Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters
Weekly Voting Rights News Update
By Erin Ferns
Reports and exits polls this entire political season have built a narrative of tremendous, even record-breaking voter participation, pushing us to believe that voter turnout in November will exceed all expectations.
The dirty secret of elections in America is that getting on the rolls, casting a ballot, and having that ballot counted is a complicated system adjudicated and carried out by more than 3,000 counties and towns and regulated by a complex mix of state and federal laws. In order for the expected record-shattering turnout to occur in November, all aspects of the system, from registration procedures to polling place systems to ballot counting procedures all need to work properly. However, those with an interest in suppressing turnout may disrupt the process at any one of those points. The biggest impact comes by preventing people from making it onto the voting rolls in the first place since no one can cast a ballot without being registered.
Unsurprisingly, politicians with partisan interests at heart are pushing states to raise barriers to the democratic process by enforcing laws that restrict voter registration drives and violate the Voting Rights Act. These election-related policies have disproportionately negative impact on young people and minorities – two groups that have historically suffered underrepresentation in the electorate. However, in an encouraging move aimed at lowering these kinds of barriers, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that would help enfranchise all voters on Election Day.
Restrictions on Voter Registration Drives
During presidential election years, efforts to register more citizens increase dramatically. However, several states impose various restrictions on voter registration drives, which in turn has a disproportionate impact upon youth and people with disabilities – two communities that commonly register to vote through such drives, according to Ben Adler of the Politico.
The swing state of New Mexico is under the most scrutiny for their drive policy and has recently been sued for unconstitutionally hindering the right to collect voter registrations under a 2005 election reform law.
“The activists contend that because the law creates criminal penalties for failing to meet its requirements – which even supporters acknowledge are stringent – it discourages groups from collecting registrations,” Adler wrote. New Mexico's excessively short 48 hour time frame to turn in a completed application and subsequent misdemeanor charge if the collector is late has reportedly stopped students who “'simply want to get out on campus and register their friends to vote.'” The Federal government recognizes the challenges imposed by short time lines: Under the National Voter Registration Act, state agencies are provided 10 days to turn in new applications.
Violations of the Voting Rights Act
Other voting rights issues that have recently been battled involve violations of the Voting Rights Act.
The U.S. Justice Department recently announced an agreement to protect Latino voters in New Jersey after a complaint was filed involving discrimination in the voting process. Puerto Rican voters in the Penns Grove borough had complained they were subject to racial comments and hostility as well as disproportionately asked for voter ID and turned away at the polls. It was the third lawsuit of this nature this year. The suit also alleged that Spanish-speaking voters were not provided Spanish-language election materials or enough aid from bilingual poll workers, also requirements of the Act. The agreement must still be approved by the court, the Justice Department press release said.
“The right to vote is a fundamental guarantee for all American citizens,” said U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Christopher Christie. “The Division is committed to vigorously enforcing federal civil rights laws during the important election year and commends the county and borough for promptly and constructively resolving the matter.”
Asian voters in Massachusetts were not as successful in getting the state to provide fully sufficient bilingual ballots, according to a column by Adrian Walker of the Boston Globe. Advocates recently attempted to meet with Secretary of State William Galvin to gain his support for a proposed law requiring ballots be translated into Chinese and Vietnamese. The bill passed the Boston City Council earlier this year, but still requires legislative approval in order to ensure elderly Asian residents with limited English skills are not denied the right to vote in November.
“Voting is as American as apple pie,” said Boston City Councilor Sam Yoon. “This is something everyone should want to protect.”
However, Galvin - who the legislature looks to when considering election law - denied the group, as he has for the last year, according to Walker.
Despite swelling interest and rising registration rates among youth and minorities, there are significant and persistent barriers to their increased participation. The identification of these barriers should serve as a wake-up call in each state, pushing them to take steps to address the barriers and equip themselves to handle the influx of new voters this coming Election Day.
Voter Registration Surge and Election Day Chaos
An example of this swelling interest can be seen in one county in Florida where minority voters are beginning to balance their share of the electorate. This year alone in Lee County, Florida, black and Latino voters have increased by as much as 22 percent – more than double the increase among white voters, according to local publication, Fort Meyers News-Press.
“The increase in minority voter registration gives voice to people who haven't always been represented at the table,” the News-Press editorialized. “Whether it's the presence of a nontraditional candidate, the pressing economic conditions, or the war in Iraq, anything that inspires citizens to participate in the political process is beneficial.”
The unprecedented surge of voters expected to turn out in November could pose a major challenge for states, according to Stateline.org. The online news site, run by the Pew Research Center, raised concerns about poor ballot design and even last minute voter registration drives that could swamp understaffed offices, making it more difficult for voters to get on the rolls, let alone cast a ballot.
“People know it's going to be a historically high turnout. Whether they can do anything about it is another question,” said Dan Seligson of electionline.org, a Pew Center on the States project that provides analysis on election reform.
Smart Election Reform
While other states scramble to figure out how to accommodate the influx of voters and advocates ensure voting rights are protected, one state is pushing one of the most effective measures to expand access to democracy for all American citizens – Election Day Registration. On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that would allow voters to register and vote on Election Day. The bill, SB 2807 is currently in the House Ways and Means committee. If passed, Massachusetts would join the ranks of eight other EDR states, which have average turnout rates that exceed non-EDR states by as much as 12 percent. Three other states are considering EDR bills: New Jersey, New York and Ohio. To view these bills, visit www.ElectionLegislation.org.
Mass. Committee on House Ways and Means
State House #237
Boston, MA 02133
Mass. Secretary of State William Galvin
Citizen Information Service
One Ashburton Place, Room 1611
Boston, MA 02108-1512
Tel: (617) 727-7030
Toll Free: 1-800-392-6090
TTY: (617) 878-3889
Fax: (617) 742-4528
“A Summary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Project Vote.
In Other News:
Voter-rights group cries foul in state: La. defends process for dropping names - The Times - Picayune [La.]
BATON ROUGE -- A national voting rights organization says Louisiana election officials are violating federal law by dropping voters who have registered in other states. But state officials said Friday they are in compliance with all federal and state voting laws.
More homeless people expected to vote this fall – Associated Press; The Raw Story
Among the record number of voters expected to cast ballots this fall may be an increase from an often-invisible population - the homeless.
Erin Ferns is a Research and Policy Analyst with Project Vote’s Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD).