Here we go again. Through the fog of emerging reports about administrative and voting rights problems voters face this year one thing should be painfully clear: We simply must get America's voter registration house in order. Again in 2008, in spite of valiant efforts by many and many thousands of hours put in by election officials and voter rights organizations, legitimate voters are once again being thwarted at the polls.
Here are some reports from the front lines--at the Election Protection headquarters where many of my colleagues on the Demos staff are working the phones, answering questions and dealing with potential legal challenges.
In the past couple of days, numerous voters in Florida received letters informing them that their voter registration applications had been rejected, and that they were in fact unable to vote in the biggest election in recent memory. Why? Because their application was missing something. It seems a number of applicants neglected to check one of the boxes on the form or didn't completely fill out a line. In some cases, it's because registrants forgot to check a box indicating they are a U.S. citizen. That might be a problem, but for the fact that those registrants were also required on their registration form to swear under penalty of perjury that they are U.S. citizens. But Florida has required that you check the box and sign the form. A signature alone won't suffice, even though it is a binding legal declaration. Even more ridiculous, a registrant who neglects to check a party designation also is out of luck. In other words, because a voter doesn't designate whether they want to be a Republican, or Democrat, or Green or Libertarian or independent, they get the default designation--nothing, and no vote. Advocates tried to fix this in the past. But the state has held firm.
In Kansas, the state in August acted progressively and allowed individuals renewing their licenses to register to vote electronically. But somewhere between good intentions and reality, many of these registrations have vanished. Voters are showing up, and finding they're not registered. For now, these voters are stuck casting provisional ballots, which is an iffy proposition at best given the vast number of provisional votes went uncounted in the national elections of '04 and '06. Today the Election Protection legal team sent a letter to Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh urging him to issue clear instructions to all polling places to maximize the chances that these people are allowed to vote.
And in New Jersey, it seems the crush of new voter registrations forms has so overwhelmed election offices in some counties that the registrations have not yet been processed, and some thousands of people are going to the polls finding they are not in the official book. Morris County alone says they have a backlog of 1,500 registration forms. The voters here, too, may end up voting provisionally.
By the end of the day Tuesday, we're sure to hear more stories.
What's clear is that the voter registration system needs upgrading and clear requirements that ensure both the voters' interests and the integrity of those lists.. The patchwork quilt of registration processes and rules makes a mockery of the right to vote. There are solutions. The nine states with Same Day Registration (SDR)/Election Day Registration (EDR) account for this kind of error by allowing people to correct their registration, or register anew, on Election Day. Be thankful if you're voting in Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Idaho, Wyoming, or if you've voted early in North Carolina. It's no wonder those states have turnout rates 10-12 points higher than non-EDR states.
And ultimately, we simply must get to the international standard of universal and permanent registration. If the government had an affirmative obligation to get everybody registered, these problems could go away. How about we get that done before 2010?
Stuart Comstock-Gay is Director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a national, public policy and research organization.
Democracy Program Staffers are at Election Protection Call Centers in New York and Washington, D.C., summarizing latest voting trends and problems from thousands of calls nationwide to the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline.