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.

N.H. Republicans Don’t Think Young People Should Vote

Young people "lack life experience," are "foolish," vote "as a liberal," and "just vote their feelings," apparently, all reasons to shut down or limit their access to democratic participation. At least, that's what New Hampshire state House Speaker William O'Brien seems to think, causing partisans like him to take matters to the Legislature.

Yesterday, Washington Post writer Peter Wallsten wrote on Speaker O'Brien's YouTubed speech to a N.H. tea party group, linking his views to the state Republicans' assault on young people's access to the ballot. Among the measures under consideration are HB 176, a bill to "permit students to vote in their college towns only if they or their parents had previously established permanent residency there," and HB 223, a bill to end the state's Election Day Registration policy, a policy that is known to increase overall voter turnout, especially among young people.

The House Election Law committee is scheduled to hear both bills today.

New Hampshire is not the only state to challenge voters' access to the ballot. More states are introducing and advancing anti-EDR, voter ID, and proof-of-citizenship bills. All are based around alarmist notions of election problems, particularly the unsubstantiated threat of voter fraud.

So, why are voters being punished with more red tape when there’s no actual proof that the “problem” with elections lies with the voter?

"It's true that without the participation of many, power will consolidate into the hands of the few," writes Rock the Vote executive director, Heather Smith at the Huffington Post yesterday. "The inverse is also true: When many participate, it threatens those in power."

Doug Chapin of the Pew Center on the States tells Wallsten that "Election policy debates like photo ID and same-day registration have become so fierce around the country because they are founded more on passionate belief than proven fact. One side is convinced fraud is rampant; the other believes that disenfranchisement is widespread,” he says.

Precious time and resources are being wasted over partisan-slanted perceptions of what is wrong with the administration of elections. The real offense is that only 71 percent of eligible citizens are actually registered to vote, and therefore able to cast a ballot. Adding more restrictions, or further limiting access to the franchise by enacting these partisan-driven policies only hurts democracy.

"Every four years when our country is focused on a Presidential election, there are obligatory stories written expressing outrage about flaws in our voting system," Smith writes. "Why aren't we automatically registered? Why is it so hard to register and why can't we use new technologies to make it easier? Why are certain groups of people being intimidated at the polls? Who is really cheating? What in the world is a hanging chad?"

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Officials Dispute Need for Voter ID in Their States

Since the 2010 midterm elections and the Republican takeover of several state houses, the fight to enact controversial photo voter ID bills has dominated legislative debates that would otherwise be devoted to tacking swelling state deficits. This week alone, WisconsinKansasTennesseeMissouri, andMinnesota made headlines for this contentious issue. Now, municipal officials, an election clerk, and voting rights advocates weigh in on what these bills really mean to voters and their states at large.

State policymakers; take notice of what they have to say.

In Wisconsin, there is an apparent movement among municipal council members across the state to denounce the Legislature’s intent to enact a strict photo ID law that can be costly to the state and discriminatory to voters.

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Common Council voted 8-1 to oppose state voter ID legislation, urging the Legislature to expand the list of acceptable forms of ID, among other provisions.

"This is a bad bill, and it will disenfranchise people - a lot of people," Ald. Ashanti Hamilton said in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report. "For us not to take a position in opposition to it would be irresponsible."

Appleton Ald. Kole Oswald is trying to get municipal leaders across Wisconsin to show state policymakers that they want "no part of a proposal requiring residents to show identification before voting."

"I think this is definitely a city issue because the costs and consequences passed down from Madison will trickle down to us," Oswald said. "The state needs to listen to the clerk's offices from different municipalities and make sure their voices are being heard."

Oswald, who planned to debate his resolution today during the city's Finance and Administration Committee meeting, questions state policy makers’ motives in passing a voter ID law during an economic crisis, according to anAppleton Post Crescent report.

"Their platform was jobs and economic growth and cutting spending," he said. "Where is the public outcry for a photo ID law? Where is the public outcry to end same-day registration? This does not seem to be a citizen-driven process."

Partisan operatives have drilled fear of voter fraud into the public consciousness to gain support for regressive voter ID laws by making voters believe that their votes are overridden by a legion of voter impersonators. However, the Post Crescent reports that out of 2.99 million votes cast in 2008, 20 people were charged with illegal voting in the state and “more than half of the cases involved felons who were ineligible to vote,” two “were people who each voted twice,” and “one of them obtained an absentee ballot in his late wife’s name.”

A photo ID would not have prevented any of these alleged instances of illegal voting.

The voter fraud scare was exploited once again this week by Kansas by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who claims voter fraud is more widespread than he thought. Kobach’s claims even captured the attention of a Harvey County clerk who contradictorily “likes” the law that he supports, but says widespread voter fraud is not an issue in her county.

The clerk, Joyce Truskett says in the five years that she has administered elections, she has found three cases of illegal voting. "Out of 20,000 voters, I'll take that," she said in a recent Newton Kansan report. It was unclear if these cases involved voter impersonation, the only type of illegal voting that a voter ID would prevent.

