"This most basic right of all is the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country is in large measure the history of expansion of the right to all of our people."
President Johnson delivered these words in his eloquent speech to the full Congress on March 15, 1965, a week after African Americans were attacked while preparing to march to Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination. On August 6, 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, empowering millions of Americans to fully participate in our democracy.
The progress made possible by the Voting Rights Act is undeniable. Literacy tests, poll taxes and other obstacles used at the time which excluded millions of eligible voters are a thing of the past. In 2012, we saw record turnout by African American and Latino voters. We elected a record number of Asian Americans to Congress, and nearly 10 million more women than men reported casting a vote. That's progress.
But as we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we still have work to do. Voting rights are once again under attack.
Hundreds of bills have been introduced in dozens of states to make it harder for citizens to cast ballots including aggressive purging of voter rolls, unfair voter ID requirements and the reduction or elimination of early voting. These measures disproportionately impact the same communities that the Voting Rights Act sought to protect.
We must remain committed to not just defending but advancing voting rights. That begins with registering far more citizens and providing them a ballot.
The California State Senate is currently considering a bill I am sponsoring that would automatically register California citizens when they obtain or renew a driver's license - a measure inspired by a law recently enacted by the state of Oregon.
Automatic registration uses technology to build on the federal motor voter law. Allowing for the systematic registration of eligible voters will make our voter rolls more accurate. When passed, this measure could add more than 6 million new voters to the rolls. This would build on the success of our online voter registration efforts and the opportunity for individuals to register to vote when applying for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
We are also working to give voters greater options of when, where, and how they cast their ballot. Earlier this year, I led a delegation to Denver to observe firsthand Colorado's successful vote center model. I have sponsored legislation in the California State Assembly that would modernize voting by implementing the Colorado model here in California.
The benefits would be dramatic. Every voter would be sent a ballot in the mail and have the option of mailing it in, or of taking it to a voting center. At voting centers you would be able to drop it off at a curbside drop-off station, place it in a 24-hour ballot drop-off box, or go inside the vote center and place it in a ballot box. Vote centers would be located throughout the county and voters would have the flexibility of returning their ballot at any vote center in their county. And, you would be provided 10 days of early voting. This would allow voting to fit more easily into our daily lives.
Perhaps it's more convenient to cast your vote near where you work, or where your kids go to school, or near where you shop. It is my goal to make voting more accessible and convenient and increase voter turnout. It worked in Colorado, and I believe it can work here in California as well.
Automatic registration, providing every registered voter a ballot, and providing a variety of convenient option for when, where and how you vote, will open wide the doors of our democracy and increase voter participation.
As we celebrate the gains realized 50 years ago with the signing of the Voting Rights Act, let us also look to a future where voting rights will be both defended and expanded.
Originally posted on the Huffington Post.