Shifting the Focus to Improving Voter Registration Access, Not Inhibiting It

In a democracy that can only boast that 71 percent of its citizens are registered and able to exercise their civic duty in any given election, access to the franchise is crucial.  For decades, millions of citizens have relied on either voter registration drives or government agencies to help them get on the voter rolls. Today, however, private voter registration drives are under attack, while some states are ignoring their responsibilities to reach unregistered citizens. If community-based drives are prevented from helping Americans get registered, and government agencies won’t help them, then who will?

In several states, elected officials and partisan groups are intent on stifling the proven effectiveness of voter registration drives run by private individuals and organizations. Despite the partisan-spun “scandals” that come with third-party voter registration drives, they are undeniably effective in reaching large portions of the population.

“According to the 2008 CPS, nearly 9 million citizens [or 8 percent] reported having registered ‘at a voter registration drive,’” wrote Doug Hess and Jody Herman in Project Vote report, Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate. “This likely seriously undercounts the total impact of voter registration drives, however, as 9.4 million citizens (another 8 percent) reported that they registered ‘at a school, hospital, or on campus’—all locations where voter registration drives are often conducted by civic organizations and student groups.”

Another 9.7 million registered to vote through mail-in voter registration applications, many of whom presumably received these applications from voter drives or organizations that distributed the forms through the postal or electronic mail.

Voter registration drives are protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment, as well as provisions under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (which directly protects and encourages community-run voter registration drives as the law’s primary purpose is to ensure more citizens are registered to vote). Yet lawmakers and election officials in states like Nevada are looking to regulate and criminalize voter registration drives so thoroughly, that they can create a “chilling effect on community-based voter registration, causing many organizations to curtail or cease their voter registration efforts.”

Other states are introducing regressive bills to halt otherwise effective means of registering voters. The opportunity to register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time, or Election Day Registration, is available in nine states, most of which exhibit above-average voter participation rates.  Republican-backed efforts to do away with EDR are reportedly underway in Montana, New Hampshire, andWisconsin.

Perhaps the most noncontroversial and effective way to reach large numbers of historically underrepresented, low-income citizens lies in Section 7 of the NVRA, but nationwide compliance with this law is inconsistent.  The NVRA requires public assistance agencies that provide services to low-income residents to offer voter registration services to their clients. However, in states like Louisiana, voter registration cards collected at these agencies have declined by as much as 88 percent since implementation in 1995.

On Wednesday, Project Vote, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson put Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler on notice for voting rights violations in the state.

The groups called on Schedler, the Dept. of Children and Family Services, and Dept. of Health and Hospitals, to take corrective action necessary to bring the state into compliance with the NVRA, citing evidence of the state denying numerous low-income residents of the opportunity to register to vote.

“In the past several years, lawsuits filed by Project Vote and other groups have forced other states that had been disregarding the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results,” according to the press release. “For example, applications from Missouri public assistance agencies skyrocketed, from fewer than 8,000 a year to over 130,000 a year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2008. More than 200,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there in the end of 2009.”

Voter registration is the first, key step to getting involved in the democratic process. Whether provided by community-based groups or existing state and federal laws, lawmakers should focus on improving and fostering these methods of voter registration, not obstructing or ignoring them. Every eligible citizen should have equal access to the franchise in this country, and when millions rely on voter registration drives, government agency officials, and poll clerks on Election Day to provide that opportunity, we may want to rethink our approach to “fixing” the election system.

Pat Williams Running for Montana Governor?

I doesn't seem like it was that long ago when MyDD celebrated the Democratic Sweep in Montana that elected Brian Schweitzer Governor. But next spring will be Governor Schweitzer's last legislative session and due to term limits the seat will be open in 2012.

The great news is that former Congressman Pat Williams is considering a run for governor!

