In a democracy that can only boast that 71 percent of its citizens are registered and able to exercise their civic duty in any given election, access to the franchise is crucial. For decades, millions of citizens have relied on either voter registration drives or government agencies to help them get on the voter rolls. Today, however, private voter registration drives are under attack, while some states are ignoring their responsibilities to reach unregistered citizens. If community-based drives are prevented from helping Americans get registered, and government agencies won’t help them, then who will?
In several states, elected officials and partisan groups are intent on stifling the proven effectiveness of voter registration drives run by private individuals and organizations. Despite the partisan-spun “scandals” that come with third-party voter registration drives, they are undeniably effective in reaching large portions of the population.
“According to the 2008 CPS, nearly 9 million citizens [or 8 percent] reported having registered ‘at a voter registration drive,’” wrote Doug Hess and Jody Herman in Project Vote report, Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate. “This likely seriously undercounts the total impact of voter registration drives, however, as 9.4 million citizens (another 8 percent) reported that they registered ‘at a school, hospital, or on campus’—all locations where voter registration drives are often conducted by civic organizations and student groups.”
Another 9.7 million registered to vote through mail-in voter registration applications, many of whom presumably received these applications from voter drives or organizations that distributed the forms through the postal or electronic mail.
Voter registration drives are protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment, as well as provisions under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (which directly protects and encourages community-run voter registration drives as the law’s primary purpose is to ensure more citizens are registered to vote). Yet lawmakers and election officials in states like Nevada are looking to regulate and criminalize voter registration drives so thoroughly, that they can create a “chilling effect on community-based voter registration, causing many organizations to curtail or cease their voter registration efforts.”
Other states are introducing regressive bills to halt otherwise effective means of registering voters. The opportunity to register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time, or Election Day Registration, is available in nine states, most of which exhibit above-average voter participation rates. Republican-backed efforts to do away with EDR are reportedly underway in Montana, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin.
Perhaps the most noncontroversial and effective way to reach large numbers of historically underrepresented, low-income citizens lies in Section 7 of the NVRA, but nationwide compliance with this law is inconsistent. The NVRA requires public assistance agencies that provide services to low-income residents to offer voter registration services to their clients. However, in states like Louisiana, voter registration cards collected at these agencies have declined by as much as 88 percent since implementation in 1995.
On Wednesday, Project Vote, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson put Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler on notice for voting rights violations in the state.
The groups called on Schedler, the Dept. of Children and Family Services, and Dept. of Health and Hospitals, to take corrective action necessary to bring the state into compliance with the NVRA, citing evidence of the state denying numerous low-income residents of the opportunity to register to vote.
“In the past several years, lawsuits filed by Project Vote and other groups have forced other states that had been disregarding the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results,” according to the press release. “For example, applications from Missouri public assistance agencies skyrocketed, from fewer than 8,000 a year to over 130,000 a year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2008. More than 200,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there in the end of 2009.”
Voter registration is the first, key step to getting involved in the democratic process. Whether provided by community-based groups or existing state and federal laws, lawmakers should focus on improving and fostering these methods of voter registration, not obstructing or ignoring them. Every eligible citizen should have equal access to the franchise in this country, and when millions rely on voter registration drives, government agency officials, and poll clerks on Election Day to provide that opportunity, we may want to rethink our approach to “fixing” the election system.