Senate Committee Hearing Examines Flaws in Voter Registration System

Calling voter registration “the lifeblood of our republic,” Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, opened the committee's hearing this morning on current problems in America's voter registration system. A focus of the discussion was a new study produced by the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey-conducted by researchers at thirty universities across the country-that finds that up to three million voters actively tried to vote in 2008 but were denied, and an additional four million were discouraged from voting due to administrative barriers.  In their opening statements both Chairman Schumer and ranking minority member Robert Benett (R-UT) described the need to balance what Benett called the “two compelling and sometimes competing interests”: ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote can, while at the same time preventing those who are not qualified to vote from voting. While referring to this “yin and yang” of election administration, however, the testimony of the witnesses and the discussion that followed made it clear that the first issue-the systemic problems with the voter registration system that risks disenfranchising millions of eligible voters-is the area most in need of attention.

“In the 21st century people shouldn't be denied their constitutional right to vote because of problems caused by an antiquated voter registration system that was set up in the 19th century by the Whig Party,” said Chairman Schumer.

Dr. Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University-one of the lead researchers on the study-testified as to the stark realities of the numbers. According to Dr. Ansolabehere, an estimated 79 million eligible American voters did not participate in the 2008 election -44 million because they were not registered, and 35 million who were registered but did not vote. According to data from the study, two to three million of these voters were prevented from voting because of registration or authentication problems, and another two to four  million registered voters were discouraged from voting because of administrative problems. “Registration continues to create significant barriers to getting into the electoral system and to voting on Election Day,” Dr. Ansolabehere said in his written testimony.

As Jonah Goldman, Director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said, the antiquated voter registration system “prevents more eligible voters from casting a ballot than any other part of the process.”

“The United States continues to make voting more difficult than any other industrialized democracy,” agreed Dr. Nathaniel Persily of Columbia Law School, who identified two major factors in this problem. The first is that Americans have a high mobility rate; an estimated 90 million eligible voters move every five years, and therefore are required to re-register each time-a problem that disproportionately affects certain vulnerable populations including low-income Americans, minorities, young voters, and military voters. The second factor, according to Persily, is that the American government takes a very limited role in affirmatively registering voters.  

In her testimony Kristen Clarke, co-director of the Political Participation Group of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, raised the issue of “widely disparate practices among local election officials,” including confusing application form design, implementation of HAVA's database matching requirements, felon disenfranchisement laws,  and state purge programs, all of which improperly remove eligible voters-disproportionately low-income and minority Americans-from the rolls. “While we turn our attention to exploring the corrective action that must be taken,” Ms. Clarke testified, “we must remain mindful of the particular challenges faced by those who are among the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society-the poor, those incarcerated, and our nation's racial and ethnic minorities.”

Access to voter registration has always been particularly challenging for low-income citizens and racial minorities. One proven but neglected current solution received unfortunately little discussion today: the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requirements that states register voters through public assistance agencies. Despite South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson's testimony today that public assistance registration is one of the reason's the voter registration system is “easy and accessible,” too many states are neglecting the public agency provisions of the NVRA-as Project Vote has documented-and getting away with it due to a history of lack enforcement by the Department of Justice on this and other voting rights issues.

Another problem Project Vote identifies in its testimony is the failure of local election boards to send timely notices to applicants on the disposition of their registrations-which not only denies applicants an opportunity to correct any problems, but also encourages “useless re-registration” by individuals who are not sure their application was processed. This contributes to the duplication problems that plague local election boards, choke databases, and hamper voter registration efforts.

“What is most vexing is the intractability of some of these injustices, which should have been remedied long ago,” Project Vote's testimony concludes.  “It is perhaps not surprising, though, with literally thousands of election districts operating with some measure of autonomy that a problem solved in one town is bound to crop up in another.  That is why federal regulation and oversight is so essential in ensuring that our system of registration and voting will soon be worthy of the public's confidence.”

To read Project Vote's written testimony, click here.