New Roadblocks To the Ballot Box

The right has found yet another way to erect barriers to voting and reduce participation.

| Wed Jun. 14, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Article created by The Century Foundation.

It seems unbelievable, but the Right has found yet a new way to erect barriers to voting and reduce participation: don’t even wait until they get to the polls to drive them away. Block them at the very point of entry: the registration process.

Over the last week or two, the pattern has become clear. As I wrote about recently, Arizona is impeding voter registration by requiring voters to prove their citizenship before they are allowed to register to vote. Now, we are seeing two other techniques: blocking third party organizations from conducting voter registration drives, and continually flaunting the law requiring provision of voter registration services to citizens who use public assistance agencies. In this way, officials may suppress participation in the political process by the poor, young people, minorities and other marginalized groups.

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For the last several years, but particularly the last two presidential elections, nonpartisan organizations like the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and organizations representing minorities, the homeless and students, have done an incredible job of registering people to vote in communities with low participation rates. Both Florida and Ohio (them again) have taken steps to put a stop to all that nonsense. In Florida, a coalition of organizations have mounted a legal challenge to a law just passed there that threatens to completely shut down all voter registration drives in the state.

Under the new law, any organization that has a volunteer or employee return a registration form more than ten days after it was collected will be fined $250 for each and every form returned late. If anyone associated with the organization should fail to turn in the form before the registration deadline, the fine is $500 per form. If a registration form is not submitted, for any reason—including a hurricane or a death or any other reason at all—the fine per form jumps to $5,000. The groups say that such fines would be so debilitating to their organization’s survival that they will have to stop doing voter registration altogether. The tell-tale sign of the motives behind the measure: political parties are exempt.

In Ohio, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell wants voter registration workers to fear their activities will make them into criminals. He has promulgated rules that mean anyone participating in a voter registration drive must personally deliver the forms to the Board of Elections rather than to the organization or by mail or to any other entity that collects voter registration applications. Failure to do so can carry criminal penalties.

Some concerns about the timely return of voter registration forms by third parties are legitimate. But to say this kind of approach is using an anvil to kill an ant is an understatement. Many of the problems could be much better answered through training, addressing the issue of registrars paid by the form, and, as recommended in our recent task force report, the ability to track online and by phone one’s voter registration status.

The other means being employed by state governments that will reduce the number of poor and minority citizens voting is to completely ignore the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act, or “Motor Voter.” Section 7 of the law “requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at all offices that provide public assistance and all offices that provide state-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities.”

It has been obvious for some time now that government agencies simply do not comply with this law, and that the number of people registering to vote through such agencies has dropped precipitously as a result. But a new report by the General Accountability Office, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, now illuminates just how bad the problem is. The report states:

We estimate that for the 2004 general election. . .29 percent of local jurisdictions had a problem in counting provisional ballots because of insufficient evidence that individuals had submitted voter registration applications at NVRA agencies other than [Motor Vehicle Authorities]. In our local jurisdictions survey, we estimate that few jurisdictions provided training to MVA or other NVRA agencies. Specifically, for the 2004 general election, we estimate that 12 percent of local jurisdictions provided training or guidance to MVA offices and an estimated 3 percent provided training to other NVRA entities regarding procedures for distributing and collecting voter registration applications.

Once again, Ohio is leading the pack, and a number of civil rights organizations are threatening to sue Mr. Blackwell for his blatant failure in this area. As an example, the groups say that,

A report provided to the Secretary of State in February 2006 documented that none of Ohio’s six largest counties is in compliance with the public assistance aspects of the NVRA. For example, offices of the Department of Jobs and Family Services in five of the six counties did not have any voter registration forms; the sole office that had the forms had relegated them to an unused corner of the office, without any signs advising assistance applicants of the right to register to vote, and the clerk did not even know the forms were there, much less provide the requisite assistance in completing them.

At a time when we should all be most worried and appalled by the lack of political participation in this country, partisans are, for partisan gain, taking measures to make sure it is reduced even more. Even given the harsh divisions in this country, it is most alarming to see the rise of increasingly sophisticated ways of manipulating the law to disenfranchise American citizens.

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