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Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

In recent weeks, two Congressional hearings examined hot button voter suppression issues, voter fraud and voter caging, that have the potential to "taint the November election." These major voting rights issues have moved into broad public consciousness thanks to the 2007 exposure of the U.S. Attorney scandal in which nine federal prosecutors were fired for alleged lack of zeal in pursuing partisan accusations of widespread voter fraud. Now, two states with upcoming primary elections, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, have made local headlines for voter registration discrepancies, creating openings for confusing and discouraging voters and possibly even allowing those with voter suppression agendas to make an impact.  

Just one month before the state's presidential primary, Pennsylvania "pulled the plug on a voter registration Web site," on Tuesday. A Web programming error allegedly exposed voter registration forms filled out by state residents online, including personal information such as name, birth date, driver's license and party affiliation, according to International Data Group News Service. "About 300,000 voter registration records appeared to be available on the site."

Typically, voter registration data is accessible – excluding private information that could be 'misused' – so that voters can check their registration status. This is an appropriate practice that helps promote transparency in the electoral process. However, poorly conceived systems can have grave consequences.

The governmental use of "'sophisticated technology in thoughtless ways'" is "'alarming,'" according to Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a group that examines voting technology issues. "All kinds of dirty tricks could be played...In heated campaigns, we've seen cases where someone will call a whole bunch of voters and tell them that the election date has been changed."

Voter deception and intimidation tactics have long been used to suppress voters, particularly those from marginalized communities, according to a report by People for the American Way. According to the report, "[i]n recent years, many minority communities have tended to align with the Democratic Party. Over the past two decades, the Republican Party has launched a series of 'ballot security' and 'voter integrity' initiatives which have targeted minority communities."

One initiative that can affect tens of thousands of voters at a time involves the "caging" of voters, which involves "partisan operatives sending 'do not forward' letters to voters in areas heavily populated by people registered with the competing party. Letters that are returned undelivered are then offered as evidence that the voter no longer lives where he or she is registered," according to a recent Project Vote blog. This occurs, even though "letters can be returned for a variety of reasons, such as that recipient is in the military and stationed elsewhere, or is a student, or simply that there is an error in the name or address."

Thus, when the voter goes to the polls on Election Day, he or she is subject to a direct, personal challenge to their right to vote. Errors such as the one in Penn. create boundless opportunities for partisans to pursue voter suppression programs.

A recent cluster of Congressional hearings examining both overt and accidental voter suppression tactics. The Caging Prohibition Act of 2007, a bill sponsored by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), would outlaw voter caging activities, which would minimize the damage that a situation like the one in Penn. could cause. Project Vote submitted testimony for the hearing on the Whitehouse bill and another for the hearing on the Justice Department's failure to enforce important provisions of the National Voter Registration Act that would increase the number of low-income Americans registered to vote.

Voter caging is one way in which voters can be disenfranchised using databases and voting lists. In recent years, other issues surrounding voter lists have frequently lent themselves to both purposeful and inadvertent voter disenfranchisement. As illustrated in Florida before the 2000 presidential election, faulty database- matching of names with a felon database resulted in the denial of voting rights of thousands of legitimate voters.  

On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune published a column by a local election clerk, advising voters to help keep the statewide voter registration system up-to-date by providing additional information, including driver's license numbers and date of birth, "as is now required by law. That information is important to help the system and local election officials differentiate between voters."

After discouraging established voters from re-registering with the additional information, the election clerk added that some voters will be asked to "provide extra information to complete your voter record" at the April 1 primary, a Sept. 9 election and again on Nov. 4. While the clerk stressed that her directions were to help avoid confusion on Election Day, the chances of puzzled voters only seem to increase. The column is unclear on how extensive these requests at the polls will be and whether or not voters will be turned away if they do not provide such "additional information" - especially since the state has several voter identification bills pending in the legislature.

Whether the cause for disenfranchisement (or discouragement) of legitimate voters is technical glitches, list maintenance mix-ups or the partisan ploy of voter caging, the most pressing issue is that  nontransparent election administration procedures are vulnerable to voter suppression. Instead of legitimatizing voter suppression methods, state and Congressional legislatures should consider adopting anti-voter deception and caging measures -  as well as transparent, non-discriminatory list maintenance procedures. These would not only help build public trust in elections, but ensure voters have a clear vision of how democracy works – and have a stake in it.

Quick Links:

"Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters." Project Vote.

"Voter Caging" Definition. Project Vote

"The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Suppression in America." People for the American Way.

"Maintaining Current and Accurate Voter Lists." Project Vote.

In Other News:

"Saugus Town Clerk Joanne Rappa hopes that state lawmakers give the thumbs-down to a pending bill that that would allow people to register to vote on election days in Massachusetts." More of this Boston Globe article here.

"JACKSON - The House and Senate will continue their tussle over various election reforms, but voter-ID legislation got snuffed out twice Tuesday." More of this Columbus Commercial Dispatch article here.

Erin Ferns is a Research and Policy Analyst with Project Vote’s Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD).

Originally posted to Project Vote on Thu Mar 20, 2008 at 11:08 AM PDT.

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