Advocates Identify Voter Registration System as Nation's Biggest Election Problem
by Project Vote, Thu Mar 26, 2009 at 01:44:45 PM EDT
Despite reports of voter registration barriers, voter intimidation, and non-compliance with voting rights law in recent elections, it appears that state legislatures and Congress are not actively focusing on the real issues in election administration. Considering the current economic state, almost the only attention that election reform is getting is through messy, partisan fueled debates to require photo voter ID on the state level--a fight that, just last week, quietly brought Utah to the list of eight other states that go beyond the Help America Vote Act in voter ID requirements. In recent Congressional hearings regarding voter registration and other election issues experienced in 2008, a number of groups have expressed their concerns with the current voting system and its impact on voters.
Last week, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund was one of several civil rights advocates to detail violations of federal election law and other systemic voting barriers in U.S. elections before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil liberties.
"In the 2008 elections, Asian Americans faced an array of barriers that prevented them from exercising their right to vote," said AALDEF executive director Margaret Fung in a recent press release.
The group outlined incidents of "anti-Asian voter disenfranchisement from 52 cities across the country" in their report, Asian American Access to Democracy in the 2008 Elections, including language assistance barriers, "rude, hostile" poll workers, denial of provisional ballots, overzealous voter ID requests, and perhaps the biggest issue of all, mishandled or faultily processed voter registrations that ultimately lead to some voters being turned away from the polls.
"Voting rights enforcement and election reform should be top priorities for Congress and the new Administration," Fung said. Before the House subcommittee, AALDEF recommended legislation to allow for automatic voter registration or "Universal Voter Registration," a recurring theme in recent weeks as at least two major news publications called on Congress to revamp the registration system following Congressional hearings in recent weeks.
Last year, millions of people could not vote for the nation's president as a result of voter registration problems, many of which were "through no fault of their own," according to a Washington Post editorial last week. Among the voting rights victims were "a man whose name was mistakenly confused with that of an ineligible convicted felon; a woman whose registration was never turned in by a third-party registration organization; a serviceman who was moved from base to base and couldn't meet the deadline to register" and many more "never received the absentee ballots they requested."
The Post lays blame on the "antiquated way voters are registered. Congress must work with the states to fix the problems that end up disenfranchising far too many citizens."
The New York Times also pressed on Congress to "finally deliver on its promise of electoral reform" after eight years of "serious flaws" in the voting system. The Times joined the Post, AALDEF, and other groups in expressing concern over voter registration administration, which left as many as nine million eligible voter registrants off the rolls, due to "a variety of hurdles, including missed deadlines or changes in residence."
"One of the main reasons voting is in such bad shape is that the states have far too much leeway in running elections, ranging from what ID they require to the number of polling places they open and the allocation of voting machines, which has a big impact on how long the lines are on Election Day," the Times wrote. "Registering to vote and casting ballots in federal elections are federal acts, which should be governed by uniform national standards."
Both the Post and the Times go further to suggest that the "onus for registration" should be shifted from the voter to the state "to build a permanent roster" of voters, thereby streamlining the voter registration process and theoretically increasing voter participation while reducing voter disenfranchisement due to systemic issues such as missed deadlines and address changes. This can be achieved, they suggest, by identifying eligible voters through motor vehicle lists or tax records. In the past, other groups, such as FairVote have suggested that drawing from offices of vital statistics would also be a step towards automatic voter registration, and could potentially capture a larger pool of eligible voters beyond those who have the resources to obtain driver's licenses or to independently file taxes.
The need for government to take a more active role in compiling and maintaining accurate voter lists was reiterated at today's House Administration Subcommittee on Elections hearing. George Gilbert, Director of the Guilford County Board of Elections in North Carolina, put the question before the committee: "Is voting a right of citizenship? And if it is, does the government have a greater responsibility to partner with its citizens in guaranteeing that right? No matter how many barriers to registration we remove, or how we improve our registration process, we are going to continue to disenfranchise voters if citizen-initiated pre-registration is required....If the objective is to enable eligible citizens to vote...the states must assume a more active role in identifying eligible voters and enabling their right to vote."
Arturo Vargas, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, also testified today about the issues facing American voters, particularly Latino Americans and new citizens. His recommendations to the committee included the need for states to undertake "vigorous efforts" to provide basic information to voters, including language assistance and online resources for verifying voting status; a reexamination of the ways states process voter registrations and maintain their voter lists; stronger DOJ enforcement of federal laws (including the VRA, HAVA, and NVRA); and halting the states' "alarming proliferation" of additional proof-of-citizenship restrictions and voter-ID requirements beyond what are already called for in HAVA. "Restrictive voter ID requirements," Mr. Vargas testified, "create new obstacles for Latino participation in the electoral process...and also impose significant burdens on voters, particularly the elderly, the poor, or people living in rural areas." (Read written testimony submitted by Project Vote here, and the testimony of Mr. Vargas' and other witnesses from today's hearing here.)
Other issues discussed in today's hearing included Same-Day Registration and Election-Day Registration--which Gilbert called an "important safety net for the voters we miss in the process"--and revamping registration to accommodate the needs of America's highly mobile population. A few state lawmakers are pushing bills to revamp the voter registration system in a variety of related ways. In Connecticut, for example, a measure to permit Election Day Registration, HB 6435, was reported favorably by committee and filed with the Legislative Commissioner's Office. Same Day Registration is currently practiced by about 10 states, all of which show a voter turnout rate that is 10-12 percentage points above the national average, according to research and advocacy group, Demos. New York introduced two bills this week that would help alleviate other voter registration issues that affect highly mobile voters who are often hurt by voter registration deadlines and faulty registration processing procedures. Assembly Bill A 7011 would require Boards of Elections to transfer a voter's registration status wherever they move in within the state while Assembly Bill 6971 would help expand the likelihood of a provisional ballot being counted by allowing voters to cast such ballots within their county of residence rather than precinct. It is unclear at this time if any of these bills are viable in their respective legislatures.
While restrictive voter-ID laws are based on a fear of fraudulent voting undermining the system, there is almost no evidence to justify these concerns. The evidence provided in these Congressional hearings, on the other hand, shows that flaws in the system pose a significant threat to the participation of eligible voters. This should resonate with lawmakers on the state level who continue to focus their election reform agendas on the voter--via voter-ID--rather than on the voting system at large. While the Post reports these Congressional hearings are "just a start in laying out the issues," both Congress and the states should adhere to their responsibility to carefully facilitate and protect our rights as Americans.
To monitor voter registration, provisional voting, and related legislation, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.
Tags: administration, Congress, disenfranchisement, election day registration, election reform, intimidation, suppression, Universal Voter Registration, voter id, voter registration, Voting Rights (all tags)