Voter Registration Access Under Attack in Texas

Over the last several years, Texas has received extensive attention for its partisan-driven efforts to limit access to the democratic process. This year is no different in the Red state that features a Legislature that is fiercely pushing a controversial photo voter ID law and a voter ID-supportive governor who is also a rumored presidential hopeful. But Texas’ assault on democracy doesn’t just begin with voter ID, it starts with voter registration and the groups that facilitate voter registration between the citizen and the government.

Across the nation, an estimated 28 million citizens rely on community-based voter registration drives to register to vote for the first time or update their registration whenever they move.

According to the 2008 Current Population Survey, nine million citizens reported having registered through a “voter registration drive.” But, “This likely seriously undercounts the total impact of voter registration drives, however, as 9.4 million citizens…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,” wrote Doug Hess and Jody Herman in Project Vote report, Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate.

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

A number of these citizens are likely underrepresented young and low-income citizens who move more frequently and are required to update their registration more regularly.

However, since 2008, voter registration drives have been placed under an unprecedented amount of scrutiny and restriction that appears to be less about preventing voter registration fraud and more about simply erasing these drives—that millions of Americans rely upon—from existence.

Currently, the Texas House is considering overwrought, unsound bills that would do more harm than good. Rather than focusing on regulating the quality of registration cards submitted to the registrar, these bills focus on the community organization’s employment standards.

House bills 239, 1269, and 1270 would put onerous government regulations on voter registration drives’ ability to manage their own employees in the hiring and firing process. Poorly drafted, HB 239 attempts to prevent an employer from terminating an employee that fails to maintain a minimum standard of performance. In this case, it attempts to make it a felony to fire an employee because the employee does not collect a minimum number of applications. However, since that minimum could be one, the bill in effect requires an employer to continue to pay an employee who is so incompetent that he could not collect one application during a six-hour shift.

Unlike a reasonable rule to eliminate paying canvassers per application to prevent fraudulent activity,HB 239 stops employers from setting basic standards to ensure basic productivity. Further, the bill appears to give dishonest employees legal leverage: by making it a felony to fire an employee for not meeting standards, the government will be making it more difficult to fire any employee, even one suspected of fraud.

Adding to the counterproductive regulations on voter registration drives, HB 1269 and HB 1270 put arbitrary restrictions on who may be a deputy registrar, requiring them to be registered Texas residents, for example. These types of measures restrict the employee pool to the state of Texas only. For national groups that run these drives, this means the best workers in the country cannot be considered, debilitating the effectiveness of a drive.

None of these bills result in substantial benefits to the government that cannot be attained through cooperation with voter registration groups and the application of current laws. Applications submitted by voter registration drives are no more problematic than those from other sources: for example, rejection rates of applications submitted by Motor Vehicle Departments, Public Assistance Agencies, and other sources are often as high or higher than rejection rates from voter registration drives.

House Bills 239, 1269, and 1270 are unwise and counterproductive exercises of the legislative process. They should be soundly defeated, and then a serious dialogue about how to ensure honest and effective voter registration drives can begin.

Court Rules that New Mexico is in Violation of Federal Voter Registration Law

Voting rights groups scored a major victory in their efforts to bring the State of New Mexico into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) when a judge ruled that the state Human Services Division is violating the NVRA through their policy of only offering the opportunity to register to vote to clients who explicitly request to do so.

Yesterday’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of voting rights groups against New Mexico’s Human Services Division (HSD) and Secretary of State Mary Herrera, which cited clear evidence that New Mexico public assistance offices are violating their federally mandated responsibility to offer tens of thousands of New Mexicans each year the opportunity to register to vote. The plaintiff is represented by voting rights groups Project Vote, Dēmos, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), as well as by the law firm of DLA Piper U.S.

Section 7 of the NVRA requires that public assistance agencies give clients a voter registration application with every application for benefits, recertification, and change of address. New Mexico policy, however, has been to give voter registration application forms to only those clients who explicitly request them, a practice that plaintiff maintains is in violation of the NVRA.

Yesterday, United States District Judge Judith Herrera agreed and the court held that “Section 7 does not make the provision of a voter registration application contingent upon an affirmative request,” meaning that the State’s current policy is a violation of the law.

“This is a huge victory for NVRA enforcement, not just in New Mexico, but all across the country,” said Project Vote’s Director of Public Agency Voter Registration, Nicole Zeitler. “Agencies must give out a voter registration application form to everyone who applies for benefits, recertifies, or changes address. Federal law requires it, the Department of Justice has confirmed it, and now the federal courts are ordering it.”

The voting rights groups are hailing this as the first legal ruling on the issue of whether clients must “opt in” to be offered the opportunity to register to vote. “This should be a wake-up call to other states whose agencies are still refusing to give out voter registration applications unless the client specifically asks for it,” says Zeitler.

The voting rights advocates won on all fronts in yesterday’s ruling. Not only did the court grant plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment, but it also denied both HSD’s and the Secretary of State’s motions for summary judgment. In denying HSD’s motion, the court pointed to plaintiff’s allegations of years of widespread non-compliance, noting that “the Court cannot say as a matter of law that HSD has demonstrated that it has the tools in place to be compliant in the future without an injunction and Court monitoring.”

