Clean and Fair Elections: Policy Options for 2011

Introduction: Clean and Fair Elections Policy Options

Americans are demanding democratic reform after the string of Election Day disasters and questionable results that have plagued our elections since 2000. With polls showing that the vast majority of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, progressive state leaders are realizing that we can no longer ignore or tolerate the significant democracy deficit that undermines our ability to meet our challenges in all areas of progressive reform.

Voters want leaders who stand up to monied interests. Candidates dependent on corporate benefactors cannot fully serve their constituents and invariably become hostages to or outright defenders of a dysfunctional status quo.  Voters are frustrated that on issues ranging from healthcare to education to transportation to energy, the changes we need are stymied by a political system soaked in corporate cash. Progressive leaders can distinguish themselves, not just by rising above the political swamp to secure good policies for their constituents, but also by actively working to drain the swamp of corporate lobbying and campaign contributions so that the political process functions fairly and without favor.

Election reforms also support the broader progressive policy agenda. One of the largest impediments to real progressive reform is that our election system often excludes voters – non-white, less-educated, and less wealthy individuals - who are the most supportive of progressive policy changes.  Expanding electoral participation to include a larger, more diverse set of voters will increase support for the host of progressive reforms that are supported by the substantial majority of the population whose voices are not always heard at the ballot box.  Working state by state to remove barriers to voting and increase participation in the political process will be a fundamental determinant of how successful progressives will be in achieving the broader reforms we are working toward.

Voters are clearly eager for change.  We have arrived at a moment where the need to invigorate our democracy and establish clear accountability has become overwhelmingly obvious to a large number of Americans.  Americans' demands for change in the face of the epic failures of right-wing policy are ushering in a new progressive era in our nation.  How far this transition goes and how long it lasts will be determined in large part by how well progressives use this opportunity to expand the vote.  However, progressive leaders need to be vigilant in fighting off right-wing attempts to erode the right to vote, since we are seeing renewed efforts to undermine voter rights and suppress turnout through new barriers to voting and outright intimidation.

Progressive States Network’s Clean and Fair Elections Program:  This policy guide presents a series of election and governance reforms that are essential to both invigorating our democracy and achieving other progressive goals.    

  • Reducing the Influence of Money on our Democracy:  Reform begins with policies such as public campaign finance that will help clean up government and reduce the influence of corporations and monied interests over our democracy.  
  • Growing the Electorate:  The next steps are changes to our election systems such as universal voter registration and Election Day registration that would increase participation, especially among groups that have traditionally been marginalized politically and socially.  
  • Making Every Vote Count:  We must also ensure every vote counts and every voice is heard.  This includes both securing the integrity of elections, and making sure that systems aren't rigged to prevent meaningful participation, such as establishing a national popular vote for president.  
  • Resisting Vote Suppression by the Right-Wing:  Lastly, we need polices that beat back the right-wing's attack on voting.  Steps include blocking voter ID laws and protecting voters from intimidation and deception.  

This task of invigorating our democracy and achieving the promise of equality and inclusion can only be successful if we simultaneously work to reduce the power of corporations by reforming government and establishing publicly-funded elections. We must also endeavor to secure the right to vote and accommodate the electoral participation of every American.  The barriers to those goals are significant, and overcoming them will take the considerable effort of a coalition far larger than the traditional voting rights and “good government” communities, in addition to a wealth of grassroots support.  Over the last several years, a formidable and diverse democracy reform movement has been building in this country, and public opinion is clearly on the side of a democratic renewal.  Ordinary citizens are energized as they haven't been in a generation.  Now is the time to build on that foundation by enlisting as much of the broader progressive movement as possible in these critical efforts.

Supporting the efforts of lawmakers to increase democracy and accountability in government are an extremely able group of advocates and experts whose work is referenced throughout this policy guide.  

Leaders in the democracy reform advocacy and policy development community include:

The Brennan Center for Justice
Common Cause
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights
League of Women Voters
National Popular Vote
People for the American Way
Project Vote
Public Campaign
Voter Action

See also:

-  The Pew Center on the States' Make Voting Work initiative provides a wealth of knowledge on election reform and administration.

- The National Conference of State Legislatures has started a program titled Engaging State Legislatures in Election Reform.  This program seeks to provide legislators with research and analysis on election reform issues and develop a network of legislators working on these issues.  

Reduce the Influence of Money on Our Democracy

Examples of the corrupting power of money in politics abound, from the Jack Abramoff scandal that put a congressman and several others in jail, to Illinois Governor George Ryan's conviction on racketeering charges.  Beyond the overt corruption, the power of big money corporate interests thwarts efforts toward the basic reforms that are desperately needed by the people of this country, such as universal healthcare.  And the money needed to compete in elections, and therefore the opportunity for money to corrupt the system, is growing rapidly.  In the 2007-2008 election cycle, state-level candidates raised $3 billion.  Of that, $1 billion was raised by state legislative candidates, the first time they have broken the $1 billion mark.

State lawmakers can lead the way on ending the corrupting influence of money over politics and build a government that puts the needs of ordinary citizens first.  The key is to change the way elections are financed, enforce restrictions on corporate lobbyists, and reform the process by which public contracts are awarded.

Core Policies to Reduce the Influence of Money on Our Democracy

  • Clean Elections/Public Financing, including for Judicial Elections
  • Small Donor Incentives
  • Ban “Pay-to-Play” Campaign Donations
  • Lobbying Reform, including disclosure, banning gifts, and ending the revolving door
  • Ballot Initiative Reform

Clean Elections

As an alternative to raising large sums of campaign cash to fund increasingly expensive campaigns, states can create a publicly-funded clean elections system for candidates who choose to forgo private donations.  Strong arguments are available to progressives pursuing this reform.  Publicly-funded elections free elected officials from the constant need to fundraise, and allow them to focus on public service, while reducing the ability of private donors to buy influence with officeholders. Public financing also encourages new people without independent wealth to pursue elected office, increases competition by reducing the disparity in spending between candidates, and reduces the cost of campaigns as candidates accept voluntary spending limits.

There are variations on public financing of elections, but the most comprehensive models adhere to the following principles:

  • Require that a candidate collects a certain number of $5 or $10 contributions, termed “qualifying contributions,” which establish the seriousness of her candidacy.  The number of contributions depends on the office sought, but is generally in the hundreds.  Contributions are limited to individuals registered to vote in the district.
  • Qualifying candidates then receive a set amount of public financing in the form of a grant with the condition that the candidate accepts no additional outside campaign contributions and spends no money outside of public funds.
  • Candidates outspent by privately financed opponents are usually entitled to additional, “fair fight” funds to maintain their competitiveness in the election.  Fair fight funds are also available when independent third parties spend on an opponent’s behalf.  However, in June 2010, the Supreme Court blocked Arizona from distributing matching funds to publicly-funded candidates facing big-spending opponents.  Public Campaign is working on a new model for clean elections takes these scenarios into account.