Kobach claims that there are 59 reports of irregularities involving 221 ballots since 1997, double the amount from a 2008 report. However, Kansas NAACP President Kevin Myles disputes these statistics.

“Even if this is true, it's a very small amount when you take into account that approximately 10 million votes have been cast during that time period,” according to a KWCH-TV report. He adds that of the 221 cases, only two would actually be detected by the proposed measure.

Even though Truskett says there is no issue with fraud, she approves of the bill and claims a voter ID law, which is estimated to cost at least $60,000, will not be difficult to implement for election administrators. But, she warns, “unless our courts are willing to prosecute, it doesn’t do any good. The courts are very busy, and they have lots of other fish to fry."

Minnesota Republicans’ Efforts to Pass Voter ID Don’t Compute

Today, members of the Minnesota House will hear two controversial bills that could cost the state millions and hamper voter access in a state that is renowned for progressive election policy.

Minnesota has long boasted above-average voter turnout, thanks, in part, to a decades-old policy that permits eligible citizens to register and vote on Election Day with a zero-rate of voter fraud. Despite lacking evidence of pervasive voter impersonation issues (as well as lacking available funding), state lawmakers are intent on changing the rules governing Election Day Registration and adding a requirement for all voters to present photographic proof of identity before voting.

“An effective, full-scale voter ID program can easily end up costing state taxpayers $20 million or more – the three-year price tag officials estimated in 2010 for a program in Missouri,” wrote Chris Kromm of the Institute for Southern Studies. “For most states, such a costly program would be a suspect luxury in ordinary times; it’s nearly impossible to justify it in today’s economic crisis.”

Kromm’s article delves into the cost of implementation, education of poll workers and the public, and free ID for those who cannot afford it, all proposed in House bills 89 and 210.

“This proposal is simply an attempt to manipulate the voting process for political purposes to address an issue which is not a major problem in Minnesota,” editorialized the Willmar, Minn. publication,West Central Tribune last week. “Minnesota should be encouraging voters to participate in the voting process, not making it harder and more difficult to vote.”

The Tribune noted that one of the House bills’ supporters, Rep. Bruce “Vogel could not cite any voter problem in west central Minnesota in justifying his support for the bill” when it was introduced in late January. “Yet he claims that the significant cost of this proposed voter ID bill is justified.”

But, to “solve a minimal problem in Minnesota” for a price of $20 million, the Tribune says, “this bill proposal simply does not compute.”

The House Bill 210 would also put an end to “vouching” for your neighbor to prove their residency when registering to vote on Election Day, one of many ways Minnesotans are able to be part of the democratic process up until the day of an election.

“Minnesota’s inclusive election policies have helped to build a strong culture of civic participation across the state,” says Project Vote’s Jennifer Jacquot-Devries, a Minnesota resident. “Enacting the proposed photo ID bill will only make voting more difficult for the very citizens we should be working to engage and empower.”

 

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.

Fear Tactics Used to Promote Voter Suppression in 2011

This week, newly elected Republicans took office in several states, many of whom have big plans for the future of voting rights. Unfortunately, as we blogged and reported last month, these changes have little to do with actually assessing and improving state of elections. In fact, many of these officials used anti-immigration and voter fraud fear tactics to win their seats, and now are threatening to restrict access to the ballot via legislation or state ballot before 2012 elections.

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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.

Non-Voters Were the Majority in 2010, Says New Study

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

"It is fair to say that 2010 was the year of older, rich people." That's the conclusion of a new research memo from Project Vote, "An Analysis of Who Voted (and Who Didn’t Vote) in the 2010 Election," by Dr. Lorraine Minnite. It finds that wealthier voters and Americans over the age of 65 surged to the polls in 2010, and increased their support for the Republican party, while young voters and minority voters (who strongly favor Democrats) dropped off at higher rates than in 2006.

Two years ago, African-Americans, lower-income Americans, and young Americans all participated in the 2008 presidential election in decisive numbers, making it the most diverse electorate in history. In 2010, however, these historically underrepresented groups were underrepresented again, as they (in common with most Americans) largely stayed home. Non-voters were the majority in 2010, a fact that "throws cold water on any victor’s claims for a mandate."

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Debunking the Tea Party’s Election Night Message

Experts are predicting major Democrat losses in 2010’s midterm elections, and pundits are already saying that this year’s unusually competitive cycle is a referendum on the size and reach of government in a year dominated by Tea Party conservatives.

There is little doubt that the electoral groups that in 2008 embraced Barack Obama’s message of “hope, action and change” and brought Democratic control to Washington are less engaged and less likely to vote in a similar manner in 2010.

Yet many of the features of this year’s election, from the drop-off in voter turnout, to swings in political representation, and the uptick in activity by partisan idealists, are predictable outcomes that have distinguished midterm from presidential election cycles in recent years.

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