“The Court hit on the exact reasons why we brought this case in the first place,” says Robert Kengle, Acting Co-Director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “New Mexico’s public assistance offices have been out of compliance with the NVRA for years, and nothing short of comprehensive reform, ordered and monitored by the court, will repair the damage that has been done to the voting rights of low-income New Mexicans.”

In another important decision, the District Court rejected Secretary of State Herrera’s claim that her office is not responsible for ensuring compliance with the NVRA in New Mexico. Relying on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Harkless v. Brunneran NVRA lawsuit filed by the same voting rights groups in Ohio, Judge Herrera agreed with the Sixth Circuit that “each state’s chief election official is responsible for NVRA state compliance,” and that therefore “Defendant Herrera has the obligation to prescribe the actions that the state, including HSD offices, must take to comply with Section 7.”

 

“Courts now have repeatedly confirmed that state election officials must take responsibility for ensuring that low-income voters receive the voter registration opportunities required by federal law,” said Demos’ Counsel Allegra Chapman. “This decision should encourage chief election officials throughout the country to examine agency practices on voter registration, and take corrective action when needed.”

The coalition of voting rights groups has been advocating for enforcement of the NVRA in several states, and settled a related claim against New Mexico’s Motor Vehicles Division in July of this year. Following the groups’ successful lawsuit in Missouri in 2008, voter registration applications submitted at the state’s public assistance offices skyrocketed from fewer than 8,000 a year to more than 130,000 a year. More than 200,000 clients have applied to become registered voters in Ohio after a similar lawsuit was settled in that state last year.

The groups estimate that proper implementation nationwide of the NVRA’s public assistance provisions could result in 2-3 million additional registrations per year.

 

Newly Elected Minnesota Legislators Announce Intent to make Voting More Difficult

Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters

Minnesota has some of the most progressive voter registration laws in the country, laws like same day registration and vouching, that are designed to maximize turnout and get as many voices as possible heard on Election Day. Some newly elected members of the Minnesota state legislature, however, have recently announced that they intend to repeal those laws as soon as they take office. These laws, they claim, leave the state vulnerable to voter fraud, so vulnerable they apparently must be repealed immediately, despite their obvious benefits.

Like Don Quixote charging at windmills, believing them to be monsters, these state legislators are gearing up to fight imaginary threats. Voter fraud, contrary to the media perception, is incredibly rare. According to a study by the nonpartisan group Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, only twenty-six people were convicted of voter fraud in Minnesota in 2008, all of them convicted felons who are restricted from voting. In other words, less than nine-ten thousandths of one percent of Minnesota voters (.0009 percent), were convicted of voter fraud in 2008. At the national level, a report by Dr. Lorraine Minnite, director of research at Project Vote and former assistant professor of American and urban politics at Barnard College, found that only 24 people were convicted of voter fraud between 2002 and 2005.

So, these state legislatures are trying to repeal laws that make it easier for all Minnesotans to vote, on the off-chance that repealing those laws might discourage some twenty-odd convicted felons from showing up on Election Day. Certainly, what little voter fraud there is should be prevented, but not at the cost of repealing laws that provide tremendous benefits to legitimate voters. In 2004, the six states with same day registration had turnout rates almost 12 percent above the national average, but the newly elected Minnesota legislators are more worried about the two dozen felons who might be voting illegally, than the thousands of legitimate voters who may be prevented from voting at all if these laws are repealed.

If the state legislatures want to fix elections in this country, if they want to protect the sanctity of the democratic process, they should not be focused on the .00009 percent of ineligible citizens who vote illegally--oftentimes unknowingly--due to criminal convictions. Instead, they should focus on reforming current law to allow non-incarcerated felons to automatically regain their right to vote and the 50-plus percent of eligible voters who did not even cast a ballot on Election Day, finding ways to increase turnout, not lower it.

Anthony Balady is a legal intern at Project Vote and second-year   student at William & Mary Law School. Mr. Balady also serves as vice   president of William & Mary’s Election Law Society and   editor-in-chief of its election law blog, State of Elections.

Voter Groups Go to Court to Fight for Voting Rights of High School Students in New Jersey

TRENTON--The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Project Vote, and the Fair Elections Legal Network submitted a brief seeking to ensure that the Department of Education fulfill a 25-year-old mandate to protect the voting rights of private, charter, and public school students, which the DOE has thus-far failed to meet.

“It is appalling that 25 years after the High School Voter Registration Law was issued, there are still no regulations on the books protecting the rights of private and charter school students under the law, and only the most minimal of protections for district public school students,” said Ed Barocas, the ACLU-NJ legal director.

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Restrictive Voter Registration Law Struck Down in Arizona

A notoriously restrictive voter registration law was struck down in Arizona today after the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued its long-awaited decision in Gonzales v. Arizona. And it was worth the wait.

By a 2-1 vote (the majority included retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), the court struck down Arizona’s documentary proof of citizenship requirement for all new voter registrants because it is superseded by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Project Vote is a plaintiff in this case.

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