Pat Williams, like his cousin Evel Knievel, came up on the rough and tumble streets of Butte, America. But he was such a fierce advocate as a public servant that the Williams family is now widely considered to be the first family of Montana politics. After choosing not to run for re-election in 1996, he became one of the most popular professors at the University of Montana. In honoring Williams just last week, UM President George Dennison said Pat Williams, "embodies the ideals of civic engagement."

If Williams runs, it would be a very exciting race. He was famous for running bigger door-to-door campaigns than Montana had ever seen before (or has seen since). In 1992, when Montana's two congressional districts were combined into a single at-large seat, Williams beat another sitting congressman in the most legendary statewide campaign in decades. While respect for Williams runs wide across Montana, his bold progressive stances have earned him a depth of support that runs deeper than can easily be explained.

Keep an eye on this one.

UPDATE: The Montana blog 4&20 Blackbirds says:

Like Pogie, all I need to know is “Where can I donate? Where do I sign up to volunteer?”

Indeed.

UPDATE II: Chuck Johnson got him on record:

"My phone's been ringing again, really for a year, but especially since the story on the Internet," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm honored that this is the third time that Montanans have generously asked me to run for governor. If I ran, I'm convinced that I'd win the primary by a good margin and then the general by a smaller but safe margin.

"I'm 72 years old, and I am more knowledgeable and wiser than I was at my so-called prime at 35. The other thing I know is that there will be a lot of good candidate on both sides, Republican and Democratic, but I will not be one of them."

Montana Repubs attack firefighters - again

Just saw on MSNBC that Rep. Danny Rehberg is attacking Montana forest firefighters for burning trees on his property. The sub for Ratigan rightly criticized Rehberg's greed and praised heroic firefighters, but didn't point out that this is par the course for Montana Repubs. Then-Senator Conrad Burns called firefighters lazy in 2006 - and lost to Jon Tester, giving Dems control of the Senate. From Butte's KXLF:

The lawsuit filed last Friday contends property and equipment was damaged at Rehberg Ranch Estates because the fire department breached its duty during a wildfire. The July 2008 fire burned more than 1,100 acres in the subdivision just north of the Billings Rimrocks.

Monday Democratic Congressional nominee Dennis McDonald said Rehberg's lawsuit will have a chilling effect on fire departments and volunteer firefighters. 

"As a volunteer firefighter in Melville, I don't want to have to worry about being sued, when I'm asked to help fight a fire," said McDonald. "The Billings Fire Department and the heroes who work there should not have to worry about the Rehbergs suing them while they are putting everything they have into doing what's right," McDonald said in a campaign press release.

McDonald says Rehberg's lawsuit is reminiscent of former Senator Conrad Burns' outburst when he called firefighters lazy during the 2006 summer wildfire season.  Burns later apologized for his remarks... 

"Congressman Rehberg, who has a net worth of $63 million, is now after the citizens of Billings for another million dollars," said McDonald. McDonald says he believes the firefighters who worked the Rehberg ranch fire two years ago deserve a "thank you" not a Rehberg lawsuit.

McDonald is one of the candidates on the online ballot for Democracy For America's next round of Grassroots All-Stars. I voted for him yesterday, along with Tom White and Anne McLane Kuster, before seeing this story. I sure don't regret that vote today.

Tester website says one thing; Senate roll call says another

Originally posted at The Wayward Episcopalian.

Let me be clear: Jon Tester, Democrat from Montana, is one of my favorite politicians. This guy, an organic farmer by trade, is amazing. While interning for Montana's other senator last spring, I had the chance to meet Tester twice and watch him interact with lobbyists and other politicians. His personality, memory, and values are all exactly what you want in a United States Senator. The members of his staff whom I had occasion to work with were also professional and impressive.

But, something troubles me.

There's more...

The Rest of the West: Part 1

(Proudly cross-posted at C4O Democrats)

About 2 weeks ago, we talked about the rising Democratic tide in The Southwest. Now, I want for us to discuss what's happening in The Northwest. Believe it or not, we have plenty of opportunities up north as well.

Want to come along with me as we look at where we win in 2010 and beyond?

There's more...

Diaries

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