Florida, PolitiFact Florida (Jan. 23, 2014 2:16 PM),

[9] H.R. 12, 114th Cong. (2015).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] See Voting Rights Act of 1965 § 5 (requiring covered jurisdictions pursuant to Section 4 to have their voting changes be approved by the Attorney General with a finding that the laws have no discriminatory purpose before allowing the law to be implemented).

[13] Id. § 4(b) ( Establishing a formula to identify the covered jurisdictions and to provide for more stringent remedies where appropriate) overturned by Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. (2013) (holding that the formula was unconstitutional because the coverage formula is based on data over 40 years old, making it no longer responsive to current needs and therefore an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the state).

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