Currently sixteen states provide direct public financing for some state-level elected offices. In these states, both candidates and voters have overwhelmingly supported the reform.

  • In 2006 in Arizona, 9 of 11 statewide offices were held by clean election participants, and 59% of the 164 candidates who were eligible ran clean election campaigns.  64% of candidates participated in public financing in 2008, and this year, 147 of 154 primary candidates are clean election participants.  In Connecticut’s 2008 elections, 75% of candidates participated in the voluntary Citizens Elections program – afterward, 32 of 36 seats in the state Senate and 119 of 151 seats in the House were held by Clean Elections officials.
  • In 2009, a national poll found that 67% of likely voters support public funding for campaigns.  69% of Democrats, 66% of Independents, and 64% of Republicans support this reform.
  • In 2007, New Jersey launched a pilot Fair and Clean Elections system in three districts.  All nine of the winning legislative candidates, which included Democrats and Republicans, representatives and senators, ran with public financing.

Model Legislation: Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, Maine Clean Elections Act

Public Campaign
Arizona Clean Elections Institute, Inc.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections

Publicly-Financed Judicial Elections:  Public financing of judicial elections is of particular importance because special interest money in these races doesn’t just result in bad policies, it directly threatens the independence of the judiciary and the impartial administration of justice.

Once sleepy and mildly partisan races, judicial campaigns have seen a sharp rise in spending and bare-knuckle tactics in recent years.  Between 2000-09, candidates for state courts raised $206.4 million, compared to $83.3 million spent in 1990-99.  Business groups outspend consumers’ rights lawyers, labor, and other contributors in these races by large margins.  In several states, the balance of the Supreme Court has been altered from pro-consumer to pro-business as the result of ruthless, distortion-filled campaigns funded by business interests.

One indication of the new status quo in judicial elections is that 91% of contested state Supreme Court elections now involve TV advertising.  And the level of spending is driven not just by campaign contributions, but increasingly by huge independent expenditures on candidates’ behalf, mirroring what we see on the federal level.  Even lower-level judges are now being incorporated into this new, hyper-politicized environment.

Scandals have emerged in several states, with the Chief Justice in West Virginia losing his seat after pictures surfaced of him vacationing with a local industrialist who at the time was appealing a $240 million judgment to the high court.  In Wisconsin, a respected jurist was voted off the Supreme Court by a business-backed candidate who ran advertisements falsely accusing him of freeing a rapist.

North Carolina has implemented a system of public financing for its high court and appeals court elections.  The program has been remarkably successful, and with 78% of eligible judicial candidates participating in the program in the 2004, 2006, and 2008 general elections.  And participating candidates have had great success, winning 4 of 5 races in 2004 and 5 of 6 in 2006.  The program has also driven special interest money out of the system.  Non-family campaign contributions from PACs, lawyers and other political committees dropped from 73% of the total raised in 2002 to 14% in 2004.

New Mexico also expanded their public financing law in 2007 to include appellate candidates, and West Virginia recently passed legislation to publicly finance the state’s 2012 Supreme Court election.

Model Legislation: North Carolina Judicial Campaign Reform Act

Justice At Stake Campaign
Brennan Center for Justice - Fair Courts
North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections - Judicial Elections
Democracy North Carolina - A Profile of the Judicial Public Financing Program, 2004-2006
North Carolina Judicial Campaign Reform Act Summary
New York Times - Rendering Justice, With One Eye on Re-election

Small Donor Incentives

Much has been made of the growing influence of small donors in the 2008 presidential race.  These donations have increased significantly, especially among the Democratic Party frontrunners, who received over half of their total contributions for the months of March, April, and May 2008 in contributions of less than $200 dollars. However, such donors are responsible for only slightly more than a third of all donations in the presidential race from January 2007 to March 2008, up from just over a quarter in 2003-2004. While this is significant, similar growth has not been seen in other races; however, there are creative policies that can help fuel an increase there as well.

Two basic types of donor incentives are currently being used in states- tax credits and refunds.  In states with tax credits, voters are allowed a credit against personal income taxes for a certain amount of campaign contributions.  States have a diversity of rules regarding which contributions qualify for the incentives, both the amount and the recipients (i.e., PACs, political parties, candidates) are regulated.

Minnesota has a unique program that allows taxpayers to receive a $50 refund for contributions made to political parties or candidates.  As a result of this law, small donations increased from 34% to 39.2% of total donations between 1990 and 1998, a small but significant increase. Arizona has also implemented a system in which an income tax credit of up to $610 or 20% of the tax amount (whichever is higher) may be claimed for contributions to the Clean Elections Fund. 
These small donor programs offer an alternative method of public financing that would go a long way to democratizing campaign finance and reducing the power of wealthy contributors.

Model Legislation: Minnesota Small Donor Tax Refund Law

US PIRG Education Fund - Toward a Small Donor Democracy

Ban “Pay-to-Play” Campaign Donations

Just as corporate lobbying corrupts the legislative process, the scramble for government contracts corrupts the executive branch and its agencies.   In January 2009, Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich became the first governor in Illinois history to be impeached, following his arrest in December on federal corruption charges that included plotting to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.  This year, former-Governor Mike Easley’s inner circle has been embroiled in pay-to-play scandals, the most notable of which is Ruffin Poole – the Governor’s former tight man is facing 57 counts related to political corruption, mainly for selling access to the governor for personal gain.  And investigations by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the SEC have revealed that investment firms in several states made millions in illegal payments in exchange for the right to manage public pension funds.  Similar pay-to-play scandals have enveloped public officials in California, South Carolina, Ohio and other states across the country.

In 2005, Connecticut lawmakers banned lobbyists and prospective state contractors from making campaign contributions to legislative and statewide offices in the aftermath of pay-to-play scandals.  A number of states have taken action to assure greater accountability in the public contracting system through common-sense solutions:

  • Banning Campaign Contributions by Contractors:  Nine states currently have some form of pay-to-play contracting law to bar companies bidding on contracts from making campaign contributions to government officials, and in 2005, New Jersey passed the nation’s most far-reaching pay-to-play law in the wake of local contracting scandals.
  • Tightening Contracting Standards:  The tighter the standards for the bidding processes and the work done, the less likely incompetent or corrupt companies can buy contracts with campaign contributions.   

Model Legislation: New Jersey’s Pay to Play Law is a good start – campaign donations from business entities with public contracts have dropped 29% since the law was enacted.  However, the law also says that pay-to-play rules don’t apply to towns and counties as long as a “fair and open” awarding process is used.  As a result, 1,820 companies with government contracts still managed to make $10.7 million in political contributions.  Adopting this model ordinance would go a long way in closing the loophole.

