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Voter Registration: Steps States Can Take to Help Voters Register and Keep Them Registered
Christian Smith-Socaris on April 14, 2008 - 8:35am
Maintaining accurate voter rolls and ensuring that all eligible voters who register to vote actually make it onto voting rolls are two of the most important functions of election administration. If an eligible voter cannot vote because his name doesn't appear on the voter roll used in an election, the problem will not be addressed by the federal guarantee of a provisional ballot. Such a ballot cannot register a person to vote, it can only preserve a ballot in the case the voter rolls at the precinct are mistaken or the voter needs to return with identification. If a voter is not registered because they were removed from the rolls, or even due to election official error processing their registration, his or her vote will not be counted.
There are many ways that states can ensure that voters who have made a good faith effort to register, such as individuals who have registered but have been purged from the rolls or those who have moved and may not be aware that they need to re-register, are not disenfranchised. One method ”“ Election Day Registration ”“ has already been examined in a previous Dispatch. Today's Dispatch examines some of the reasons why those who have registered or have attempted to register may not be allowed to cast a regular ballot on election day and steps states can take to ameliorate this problem.
Made famous in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, voter purging is the process of removing large numbers of people from the list of registered voters. In Florida this was done 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 thousand of eligible voters from the rolls, most of whom were African-American. The disenfranchisement of so many voters for seemingly partisan gain caused an uproar that brought voter purges to the nation's attention.
More recently, purges in the form of forced re-registration for all non-active voters have been proposed in Mississippi and Washington as a way to "clean up the voter rolls." Less extreme but more prevalent are instances where voters are removed from the rolls either because mail sent to their residence was returned as undeliverable or the election administrators were unable to match the voter's personal information with some government database, and that mismatch was used as evidence that the information in the voter rolls was incorrect. Florida has passed a law that automatically rejects registration applications when the voter's information cannot be matched with a state or federal database. While the law was initially enjoined by the courts, that decision has recently been reversed on appeal. In all of these instances, there are alternative list maintenance procedures which would keep the voter rolls up to date and avoid the potential of disenfranchising eligible voters.
Statewide Rolls Create Threats and Opportunities to Voter Registration: The threat of large-scale purges has grown with the advent of the statewide voter databases that were mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act. Previously, most states had a distributed system of voter rolls with a separate list for each election jurisdiction, usually for each county. However, while centralized lists pose the risk of purging voters in larger numbers, especially when other government databases which contain inaccuracies are used to "verify" the information in the voter rolls, they also open up opportunities for election officials to automatically update voter information and maintain voters' registrations as they move or other personal information changes. But as with other forms of list maintenance, proper controls and safeguards are essential to prevent erroneous information from corrupting the rolls and leading to the inadvertent disenfranchisement of voters.
The Brennan Center for Justice has lead the way on this issue, both by bringing instances of unjustified purges to the public attention, detailing how poorly conducted purges can lead to the disenfranchisement of eligible voters, and litigating in states that have purged eligible voters. Project Vote has drafted model legislation regarding list maintenance that should serve as a starting point for legislators interested in making sure the voter rolls in their state are accurate and complete without removing eligible voters.
National Voter Registration Act Compliance
Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), states are required to provide citizens with the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew a driver's license, or when they apply, re-certify, renew or change their address at a public or disability assistance agency. Additionally, NVRA requires that at least some other state agencies participate. The law, commonly known as the "motor voter" law, is a model of the proactive steps that government can take to foster electoral participation, especially among demographic groups that have historically been underrepresented in the voting population, such as racial and ethnic minorities, the economically disadvantaged, and less educated individuals. However, early success increasing the number of people registering to vote has subsided significantly as compliance has become more lax. The U.S. House of Representatives recently held a hearing on the issue where witnesses outlined compliance problems and a lack of enforcement on the part of the Department of Justice.
Some States Have Prioritized NVRA Compliance and Achieved Striking Results: While nationally NVRA compliance has dropped off sharply, some states have reinvigorated their efforts to comply with the law and as a result have seen major upswings in the number of voters that are being registered at public agencies, especially 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 average monthly registrations from 484 in the years 2004 through 2006 to 2529 in 2007. Iowa and Oregon have also made a concerted effort to improve compliance.
Public assistance agencies have seen the most significant compliance problems and they also provide the best opportunities to register voters whose voices have traditionally been underrepresented in the electorate. Project Vote has composed a basic five part strategy that will help election officials achieve compliance at these agencies:
- Know the NVRA's public agency registration requirements (NVRA Section 7).
- Communicate frequently with agency managers and staff.
- Provide training and support to agency personnel.
- Monitor registrations from public assistance agencies.
- Review agency registration performance and act on your findings.
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.
The promise of the National Voter Registration Act to ensure that government takes proactive steps to register traditionally underrepresented voters is still unfulfilled in most states. But, 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.
The implementation of statewide voter databases has opened up an unprecedented opportunity for election officials to be proactive in maintaining voters' registrations through changes in residence -- the most prevalent reason why voters are removed from the voter rolls. Most jurisdictions de-register voters either when the voter has a change of address as reported by the United States Postal Service or because non-forwarding mail sent to the voter was returned as undeliverable. With proper safeguards for insuring that either event actually resulted from a change of residence for voting purposes, election officials are now able to use a variety of state databases and even commercial databases to update a voter's registration instead of merely removing them from the rolls.
A Comprehensive Approach will Yield the Best Results: Being proactive means officials must try as hard to maintain registrations as they do to register people to begin with and to de-registering them when they become ineligible. It also means integrating information from as many sources as possible so that every opportunity to update and verify information across multiple data sources is taken. This is an important goal not just because it will help increase participation generally and remove burdens on the voter to re-register, but also because those who move most frequently ”“ the young and low-income individuals ”“ are most likely to be politically and electorally disengaged. Therefore, diligent re-registration can be an important aspect of achieving the progressive goal of making the electorate accurately reflect the population as a whole. This goal is a means to the important end of making sure all people have their needs and concerns addressed by those chosen to represent us.
States Begin Implementing Automatic Re-registration: While no state is currently taking full advantage of the resources at their disposal to maintain registrations when voters move, Minnesota took an important first step this year when they passed HB 1546, sponsored by Rep. Steve Simon, a law to establish automatic re-registration for all voters who move anywhere within the state. Now, when a voter changes their residential address with the United States Postal Service, instead of merely de-registering a voter the election official notifies the jurisdiction into which the voter moved and has them added to the voter rolls at their new place of residence. Oregon has enacted similar legislation. These steps will help thousands of voters maintain their registrations, but they currently lack best practices safeguards that would ensure that voters maintain control of where they are registered and that would require verification of an address change from more than one source. See Project Votes' model list maintenance legislation for best practices in this regard.