Two States Question the Impact of Strict Voter ID Laws

In most states, a citizen may register and vote after establishing four critical points: citizenship, age, residency, and, in some cases, felony conviction. However, at least eight states exceed these basic requirements by also requiring voters to present valid photo ID at the polls on Election Day. Now, with the midterm elections approaching, the necessity, efficiency, and even constitutionality of voter ID laws are being questioned once again.

This week, two states—one with an established (though controversial) voter ID law, and another that expects to officially debut its law in November—are met with questions about the laws’ impact on voters.

While Georgia’s high court ponders the constitutionality of its “oft-challenged” 2005 photo voter ID law, Idaho officials are reportedly focusing on the potentially harmful logistical issues of the state’s new law before its official debut in the November election.

Idaho’s voter ID procedure was tested last month in several county elections, but not without a hitch for voters, according to theAssociated Press Monday.

“It did slow things down a little bit,” said Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst to the AP.

The new law, which was modeled after South Dakota's voter ID law, requires poll workers to verify a voter's identity with picture ID. If the voter has no picture ID, he or she is supposed to be permitted to sign an affidavit; however, in its first year of implementation, South Dakota voters complained about being turned away rather than being offered the option of signing an affidavit.

Idaho officials say they are working to avoid this problem with public announcements and billboards detailing the new law.

“It’s always a concern that people waiting in long lines will get disgruntled and walk away…The counties are concerned about it too,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to get the word out.”

But the concerns of voting rights advocate go beyond the issue of efficiency, since democracy can only be efficient if it is equally accessible.

“The primary concern is that the impact of photo ID requirements are particularly felt by elderly people, low-income people and often racial minorities,” said Project Vote Director of Advocacy Estelle Rogers in the AP report.

A 2006 survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found that as many as 21 million Americans were without valid photo identification that included current address or married name. That, coupled with the fact that there are about eight illegal votes out of millions per year, it is difficult even to justify the long lines and confusion on Election Day, let alone the potential disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

On Tuesday, Georgia’s highest court heard “a new type of legal challenge brought by the law's opponents,” according to theAssociated Press.

“Earlier efforts to block the law were filed in federal court and contended it violated voters' rights under the U.S. Constitution. But the latest case brought by the Democratic Party of Georgia claims the requirement violates the Georgia Constitution.”

In particular, the state Democratic Party asserts that Georgia residents have an “absolute right” to vote if they meet the qualifications expressed in the Georgia Constitution and have not been disqualified for the reasons set forth by the Constitution,specifically felony conviction relating to moral turpitude or the judicial determination of mental incompetence.

“Nowhere in the Georgia Constitution is the right to vote premised on the possession of an approved form of photo ID,” theappellant brief states.

Early Voting Debuts in Maryland This Week: Will it Improve Turnout?

Schedule conflicts, work commitments, and transportation issues are just a few reasons why some voters don’t show up on Election Day. To help remedy this issue, 32 states have enacted Early In-Person (EIP) voting laws, which have been overwhelmingly favored by voters. While this trend is mainly absent in the northeastern United States, Maryland is currently test-driving its new law this week, perhaps creating a precedent for surrounding states.

“It’s a little bit of variety for the voters,” said Anthony Gutierrez, director of Maryland’s Wicomico County Board of Elections in The Daily Times. The “variety” of voting options didn’t come easy to the state, which introduced early voting laws not once, but twice over the last few years.

“The state’s first Early Voting law was struck down in a state court on grounds that it violated the Maryland Constitution,” according to a new Project Vote policy paper by election counsel, Teresa James. “In response, proponents launched a statewide referendum to place a Constitutional amendment on the ballot to permit Early Voting. The Constitutional amendment passed and, with the passage of the second EIP bill, no excuse Early in Person Voting became the law of the land in Maryland in time for the 2010 elections.”

This week’s early voting period, which precedes the Sept. 14 primary, marks the first time Marylanders will be able to cast early ballots at 46 early voting centers across the state.

Before 2008, EIP was mostly used by typical voters, that is older, educated, wealthy, and white citizens, writes James, who assesses the impact of EIP on voting behavior of young, low income, and minority voters in her report. But the 2008 presidential election proved to be a pivotal time in voter participation and use of EIP among underrepresented young and minority citizens.  Overall turnout among these voters increased by as much as four percentage points since 2004. Further, Convenience Voting measures like Early In-Person and absentee voting accounted for one out of every three ballots cast in 2008.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the increased use of early voting by underrepresented populations was unique to the historic 2008 election, or if it will continue in future elections.

Despite overwhelming support from voters (72 percent voted to amend the Maryland constitution in favor of EIP in 2008), a few concerns have been expressed about the new law and its potential impact.

On Sunday, the Baltimore Sun criticized the allotment of voting centers as a “serious flaw” because “most counties have only one early-voting location,” meaning “long drives or transit rides for many voters, defeating the purpose of making voting less time-consuming.” Though the paper commends the passage of EIP, the editorial board maintains that “Maryland still has further to go in eliminating the headaches and expense of Election Day.”

Maryland partisans also express their reservations.

"From a Republican perspective, we look [at] early voting as something the Democratic legislature passed to increase turnout in their party," said Alan Rzepkowski, chairman of the county Republican Central Committee in a Capital Gazette report Tuesday. "We want to make sure everything is done fairly."

However, the Democratic Central Committee chairman, Stephen Thibodeau states: "To me, it's just a matter … (of) fundamentally giving more people a chance to vote."

Both partisans said that they would be dispatching poll-watchers to ensure “all the rules are followed,” and “no one is intimidated.” The most remarkable concern, however, is the Republican-driven fear of voter fraud.  However, EIP’s susceptibility to fraud is no different from that on the typical Tuesday Election Day, and even that is scarce.

"Project Vote conducted an exhaustive nationwide survey of voter fraud allegations and found that voter fraud of all types is extremely rare, averaging eight cases per year among the millions of voters nationwide,” wrote James. “Voter impersonation and double voting, the professed concerns of Early Voting opponents, are even more rare. "

"It is the same as going in on Election Day," said Gutierrez, noting the same voting machines and verification procedures will be utilized during the early voting period.

In states with EIP in place for several years, more than 50 percent of voters choose this option. The coming weeks will tell if the same majority of Marylanders who approved EIP will capitalize on the state’s increased access to the ballot.

Advocates Baffled By DOJ Approval of Controversial Voter Verification Law

A two-year battle in the courts concluded this week when the Department of Justice approved Georgia’s controversial voter verification system that was originally struck down in 2009 as inaccurate, unreliable, and worst of all, discriminatory against people of color and naturalized citizens.  The decision leaves voting rights advocates dismayed as to why the DOJ would allow the state to implement this arguably overzealous and potentially disenfranchising procedure.

“Systematic Purging” of Voters in 2008 Without Preclearance

The story of Georgia’s “citizen-check” procedure goes back to October 2008, when the state was sued by voting rights groups who claimed the procedure not only violated the Voting Rights Act, but inappropriately amounted to a systematic purging of voters just before the presidential election.

Due to its history of Jim Crow-era discriminatory voting practices, Georgia is one of 10 states required to seek federal approval or “preclearance” under the Voting Rights Act before changing election rules. In 2009, the DOJ refused to grant preclearance to Georgia’s flawed system of matching Social Security and driver’s license numbers that erroneously flagged thousands of otherwise eligible voters as “potential non-citizens.”

Typographical errors and an outdated driver’s license database were named the primary causes of systematic failure, though the DOJ further criticized the time-sensitive hurdles that “potential non-citizens” had to go through in order to prove their eligibility to vote. The DOJ also noted the system’s discriminatory impact on a disproportionate number of African American, Latino, and Asian American citizens.

In June, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp sued the DOJ to grant the state preclearance for the "citizen checking" procedure, citing partisan politics as the reason the system was shut down, despite the fact that the Bush Administration’s DOJ was first to question the system in 2008.

Why Did the DOJ Approve a System that Exceeds Federal Law?

Under the Help America Vote Act, states are required to verify voter identity by checking voter registration information against Social Security and driver’s license databases.  But, as Bush’s DOJ determined in 2008, HAVA only requires states to verify a voter’s identity, not his or her citizenship.

The approval of a law that not only exceeds HAVA, but, in its former version, had a discriminatory impact on voters, “came as something of a shock," said Laughlin McDonald, the voting rights project director for the American Civil Liberties Union in a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution report.

The original procedure applied to all first-time voter registration applicants and anyone who made a change on his or her driver's license, including a name change through marriage or moving. The approved system now "includes all first-time voter registration applicants, including those who register by mail or in person at their county registrar. It does not, however include voters already registered who make changes to their information."

"It was the pool that changed," Kemp’s spokesperson, Matt Carrothers told the AJC. "Again, the process that has been granted preclearance by the DOJ is actually broader than that that was denied previously."

McDonald speculates that the DOJ precleared the Georgia system “to avoid a worse fate in court,” The AJC reports.

“The state's lawsuit said if the court found its system allowable under the Voting Rights Act, that it should also rule all of Section 5 unconstitutional. The Obama administration probably didn't want to take the chance of that happening, he said.”

Though the true reasons why the DOJ precleared this law are unknown, ultimately, the Georgia decision exemplifies how the specter of voter fraud only continues to encourage the erosion of voting rights through overextending measures. Looking at Georgia’s history in election policies, including a long fight to implement photo voter ID, the state shows no sympathy for the potentially discriminatory impact of its laws on its voters. Time will tell if the new version of the “citizen-check” procedure will provide evidence needed to challenge this pervasive misconception.  And with the approaching election, that time may be very soon.