Public Citizen - Pay to Play and State Governments
Public Citizen - State Pay to Play Laws
AFSCME - Legislative Approaches to Responsible Contracting
New Jersey Pay to Play Law

Post-Citizens United:  Shareholder Accountability to Rein in Corporate Political Spending

On Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the First Amendment protects the use of corporate money in elections, giving the green light to unencumbered corporate political spending.  Overturning more than 100 years of jurisprudence, it is hard to tell how severely the decision will impact the electoral process, but states are not waiting to find out.  Thirty states considered legislation this session in the wake of the Citizens United decision, the majority of which included at least one of the following reforms meant to increase transparency while enhancing shareholder rights:

  • Disclosure to Shareholders: Currently, corporate managers can spend corporate money, which is at least partly invested by shareholders, on politics without notifying shareholders at all.  Disclosure would give shareholders more of a voice in where and how their money is spent.
  • Shareholder Consent: Similarly, corporate managers do not need prior authorization from shareholders in order to use their money toward influencing politics.  Consent laws would not only allow shareholders to protect their interests, but it would ensure that the shareholders’ own First Amendment interests were being acknowledged.
  • Personal Director Liability: Directors of U.S. companies who make unauthorized political expenditures using company funds should be personally liable to the company for the full amount spent. 

Though Arizona, South Dakota, and West Virginia have recently enacted laws requiring corporations and unions to register with the Secretary of State before making political expenditures, Iowa’s new law is a model for the states.  By requiring prior approval annually from the board of directors in order to make political expenditures, Iowa is the first state in the country to effectively combat the effects of Citizen United.  Iowa also requires registration and reporting of political expenditures, as well as attribution statements on advertisements.  Lastly, the new law prohibits political activity by foreign-based corporations.

In order to be truly effective, model legislation to restore democracy in the wake of Citizens United contains all three aspects of shareholder disclosure, consent, and personal director liability.  West Virginia’s HB 4646/SB 692 is an example of a model bill that has been introduced in the states.
Other policy options proposed in Maryland:

Lobbying Reform

The federal lobbying scandal centered on Jack Abramoff , who was recently sentenced to almost six years in prison for bribery, is unfortunately mirrored by the flow of crooked money into our statehouses as well.  Recent examples are Governor Bob Taft of Ohio, who pled guilty for not disclosing gifts and golf outings paid for by lobbyists, and a Tennessee investigation which led to the arrests of five current and former lawmakers on charges of accepting bribes, conspiracy, and extortion.

Lobbying at our statehouses is a billion dollar per year business.  In 2004, nearly 47,000 separate groups hired more than 38,000 lobbyists, for an average of five lobbyists and $130,000 in expenditures per state legislator.  Especially in states with few legislative staff, this army of lobbyists often becomes the dominant source of policy information and power -- greased with lobbyist-paid dinners, entertainment, and travel.

To give just one example, the Center for Public Integrity has highlighted the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying at the state level, a $44 million operation during 2003 and 2004.  And they used the money to shoot down a wide variety of state reform efforts trying to lower the cost of prescription drugs for consumers.  Dozens of key lawmakers across the country were given tickets to sporting events, invited to golf outings, or flown to resorts.

Disclosure and Oversight: Even as the federal government does almost nothing to force lobbyists to disclose their activities, most states require some degree of disclosure on lobbyists.  Disclosure laws typically require lobbyists to list who they are lobbying for on what issues.  The amount of each lobbying contract is also typically disclosed.  Additionally, lobbying activities should be overseen by an independent body that has the authority to investigate lobbying activities for compliance with the disclosure law, the ability to punish violators, and a mandate to make lobbying information easily accessible to the public.  While many states are ahead of the federal government on this issue, many even now don't require lobbyists and their employees to report what they spend, and many other loopholes remain in existing state laws.

Best practices for lobbying disclosure and oversight include:

  • Monthly reporting of lobbying expenditures, including lobbying contract information and lobbyist compensation.
  • Online posting of lobby data, updated frequently.
  • A way to see who is lobbying on a particular bill and whether they are lobbying for or against it.
  • Aggregating information regarding how much particular industries are spending on lobbying.

Wisconsin has merged its elections and ethics oversight activities under the Government Accountability Board.  Wisconsin is one of only five states that require lobbyists to disclose what position they take on bills they are working on, and the state’s website allows users to easily track lobbying on particular bills.  Washington's Public Disclosure Commission, established by the state's Public Disclosure Law (Chapter 42.17 RCW), has an internet site with comprehensive information on campaign finance, lobbying activities, and the personal financial disclosures of elected officials.

Gift Bans: A total ban on gifts helps limit the most overt corruption, and it also prevents lobbyists from sharing expensive meals with legislators as a way to establish and maintain a cozy personal relationship.  While at least 26 states have restricted gifts, others still see large amounts of spending by lobbyists on legislators.  In California last year, lawmakers and gubernatorial aides accepted close to $1 million in meals and entertainment from lobbyists.

There is no reason for lawmakers to be receiving gifts from lobbyists.  New York has limited all gifts given in a year to $75 per legislator.  Iowa has a good model law that mandates a $3 per day allowance for gifts, food and beverages. 

Model Legislation: Iowa Code Chapter 68B, Section 22

Close the Revolving Door: In Georgia, former Democratic Leader Pete Robinson and former Republican Leader Arthur Edge IV became pharmaceutical lobbyists after leaving office.  More broadly, a third of federal lobbyists hired by the drug companies are former government officials and pharma’s state lobbying army includes dozens of former state lawmakers.

Imposing a two-year moratorium before former legislators or other government officials can become lobbyists prevents them from immediately leveraging their relationships with government decision makers into lucrative careers influencing their former colleagues.  It also helps ensure that those serving in government are truly interested in public service and not just cashing in on the connections they make.  Six states – Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New York – have imposed a two-year moratorium before former legislators can become lobbyists, while nineteen states have imposed a one-year moratorium.

Model Legislation:  Alabama Section 36-25-13

Progressive States Network - Lobbying Reform
Center for Public Integrity - Hired Guns Project
National Conference of State Legislators - Center for Ethics in Government

Ballot Initiative Reform

Ballot initiatives have the ability to allow citizens to put forward great legislation that moves their state forward, as has been the case in Maine and Arizona where public campaign financing was enacted by ballot initiative.  However, corporate special interests and right-wing operatives have successfully used ballot initiatives as a way to push regressive policies in states where they don’t even live.  And they often use tactics which subvert the will of the people instead of giving voice to it. Ballot measures are also a favorite vehicle for conservatives trying to push wedge issues.

In order for ballot initiative to be a tool of reform and not an avenue for corporate control, it is important that states regulate the process effectively.   A few basic reforms can go a long way in making sure ballot initiatives reflect the popular will and don’t just ride through on a wave of corporate cash. 

In some instances, signature gatherers are paid per signature, which opens the door to fraud.  Signature gatherers should be paid by the hour if at all, and all gatherers should be residents of the state.

