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America Can Do a Better Job at Registering Voters

Cross-Posted at Project Vote's Voting Matter's Blog

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

by Erin Ferns

Despite the 2008 election showing that the minority and low-income voting bloc is quickly growing, the effort to keep voters from actually casting a ballot persists through the introduction and passage of restrictive election reforms, wrote syndicated columnist and former state representative, William A. Collins in a recent opinion piece. “As we all know, becoming and remaining a voter is not just a theoretical exercise. At least in this country that right is hotly contested in hard-fought political combat. He who controls the voter lists often controls the election.”

This week the outgoing Republican majority in Ohio lost a fight for greater control of the voter lists when Governor Ted Strickland vetoed Senate Bill 380, which would have fundamentally changed Ohio election law.  Introduced after the 2008 election and passed just before the session adjourned in December, the Republican sponsored bill would have closed the state's Same Day Registration “golden week” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Voting rights groups had urged Strickland to veto the bill, which also included stricter database matching procedures and an increased burden of proof for absentee ballots.

On Jan. 3, the Marietta Times reported on Strickland and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's opposition to the bill. “Spokespeople for both state officials said Friday that such elections reform ought to be more thought out instead of rushed through the General Assembly in a lame-duck session.” However, Tuesday's veto did not put an end to the state's “concerns” with absentee and early voting. Officials plan on addressing those concerns in a new election reform bill this year, according to the Enquirer.

These battles put the spotlight on the issue of voter registration, which in America puts all responsibility on the individual to register, re-register when moving, and ensure that that registration is processed and valid until Election Day. However, support is growing for a system of automatic registration that would ensure all citizens are legally enrolled in the democratic process. “Without a universal registration system,” Collins cynically wrote, “the term democracy will always be somewhat misapplied to the United States.”

Until new models of voter registration are implemented, there are better ways to ensure that more citizens are legitimately incorporated into the democratic process. Instead of erecting more barriers to voter registration, there are existing avenues that could be more effectively implemented, such as the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

Currently, the NVRA is the only piece of federal legislation that requires the government to proactively reach out to its citizens in order to incorporate them in the democratic process. NVRA is best known as “Motor Voter” because of its requirement that motor vehicle departments provide voter registration services to people who apply for or renew their driver's licenses. A lesser known provision also requires state public assistance agencies, such as Medicare, TANF and Food Stamps, to provide the same voter registration services. However, a 2008 Project Vote study found that registrations had fallen an alarming 80 percent to just half a million between 1995-1996 and 2005-2006.

Many states have shown this sharp declining trend, including Indiana. Yesterday, voting rights groups Project Vote and ACORN sent a notice letter to Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, calling on him to bring the state into compliance with NVRA. The state's registration rate of low income voters ranks fourth worst in the nation, with nearly half of its low-income voters remaining unregistered, according to a Project Vote press release.

“Under Secretary of State Rokita's administration Indiana has passed new laws making it harder for voters to participate in the democratic process,” said Project Vote's executive director Michael Slater in the press release. “Now we have clear evidence that, under Rokita's watch, Indiana has also been flouting a federal voting rights law that makes participation easier for low-income Indiana voters.”

This year has seen progress in bringing states–voluntarily or involuntarily–into compliance with this important federal law, which was initially “included by Congress to offset the potential of DMV registration to skew the electorate towards affluent Americans.” In December, The U.S. Department of Justice announced an agreement to bring Illinois into compliance with NVRA, a measure that Project Vote and other voting rights advocates across the country commended “for taking this first step to ensure that the Illinois Department of Human Security (DHS) is doing right by low-income Illinois voters.” A similar agreement was also reached last year in Arizona. In Missouri, a lawsuit brought by Project Vote and other groups forced the state into compliance last summer, following which registrations through public assistance agencies skyrocketed: Missouri public assistance agencies registered over 26,000 voters in six-weeks, more than in the previous two years combined. This success suggests what could be achieved if all states simply complied with this existing law and fulfilled their obligations to low-income Americans.


Quick Links:

Hess, Doug and Scott Novakowski. “Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007.” February 2008.

In Other News:

Study: Mich. soldiers deprived of vote: State is 1 of 16 that doesn't allow enough time to submit ballots – Detroit News
Michigan is among 16 states that don't provide enough time for military personnel serving overseas to cast their votes, according to a national study released Tuesday.

Reforms to state elections possible in '09 legislature – WLBT  [Jackson, Miss.]
The 2009 legislative session starts next Tuesday with a special opening ceremony at the old capitol building in downtown Jackson.

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