Celebrating Women’s Suffrage Brings Another Election Issue to Light

Next week marks the 90th anniversary of the American woman’s right to vote. Since the passage of the 19th amendment, women have generally been more likely to turn out to vote than men. However there is one area of federal election law that some states undermine, which disproportionately disadvantages  women, particularly low income citizens and minorities.

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Archaic Voter Registration Procedures Leave Citizens Behind

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

Access to voter registration-the basis of democratic participation-is still limited in the 21st century by overly restrictive, "horse-and-buggy" laws across the country. Despite advances in technology, states struggle with politically charged or neglected election systems when such systems can (and should) simply focus on building a truly representative electorate in modern day America.

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Virginia Illustrates Dos and Don’ts in Making Democracy Accessible

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

Participating in democracy should be a simple exercise for anyone who is a citizen over the age of 18, but as voter registration and turnout stats indicate, it’s not always that easy. On their way to the polls, too many people encounter barriers and obstacles, and too often these impediments are a result of varying, nuanced election administration procedures across the United States. As a new Project Vote report illustrates, examples of many of these election administration dos and don’ts can be found in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Unlike other states where there is a significant racial disparity in voter registration rates, Virginia—home to more than five million voting-eligible citizens—has the laudable achievement of “near parity in registration rates across racial boundaries, according to the new Project Vote memo, Voting in Virginia: How the System Works and How it Can Be Improved by Daniel CharltonThe commonwealth also boasts a fair number of its eligible citizens on the voter rolls, ranking just a couple of percentage points above the national average at 74 percent.

Despite these positive points, however, access to the democratic process in Virginia still has room for systematic improvement. In the memo, Charlton discusses some of Virginia’s unclear or unregulated election administration procedures, which can allow some eligible citizens to slip through the cracks. This includes a notorious felon voting law (that depends upon, and fluctuates with, the whim of each governor); undefined deadlines for processing voter registration forms once they reach a registrar; a lack of clear protocols for rejecting or accepting applications; excessive use (and extremely low count) of provisional ballots; and an ultimate lack of transparency and access to records to determine election administration ills, a potential violation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

The latter raised issues in the commonwealth in the 2008 election and resulted in a currently pending, potentially precedent-setting lawsuit. In 2008, a large number of voter registration applications from Norfolk State University—a historically African-American college—were mysteriously rejected, causing a stir in the community. Alerted of the issue, Project Vote and Advancement Project asked the State Board of Elections for copies of the applications to determine the cause of the rejections, but were ultimately denied access. The failure to disclose such information to the public appears to violate the NVRA, which requires states to maintain and make available “all records” related to voter registration and list maintenance procedures.

"The NVRA was passed to ensure that all eligible Americans have the opportunity to register to vote,” said Project Vote election counsel, Teresa James. “Confidential information can be redacted for privacy, but registration applications should be available for inspection. The democratic process needs light and air to flourish."

Virginia’s issues illustrate the need for election officials and voters across the country to be aware of state election administration procedures, a necessity that is heightened by the approaching midterm elections. Voter registration—the mainline to the democratic process—needs particular attention as it varies from state to state.

To help officials, voters, and anyone conducting voter registration drives understand these rules, Project Vote has updated and expanded its library of voter registration guides for 25 states, outlining eligibility requirements (including age and felony conviction nuances) and rules for conducting registration drives in each state.

Voter Registration Drives: A Thing of the Future

Community driven voter registration drives are still the gateway to democracy to millions of Americans. However, after the overall success of voter registration drives in 2008, states have increasingly imposed severe restrictions on voter registration activity. With more than 60 million unregistered Americans missing the opportunity to have a voice in their communities, lawmakers and advocates must recognize the significance of voter registration drives and work to facilitate and improve such practices with the help of effective regulations and modern technology.

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How Paperless Technologies Can Improve Voter Registration Procedures

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

Voter registration modernization is a current buzzword in election circles.  The idea is that new information tools can make the process cheaper, better, and easier for voters and officials alike.  However, at many election forums, this discussion has tended to overlook modernizing the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the so-called "motor-voter" law.

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New Mexico Agrees to Implement “Motor Voter” Law

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

Many Americans gain access to the ballot when they make a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. In fact, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reports that 30 percent of voter registration applications collected between 2007 and 2008 were from people who registered to vote while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses or state IDs. Although every American is supposed to have had access to this opportunity under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) since 1993, such has not always been the case, particularly in New Mexico.

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Noncitizen Voting is Nonexistent, Say Michigan Election Officials

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

As Michigan considers following the dangerous example of Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law, one of the candidates for the state’s chief election official is fanning the flames of hysteria in a way that threatens voting rights.

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