Many petition signers are misinformed about what the measure would do – backers of a measure to ban affirmative action have claimed that their measure would “prevent discrimination on the basis of race.”  States should require that the text of the ballot measure accurately describe the law being proposed.

Because of the confusion surrounding many ballot measures, states should develop voter guides with each measures text and a plain language description of the measures effect.

Model Legislation: Because the ballot initiative process varies from state-to-state, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy to regulating ballot initiatives.  However, in their report Ballot Integrity: A Broken System in Need of Solutions, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center recommends four basic areas of reform that would strengthen ballot integrity: higher standards, greater transparency, accountability, and oversight and enforcement.

Ballot Initiative Strategy Center -
Center for Policy Alternatives - Ballot Initiative Reform
Initiative and Referendum Institute

Growing the Electorate

Voter turnout rates are tragically low in this country.  Even the record-breaking turnout of the recent presidential primaries reached a mere third of eligible adults in only nine states.  In the last presidential election, turnout was less than two-thirds of eligible adults, placing us well below peer nations.  Even the states with the highest turnout rates, such as Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, have turn-out significantly below high-turnout nations such as Austria, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

An election system that fosters broad participation is essential to bringing about progressive change for the simple reason that a majority of people, especially many not currently voting, support the goals that progressives are striving to achieve.  Equally important for progressive reform is encouraging participation by groups who have been and continue to be marginalized politically.  Reducing the demographic and socio-economic skew in the electorate will strengthen the voice of groups that support traditionally progressive goals such as civil rights, health care reform, and economic justice.  A host of reforms can help increase the percentage of people who vote and bring more racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity to the electorate.

Registration remains the biggest procedural hurdle to voting.  It is crucial that this barrier be lowered or removed altogether if we are to become a society where a large majority of people participate in elections.  We can use a number of tools to simplify the registration and voting process, particularly for young people, to build a stronger culture of civic participation.

Core Policies to Grow the Electorate

  • Improving Voter List Maintenance
  • Universal Registration
  • National Voter Registration Act Compliance
  • Election Day Registration
  • Internet Registration
  • Expanding Youth Voting
  • Mail-In Voting

Improving Voter List Maintenance

How well voting rolls are maintained has enormous consequences for voters.  Poor list maintenance can result in the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters, just as inaccurate voter rolls can complicate election administration.  When lists are "cleaned" of ineligible voters without proper safeguards, large numbers of people can be improperly removed.  This was done in Florida in 2000, purportedly to remove persons who had lost their voting rights due to a felony conviction.  But the manner in which it was done resulted in the removal of thousands of eligible voters from the rolls, most of whom were African-American.  More recently, in April 2010, nearly 2,100 people were purged from the voter rolls of Benton County, Tennessee, after the election clerk challenged the validity of registrations in which boxes asking about citizenship status and/or felony convictions were left unchecked - some of the purged voters had been voting for over fifty years. 

Mandating and implementing best practices for voter list maintenance is an essential element in protecting the right to vote; these include: 

  1. Establishing transparent, specific criteria for removing voters.
  2. Avoiding list matching as a means of removing voters.
  3. Giving notice and the right to challenge removal.

Model Legislation: Project Vote’s Voter List Maintenance Model Bill

Project Vote - Policy Brief on Maintaining Current and Accurate Voter Lists
Brennan Center for Justice - Voter Purges and Challenges
Brennan Center for Justice - Policy Brief on Inaccurate Purges of the Voter Rolls
Demos - Purged: Will Eligible Voters be Purged from the Election Rolls?

Voter Registration Modernization

It is time for the states to take responsibility for registering voters and maintaining those registrations as voters’ personal information and addresses change.  Recent advances in technology, combined with the implementation of state-wide voter databases, allow policymakers to remove the current burden on voters and move toward a twenty-first century voting system that facilitates participation.

There are several methods of moving toward a more proactive voter registration system.  The easiest reforms to implement involve registering people automatically using state government agency data, and updating registration addresses based upon the United Postal Service database.

Automatic Registration: While the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires that voter registration be offered at motor vehicle, public assistance and other state agencies, states can easily go one step further and implement a system that uses existing databases to automatically register eligible citizens unless they choose to opt out.  Implementing a paperless voter registration system would save time, money, and aggravation for a myriad of voters. Every state already participates in form of automatic registration – the registration of men aged 18-25 for the Selective Service. Though no state currently has a system of automatic registration that shifts the responsibility of registering voters to the government, Minnesota passed legislation for a similar system in 2010 only to be met with a veto by Gov. Pawlenty, while a Wisconsin bill allowing automatic registration from DMV records came close but ultimately failed.  Ideally, states should enact automatic voter registration at all state agencies and schools, because doing so builds on the NVRA model to actively bring people onto the registration rolls. Voters should have the ability to opt-out, and safeguards should be put in place to both purge duplicate records and protect against erroneous purges.

Permanent Registration: Many people who were once registered are unaware that their registration lapsed due to a move or change in their personal information such as a name change.  Reforming the system so that registration is permanent as long as a voter remains a resident of the state would help thousands of voters maintain their registrations.  This can easily be accomplished if states automatically update voter rolls when voter information changes with the Post Office or other government agencies.  Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington have rolled out fully automated systems tied to their respective DMV’s, while at least ten more states have partially automated their DMV registrations.  Minnesota and Oregon update their voter registrations based on when the U.S. Postal Service processes changes of address.  When implementing this reform, though, legislators must also insist on best practices safeguards which ensure that voters maintain control of where they are registered and require verification of an address change from more than one source.

Fail-Safe Correction of the Voter Rolls: Administrative mistakes inevitably happen, but they should not prevent eligible voters from exercising their civic right to vote.  Fail-safe procedures should be established to ensure that citizens can correct their registration both before and on Election Day.  See the “Election Day Registration” section for more information.

FairVote - Universal Voter Registration
FairVote - Achieving Universal Voter Registration through the Massachusetts Healthcare Model
Brennan Center for Justice - Voter Registration Modernization in the States
Brennan Center for Justice - Modernizing Voter Registration: Momentum in the States

National Voter Registration Act Compliance

While national NVRA compliance has dropped off sharply, some states have reinvigorated their efforts and as a result have seen major upswings in the number of voters that are being registered, especially at public assistance agencies. Working in collaboration with Demos and Project Vote, the North Carolina Board of Elections has implemented a compliance plan that has increased monthly registrations from 484 in the years 2004 through 2006, to 2,529 in 2007.  Iowa, Oregon, Florida, and Tennessee have also made concerted efforts to improve compliance.  Most recently, lawsuits filed by voting rights groups have been settled in South Dakota, Kansas, and Delaware, leading to improved compliance at DMV’s -- a major step forward.

Public assistance agencies have seen the most significant compliance problems, and they also provide the best opportunities to register voters whose voices are underrepresented in the electorate.  Project Vote has composed a basic five part strategy that will help election officials achieve compliance at these agencies:

  1. Know the NVRA's public agency registration requirements (NVRA Section 7).
  2. Communicate frequently with agency managers and staff.
  3. Provide training and support to agency personnel.
  4. Monitor registrations from public assistance agencies.
  5. Review agency registration performance and act on your findings.

Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are states that have brought their public assistance agencies into compliance.

Project Vote has also drafted model legislation in collaboration with Demos that outlines more specifically the steps needed to get a state in compliance with the federal law.  With a very small outlay of resources and a bit of interest and leadership, compliance with the federal law is easily obtainable.  Therefore, ensuring compliance should be a priority for all legislators interested in increasing electoral participation in their state.

Project Vote - NVRA Implementation Project
Demos - NVRA
Project Vote and Demos - Unequal Access Report
Demos - Expanding Voter Registration for Low-Income Citizens: How North Carolina is Realizing the Promise of the National Voter Registration Act

Election Day Registration

The vast majority of states have registration deadlines weeks before Election Day. This schedule poses problems for busy Americans who simply forget to register or re-register after moving and find themselves unable to vote on Election Day.  During the 2000 presidential election alone, nearly 3 million voters were disenfranchised due to registration problems.  Luckily, a simple solution is available- Election Day registration (EDR).

Any registration problem that may arise can easily be solved by allowing the voter to register or re-register right at the polling place.  EDR also reduces the need for provisional ballots, which are used when a voter's registration is in question.  More importantly, while provisional ballots often go uncounted, Election Day registration provides certainty to citizens that their votes will count.  Election Day registration also functions to increase turnout among certain segments of the population more likely to encounter registration problems: people who move frequently, young people, and historically disenfranchised voters.

Currently, only Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming offer Election Day registration systems, but nearly two dozen have recently considered similar legislation.  The statistics for voter turnout in states with Election Day registration are striking and point to the system’s potential to renew democracy in America:

  • More than 1.5 million people used Election Day registration to register and vote in the 2008 general election.
  • The top five states for voter turnout in 2008 had EDR, and voter turnout in the nine states with EDR was, on average, over seven percentage points higher than states without EDR.

Model Legislation: See “Voter Registration Modernization” section for more details.

Progressive States Network - Election Day Registration
Demos - Election Day Registration
Demos - Election Day Registration: Helps America Vote
City of Minneapolis - Election Day Registration Requirements

Internet Registration

Allowing for Internet-based voter registration is a basic reform that is especially effective at registering young voters.  It also sets up a process that can be easily used by public agencies to register voters under NVRA.  Internet registration is already being used in Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Oregon, Utah and Washington, while bills were introduced in Michigan, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia  In order to ensure that registering voters online doesn't open up opportunities for fraud, it is available only to people who have signatures on file with a state agency such as the department of motor vehicles.

Model Legislation: Washington Online Registration Act

Edward B. Foley - Online Registration is the Answer

Expanding Youth Voting

After two presidential election cycles where we've seen steady increases in youth voter participation, 2008 is shaping up to be the year that young voters really roar.  The primary season saw increases in youth voter participation outstrip the large increases in general participation with turnout tripling or even quadrupling among young people in some states.  And people under 30 constitute the most progressive generation in memory.  Therefore, encouraging them to become politically active is a major part of advancing progressive reform.

17-Year-Old Primary Voting: One way that states and political parties can respond to and further accommodate this growing desire among young people to be engaged citizens is allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election to vote in the primaries. There are currently 18 states that allow these voters to participate in all primaries. Additionally, they can participate in the Democratic primary in Alaska, Kansas, North Dakota, and Washington.

It is important to note that passing legislation is only one way to open up these primaries to 17-year-olds. Under the federal constitution, political parties have the right to make their own rules that define who may participate in their primaries. As is evidenced by the four states where one of the major parties has allowed this participation and the other has not, parties can make this change without the input or blessing of the legislature. In fact, even where the state constitution puts an age limit of 18 on voters, the federal constitutional right of the parties supersedes and no constitutional amendment is required for the parties to change their primary eligibility rules.

FairVote - 17-year-old Primary and Caucus Voting
FairVote - Can a 17-year-old register to vote? It depends.

School Based Registration: Designating schools as voter registration agencies under NVRA or allowing guidance counselors to distribute and collect registrations is a convenient way to register young people.  Some states are now contemplating whether to include registration as a requirement for high school graduation.  If this is combined with advance voter registration at age 16, and the requirement was also applied to students dropping out, we would be getting close to universal registration through the schools.

In Louisiana, the House and Senate unanimously passed HB 990, which allows voter registration at offices of public high school guidance counselors.  And the California Legislature passed AB 183, which would make voter registration a requirement for graduation, but the bill was vetoed by the governor.

During the 2010 session, Maryland passed SB 292/HB 217, which set a uniform voter registration age of 16 years old.  Delaware became the 6th and latest state to approve youth pre-registration. 

For more information on how a similar bill has been successfully implemented in North Carolina, please see Democracy North Carolina’s fact sheet A New Tool for Youth Empowerment: Voter Preregistration & Education.

Model Legislation: Project Vote’s model pre-registration bill.

Progressive State Network - Steps States Can Take to Register Voters and Keep Them Registered
Democracy North Carolina
FairVote - Leave No Voter Behind: Seeking 100% Voter Registration and Effective Civic Education
FairVote - Learning Democracy: A Student's Guide to Voting

Vote by Mail

One reform that some states have used to give voters greater access to the polls is expanding the option to vote by mail.  Mail voting not only increases turnout amongst voters who cannot take time off work to go to the polling place, but it also reduces Election Day chaos and costs.

All states allow for some voters, typically the disabled and infirmed, to vote with an absentee ballot.  28 states currently allow any voter to choose a mail-in absentee ballot.  States can go even further by maintaining a list of voters who choose to always vote by mail and then automatically sending them a mail-in ballot every election, otherwise known as permanent absentee voting.   Florida's statute provides an excellent example of a simple absentee voting law that allows access for all voters.

Two states, Oregon and Washington, have gone to virtually universal vote-by-mail elections and only make limited use of traditional polling places.  Advocates for voting by mail emphasize the replacement of faulty voting machines, the time voters get to reflect on their choices, and the successes of states like Oregon, which has had vote-by-mail for the longest time.

Model legislation for vote by mail removes restrictions on absentee voting in order to allow anyone to apply for a mail ballot.  If states already permit no-excuse absentee voting, then permanent absentee voting is the next step – model legislation addresses procedures and maintenance of mail voting lists. 

Model Legislation: Progressive States Network Vote-By-Mail Model Legislation

Finally, model legislation for all-mail elections emphasizes safeguards to ease concerns about fraud.  Passed in 2005, Washington’s all-mail bill authorizes county-wide mail ballot elections, while this report, published by the Secretary of State’s office in 2007, goes into further depth on the bill’s outcome.

