WASHINGTON - There's a new battle looming between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. capital, and this one doesn't have to do with guns, immigration or debt reduction — it's about voting rights.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders want to make voting easier for Americans as several recent studies suggest long lineups at ballot boxes and onerous voter registration procedures cost the Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes in November — particularly among African-Americans and Hispanics.
Obama has been signalling his intentions since election night, when he made mention of the long queues to vote and intoned: "We have to fix that." He reiterated that sentiment in his second inaugural address two weeks ago.
"Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote," said Obama, a one-time community organizer who once helped register impoverished Chicago voters.
The president's State of the Union address next week is also expected to address the issue.
Congressional Democrats are behind him. They've already tabled bills that would require states to provide online voter registration and provide for at least 15 days of early voting. Those bills aren't likely to pass, however, given Republicans control the House of Representatives.
Nonetheless several states are currently considering expanding early voting, including the critical battlegrounds of Ohio, Virginia and Florida. The Sunshine State was particularly plagued with problems on Nov. 6, when some voters in minority neighbourhoods waited as long as six hours to cast their ballots.
In a report released Monday, Florida secretary of state Ken Detzner recommended early voting days and locations.
“I can confidently say Florida conducted a fair election in 2012. But I am just as confident we can improve upon the election, because every election can be improved upon,” Detzner, a Republican, said in his report.
Voting rights are in the national spotlight just as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, legislation that was passed at the height of the civil rights movement to prevent African-Americans from being denied the right to vote in the South.
Officials in Shelby County, in Alabama, say some of the act's provisions unfairly burden them by requiring them to get federal approval before making any changes to their elections procedures.
Civil liberties watchdogs point out those changes often include stricter voter ID requirements that can serve to disenfranchise minorities and the poor — many of them Democratic voters.
The Voting Rights Act requirement, known as Section 5, applies to all or part of 16 states, including Alabama, that have a history of civil rights abuses at the ballot box. A number of civil rights groups will be at the Supreme Court on Feb. 27 to argue against Shelby County's arguments.
Two Republicans congressmen — Wisconsin's James Sensenbrenner and Ohio's Steve Chabot — recently joined several of their Democratic colleagues in a brief urging the Supreme Court not to tinker with the Voting Rights Act.
"This record shows Section 5 not only worked to correct past injustices, but is unmistakably central to the continued protection of minorities’ right to vote in covered districts," Sensenbrenner said in a statement.
"I am proud of this law, and join my colleagues in ardently defending its constitutionality.”
But many on the far right of the Republican party are dead-set against any efforts to modernize voter registration. At a recent Heritage Foundation panel in the U.S. capital, moderator Hans von Spakovsky decried calls by some voting rights advocates to implement universal voter registration, saying it will invite "fraud" and permit non-citizens to vote.
Despite Republican claims to the contrary, there's scant evidence that voter fraud is a chronic problem in the United States, although Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach told the panel that “aliens” stealing votes and invading voter lists was a pervasive, genuine problem.
Republicans have also been griping in recent weeks about the electoral college, the controversial institution that officially elects the president and the vice-president every four years.
When voters go to the polls on election day in the U.S., they choose which candidate receives their state's "electors," and the electors then select the president and his No. 2.
The electoral college has occasionally permitted a candidate who received fewer popular votes to win the election, most recently George W. Bush in 2000.
Nonetheless, 13 years and two crushing electoral defeats later, some Republicans have apparently had enough of the current-day electoral college.
Republican proposals in states that include Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania would see electoral college votes assigned based on the winners of congressional districts, a setup that benefits Republicans.
If the system had been in place in Virginia in November, for example, Republican Mitt Romney would have won nine of 13 electoral votes, even while losing the state by 150,000 votes.
Reince Preibus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, threw his support behind those proposals recently, even though Virginia Republicans killed a package of such initiatives last week.
A new plan now being considered by Pennsylvania Republicans would see electoral votes distributed based on the percentage of the vote received by the contenders.
Obama, who won 52 per cent of the state's popular vote in November, would have received only 11 or 12 electoral votes under that plan, while Romney would have snagged eight or nine.