Progressive States Network - Voting by Mail
Common Cause - Vote by Mail
National Network on State Election Reform - Universal Absentee Voting
Oregon Secretary of State - Vote by Mail Resources
The American Prospect - Vote by Mail: An Exchange

Making Every Vote Count

It is important not only that everyone be able to cast a ballot, but that every vote is counted and meaningful.  Voters too often feel their vote won’t matter, whether because they don’t believe in the integrity of the voting system or because they are stuck in non-competitive voting jurisdictions.

Several fundamental reforms, from improved ballot integrity measures to redistricting reforms to establishing a national popular vote for the president, can support the integrity of the electoral process and create elections that enhance voters' ability to influence electoral outcomes and have their voice truly heard in the political process.

Core Policies to Make Every Vote Count

  • Ballot Integrity Measures, including Paper Ballots, Post-Election Audits and Provisional Ballot Reform
  • National Popular Vote
  • Redistricting Reform

Election Integrity

Ensuring that election results are accurate and transparent is an essential aspect of a legitimate democracy.  Alarmingly, changes in many states' voting systems, especially the move to electronic voting, have resulted in unverifiable elections results and evidence of manipulated elections.  This has undermined the peoples' trust and left the legitimacy of our elections in doubt.  Progressives should be especially concerned because those producing, selling, and maintaining the new crop of electronic voting equipment have rich ties to the right-wing establishment and significant motives for manipulating elections.

State leaders can make election integrity part of their agenda through key steps such as mandating paper ballots, better election audits, and fairer provisional ballot rules.

Paper Ballots: Paper ballots are absolutely necessary to restore citizens’ faith that our elections are fair, to ensure that votes are accurately cast and counted, and to establish a record upon which electoral disputes can be resolved.  Even the much-touted "voter verifiable paper audit trail" has been shown to be almost completely useless because voters rarely check the paper record to verify that their votes were accurately recorded.  And with new ballot marking technology, states can easily allow access to disabled Americans and enable them to cast their votes in the same manner as all other voters.

Several states have recognized the importance of using paper ballots, even states that initially made significant investments in electronic voting machines.  Florida is such a state, and recently, Iowa moved to have an all paper ballot voting system in place for the November 2008 presidential election.

Voter Action
Brennan Center for Justice - Voting Technology
National Ballot Integrity Project
Voter Action - Counting the Votes: A Summary of State Actions
Pew Center on the States - Back to Paper
Voters Unite - DREs: A Failed Experiment

Post–Election Audits: Whatever voting system is used, it is a basic fact of elections that votes are miscounted.  In every major election there are instances of vote totals that have to be amended after problems counting the votes have been found.  These problems include switching vote totals for two candidates, double counting votes from particular precincts, and misreading or mis-transcribing vote tallies.  Because of this, it is necessary that vote counts be audited in a manner likely to detect any error in the results.  Additionally, it is important that all audits and recounts follow these principles:

  • Transparency
  • Independent oversight
  • Flexible sample size based upon the margin of victory
  • Recounts are expanded to more precincts when discrepancies are found

Model Legislation: New Jersey enacted the first law (AB 2730 of 2007) in the country that adapts recount procedures to the outcome of the election – in closer races, where a smaller discrepancy could change the outcome, the recount will be broader.  The scope of the audit is also expanded when discrepancies are found.  Additionally, the law sets up an independent commission to design and oversee the audits.  The commission includes statisticians and has strong transparency guidelines.

Minnesota also passed an innovative amendment (Chapter Law 336 of 2008) to its audit procedures that allows a candidate to obtain a discretionary recount of up to three precincts at their expense.  This is an economical and convenient way to boost the integrity of elections by allowing those most likely to detect questionable vote totals the ability to direct limited recounts.

Brennan Center for Justice - Post-Election Audits: Restoring Trust in Elections
Pew Center on the States - Case Study: Auditing the Vote
Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota - Auditing Elections

Provisional Ballot Reform: Provisional ballots are mandated by the Help America Vote Act as a way to provide fail-safe voting for people who cannot be found on the voter rolls on Election Day.  However, too many of these ballots are never counted and have even been referred to as "placebo voting."  This problem appears to disproportionately impact minorities as research indicates that the number of provisional ballots cast and the number discarded has been higher in precincts with high concentrations of minority voters.  Most states have extremely vague rules for when a provisionally cast vote should be counted.  Well designed procedures for counting these ballots can significantly reduce the number of people who have their votes discarded.

Century Foundation - Provisional Ballots
Edward Foley and Tova Wang - Provisional Ballots May be the Hanging Chads of '08
Eagleton Institute of Politics - Best Practices to Improve Provisional Voting
National Network on State Election Reform - Provisional Ballots Factsheet

National Popular Vote

Voters in many states dream of the day when their vote for president will count just as much as those of voters in the handful of battleground states such as Florida and Ohio.  Now, with the closeness of the 2008 presidential primary and the proportional delegate allocation rules that most state parties followed in the Democratic primaries, voters are getting a taste of what it would mean if every vote did matter – the result being record-breaking turnout numbers.

If every vote counted in the November presidential elections, we could expect similar broad-based gains in voter turnout.  Voters are well aware of whether or not their votes count, and this is evidenced in polls that show wide, bi-partisan support of approximately 70% for a national popular vote.

Studies emphasize that not only does the traditional Electoral College lead to elections narrowly focusing on a few states, but that the problem is in fact getting worse. One result is that critical issues for non-swing states are given less focus in national debate.  An example is the civil rights movement, where the historic shift away from heavily African-American swing states has paralleled the narrowing discussion of civil rights in campaigns and the national dialogue.

The campaign to make every vote count in presidential general elections is focused on passing an interstate compact where states agree to apportion their presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote (NPV).  The compact will become effective when a majority of electors are included under the agreement.  The movement to enact this compact is rapidly gaining steam in states around the country – Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, Washington, and, most recently, Massachusetts, have enacted the compact.  It has also passed 29 state legislative chambers in 19 states.

Model Legislation: National Popular Vote Compact (Maryland HB 148)

Progressive States Network - National Popular Vote – A Voter Turnout and Civil Rights Issue
National Popular Vote (organization)
FairVote - The Electoral College
National Popular Vote - Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan For Electing The President By National Popular Vote
FairVote - Presidential Elections Inequality: The Electoral College in the 21st Century

Redistricting Reform

The redistricting process in this country is almost completely determined by political considerations.  The result is legislative districts that often splinter communities and pack together members of each party, essentially predetermining the outcome of the general election.  Powerful computer technology now allows partisans to totally control the demographic and political composition of districts.  And in recent years we have seen some states engage in mid-census redistricting with the explicit purpose of benefiting the party in power.

Gerrymandering may help selected incumbents, but it lowers voter turnout across the board and therefore cuts the overall number of progressives likely to be elected to office.  Progressive leaders can help restore responsiveness and accountability to government by supporting independent redistricting commissions established with a strong mandate to compose districts that serve the people and not politicians.  This is a strategy that has even garnered the official support of the American Bar Association.

Fostering fair redistricting requires carefully constructing the redistricting commission and establishing rules such as requiring supermajority support and balancing membership between partisans and unaffiliated members.  Common Cause has produced a comprehensive set of guidelines for establishing effective commissions.  Another important reform is banning mid-census redistricting.

Several states have redistricting procedures that are independent of legislators, and some have seen redistricting reforms advance in the past few years.  

  • Iowa uniquely has legislative staff draft districts under a list of statutory mandates that seek to make the process apolitical.  The state has enjoyed a high percentage of competitive elections compared with the national average.
  • Arizona voters approved a move to independent redistricting in 2000.  Their system picks commission members from a pool nominated by a pre-existing body that handles appellate court appointments.  The district map is mandated to begin as a grid, and to be adjusted to meet certain requirements such as compliance with the Voting Rights Act, equal populations, and compact and contiguous districts.
  • California, Florida and Ohio have all seen recent drives to establish independent redistricting as well.

Model Legislation: The California Fair Redistricting Act is a model law drafted by a number of public interest groups including Asian Pacific American Legal Center, California Common Cause, California League of Women Voters, Center for Governmental Studies and Demos.  Guidelines include creating nonpartisan independent redistricting commissions, fair criteria for congressional and legislative districts, public participation and transparency, and judicial review.

NCSL - Redistricting Commissions
NCSL - What is a Competitive District, What is a Community of Interest?
American Bar Association - Redistricting Resolution
Brookings Institution - The Competitive Problem of Voter Turnout (podcast)
Americans for Redistricting Reform
Center for Governmental Studies
Common Cause - Redistricting Guidelines
FairVote - Redistricting Reform
League of Women Voters - Redistricting
Brennan Center for Justice - Redistricting
Campaign Legal Center - Redistricting
Arizona Redistricting Law
Legislative Guide to Iowa Redistricting

Resisting Vote Suppression by the Right-Wing

The right-wing has lost the trust and confidence of the vast majority of the American people.  The nation is seeing a surge in new voters who are eager to move the country in a new direction.  To maintain their electoral viability conservatives have redoubled longstanding efforts to suppress the votes of those they think are least likely to support their failed policies. 

Progressives must fight back and protect the fundamental right to vote for every American in order to secure the equitable and prosperous future we all hope to see.  This fight requires two strategies – holding the line against attacks on the right to vote such as voter ID laws and proof of citizenship requirements (and rolling them back where applicable), and putting forth strong voter protection and anti-“caging” policies that strongly sanction attempts to prevent people from voting, such as voter deception.  Progressives need to take pro-active action to expand the vote, both through protecting community-based registration drives and supporting the re-enfranchisement of ex-prisoners seeking to return to the mainstream of civic life.

Core Polices to Resist Voter Suppression

  • Blocking Abusive Voter ID and Proof of Citizenship Laws
  • Stopping Voter Intimidation, Deception, and “Caging”
  • Protecting Registration Drives
  • Felon Re-enfranchisement

Blocking Abusive Voter ID and Proof of Citizenship Laws

Over the last ten years, states have passed dozens of laws requiring identification to vote, with Utah and Idaho being the latest states to jump on the fear mongering bandwagon. The laws have been sold as a solution to voter fraud by non-citizens, but are truly designed for the simple purpose of suppressing the vote of groups less likely to have, or able to obtain the required ID – the poor, disabled,  elderly, and racial and ethnic minorities.  And they have been designed in most instances not to apply to absentee balloting, where the small amount of election fraud that does occur is more likely to be perpetrated.  The starkly partisan purpose of these laws is made clear by the fact that they have been passed with party line votes everywhere they have been enacted.

The vanguard of voter identification laws are requirements to provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, and in some instances every time you vote. Seizing on fears of illegal immigration, conservative lawmakers are claiming that citizens are having their votes diluted by non-citizens. As with other voter ID requirements, the burdens of these laws are real and fall disproportionately on poor, disabled, elderly, and minority voters. Providing proof of citizenship is more onerous than even obtaining a photo ID. And as with fears of voter fraud generally, there is no evidence that non-citizens vote in significant numbers.

Now that the Supreme Court has countenanced voter ID laws, we are seeing a big surge in attempts to implement disenfranchising election rules.  Progressive lawmakers can respond to these renewed efforts by educating their colleagues and constituents about how these laws are merely a ploy to keep minority, poor, and less–educated voters from participating in elections, and the fact that the crisis these bills are supposed to solve-in-person voter fraud- is not a problem anywhere in the country.

More proactively, legislators and advocates can change the nature of the debate by simultaneously debunking the voter fraud myths used to advance voter ID laws, and putting forward strong measures that combat the real threats to our elections and voting rights – efforts to suppress the vote such as voter intimidation and convoluted registration requirements.  When ID laws are proposed, voter protection and well-reasoned election integrity amendments should be offered as alternatives.

Election Day registration (EDR) is another amendment progressives can offer to counter voter ID legislation.  If ID is to be required for voting, then progressives should at least try to expand the pool of potential voters.  EDR extends the vote to citizens who have missed the voter registration deadline and would otherwise be unable to cast a ballot.  Unlike voter fraud, voter suppression activities – intimidating voters, spreading misinformation to prevent people from voting, and challenging the eligibility of groups of voters (called "voter caging")- are real practices that occur throughout the country. Voter ID laws themselves open up new doors for voter intimidation and misinformation as ill-trained poll workers ask for ID that isn't required and partisans lie to voters about ID requirements in an attempt to discourage voting.

Progressive States Network - The New Voter Suppression and the Progressive Response
Progressive States Network - The Specter of Fraud Helps the right-wing Shape the Electorate
Brennan Center for Justice - Voter ID
Brennan Center for Justice - Policy Brief on Alternatives to Voter ID
Demos - Challenges to Fair Elections – Voter ID
NCSL - Requirements for Voter Identification
Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Project - Research Materials on Voter Identification
National Network for State Election Reform - Voter ID Factsheet

Stopping Voter Intimidation & Deception

Intimidating voters takes many forms, from videotaping or asking inappropriate questions of voters in a polling place, to placing heavily armed police outside poll sites and distributing threatening flyers announcing the penalties for voting fraud.  The intention is to make voting actually or apparently risky in order to keep people away from the polls.  Voter intimidation is illegal under federal law and many state laws as well.  However, most laws are not clear on what constitutes intimidation and there is a need for clearly articulated standards at the state level to make sure that these laws cover all of the techniques used to threaten voters.

  • During the 2008 presidential primary in Georgia, voters reported a roadblock on the way to one poll site, and an armed election inspector from the Secretary of State's Office was posted at another poll location. In New Mexico, a state representative accused newly-registered minority voters to have fraudulently voted in the primaries and later hired a private investigator to go to their homes to interrogate them about their citizenship status.
  • In a 2003 Philadelphia mayoral race, hundreds of men with cars and clipboards that bore official-looking insignias were dispatched to polling places in predominantly African American neighborhoods. In a poll conducted after the election, 7% of African American voters said they had encountered these men.
  • During the 2008 general election, two Michigan precincts reported policemen scanning the long lines for voters with outstanding warrants, leading to one arrest.

Preventing Deceptive Practices: Voter deception involves using disinformation campaigns to prevent targeted populations from voting.  This usually entails publicizing bogus restrictions on who can vote and what the voting procedures are.  In some instances the practices prevent voters from registering or make people believe they aren’t registered when they are; other strategies use misinformation to prevent registered voters from going to the polls.

In the 2008 presidential primary, a “voter mobilization” group made calls to residents of predominantly African American neighborhoods in several states giving misinformation about voter registration. Model legislation: Virginia enacted HB 1835, which makes it a class 1 misdemeanor to knowingly communicate false information regarding the date, time, and place of the election or a voter’s precinct, polling place, or voter registration status.

Anti-Caging Policies: Caging is the practice of sending mail to voters that cannot be forwarded and challenging the eligibility of every person for whom the mail is returned as undeliverable.  The mailings are targeted to members of one party and often to minority communities.  The existence of undeliverable mail is, of course, no evidence that a person isn’t eligible to vote, but the people engaging in caging disingenuously tell the media that it represents evidence of large-scale voter fraud.

In many states, broad statutes make it very easy to disenfranchise someone by challenging their right to vote.  This is by design -- these laws were created in the post-civil war period specifically to allow for ad hoc disenfranchisement of African American voters.  An early challenge statute from Ohio provides a good example of the explicitly racist intent of these laws: “It shall be the duty of judges of elections to challenge any person offering to vote at any election … having a distinct and visible admixture of African blood…”

Challenge laws remain ubiquitous today and at least seven states saw caging operations in the 2004 presidential election.  That year the Ohio State Republican Party challenged over 30,000 voters prior to Election Day and recruited 3,600 people to challenge thousands of voters on Election Day, and the Florida Republican Party compiled a 1,886 person caging list that included deployed military personnel registered at a naval base.  In 2008, the Michigan state Republican Party sought to use foreclosure lists as the basis for challenging any voter who attempted to vote from a foreclosed address.  This, and similar efforts in counties in Florida, Indiana, and Ohio, were stymied only by lawsuits and administrative actions.

Model Legislation: Minnesota has passed a law (Chapter 204C, Section 07 Minnesota Code) that prohibits generating challenge lists based upon “mail sent by a political party that is returned as undeliverable,” Rhode Island and California have also passed similar legislation.  Washington has narrowed its challenge statute (RCW 29A.08.810) significantly, establishing a presumption of eligibility and requiring clear and convincing evidence that the voter is not in fact eligible, among other reforms.

People for the American Way - The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today
Project Vote - 2010 Legislative Brief - Voter Intimidation and Caging
Advancement Project - Report to State and Local Election Officials on the Urgent Need for Instructions for Partisan Poll Watchers
National Network on State Election Reform - Deceptive Practices and Intimidation Factsheet

Protecting Registration Drives

As a response to successful efforts by non-partisan and progressive organizations to register hundreds of thousands of new voters in recent years, many states are enacting restrictions on voter registration drives.  These laws have a discriminatory effect as African Americans and members of Spanish-speaking households are twice as likely to be registered through a voter registration drive as whites or members of English-speaking households.  Elderly or disabled populations, low-income communities, and students who find it difficult to establish residence and vote where they live are also affected by these burdensome restrictions.

  • In Ohio, voting rights groups won a lawsuit that struck down voter registration provisions that required “registration drive workers to register and to undergo training, to list detailed information on each registration form they help with and for every gatherer to turn in forms in person, not through an organizer…"

Project Vote - Policy Brief on Restricting Voter Registration Drives

Felon Re-enfranchisement

Currently one in forty-one Americans have lost their voting rights because of a criminal conviction.  That is over 5 million people who are denied the right to vote.  Of those, nearly 4 million have completed their sentence of imprisonment, parole, or probation and are working and paying taxes.  These statistics are even more staggering in an international perspective.  While the US has only 5% of the world's population, it has almost 50% of those who are prevented from voting by a criminal conviction.  This is the product both of our broad disenfranchisement rules and our exploded criminal justice system.  The racial and ethnic inequity of felon disenfranchisement is striking.  One in eight black men is disenfranchised by these laws, a rate seven times the national average.  In some states it is one in four.

Over 60% of Americans support restoring the right to vote after release from prison, and a similar number think that the right to vote is an important factor in a person's successful reintegration after prison.  This view is shared by several law enforcement organizations.  The American Correctional Association, made up largely of professionals in the criminal justice field, has passed a resolution stating that restoring voting rights is critical to reintegration of ex-prisoners into public life: "[D]isenfranchisement laws work against the successful reentry of offenders as responsible, productive citizens into the community."

States' felon disenfranchisement policies vary widely, ranging from lifelong bans on voting to allowing prisoners to vote.  The vast majority of states fall somewhere in between, and reforms must be targeted to each state's current policies.  A large number of states have relaxed their laws in some way in the last decade, though most reforms are modest and the ranks of the disenfranchised continue to grow.  States looking to facilitate successful reintegration should look closely at their disenfranchisement laws and practices, as there are often barriers to re-enfranchisement in practice that aren't outlined in the law.  Additionally, states can codify and simplify their restoration procedures to make sure that ex-offenders are quickly brought back onto the rolls once their voting rights are restored.

  • Washington enacted a new law in 2009 that automatically restores voting rights upon completion of a sentence and also drops the requirement that people pay all fees, fines, and restitution before being eligible to vote.
  • Nevada has enacted a law that requires the State Board of Pardons to adopt a new process that hastens the restoration of voting rights.
  • Florida scrapped its indefinite disenfranchisement policy in 2007 and now has a standard process for most ex–offenders to regain their right to vote. This has restored the right to vote for over 100,000 people to date.
  • Rhode Island voters passed an initiative in 2006 restoring the right to vote to parolees and probationers.
  • Hawaii set up data sharing procedures that facilitate restoration of voting rights in 2006.
  • Nebraska replaced their lifetime ban with a two-year waiting period in 2005.
  • Iowa eliminated lifetime disenfranchisement in 2005 as well.

Model Legislation: According to the Brennan Center, all vote restoration policies should include the following five components:

  • Automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison
  • Ensure that criminal defendants receive notice
  • Assist eligible voters with registration
  • Synchronize statewide voter registration databases
  • Educate eligible voters

The Sentencing Project - Felony Disenfranchisement
Brennan Center for Justice - Voting After Criminal Conviction
Brennan Center for Justice - Restoring the Right to Vote
ACLU - Felon Enfranchisement
Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza - Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy