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Mar 29 / Sarah Massey

Laws restricting voter registration drives discriminatory; registrations dropping in Florida

This year two Florida community voter registration drives, by Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, have stopped collecting applications due to laws that place new hurdles on their operations. Texas has a similarly restrictive law, which is the subject of a current lawsuit filed by Project Vote affiliate Voting for America. Now, legislators in South Carolina, Missouri, New York, and Michigan are looking to pass laws that would seriously hinder voter registration efforts in those states.

The argument made by the proponents of these strict restrictions on community voter registration drives is that they are necessary to combat fraud. Opponents argue that their intent is discriminatory, and will negatively impact low-income and minority voters. Whatever the intent, however, the real effect will be fewer opportunities for citizens to register to vote, according to the League of Women Voters of Michigan and the AARP Michigan, Lansing.

“There is no evidence that these regulations are needed or will improve our elections. The League of Women Voters has been registering voters for 90 years. It doesn’t require specialized training. It simply provides an opportunity for people to register at a convenient location, such as their school, church, library, or community center. We should encourage people to vote by making voting more convenient and accessible, not more difficult,” wrote Susan Smith, president, League of Women Voters of Michigan and Robert Kolt, president, AARP Michigan, Lansing in the Detroit News.

 At best, these state election laws and restrictions on community based voter registration drives will make it more difficult to help citizens register to vote. At worst, these laws are aimed directly at hurting lower income and minority populations that rely on the community voter registration drives to participate.

Last week, the Justice Department suggested in a court filing that the Florida laws, which place harsh restrictions on community registration drives and limit the early voting period, may have been passed with a discriminatory intent. The Justice Department stated that Florida “has not met its burden of proof” in demonstrating that “the proposed voting changes neither have the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.” (Emphasis added.) (The case is Florida v. US in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Project Vote, Voting for America, and numerous other organizations and individuals are defendant-intervenors.)

“This new statement from the Justice Department focuses for the first time on the purpose of the Florida voter registration law,” says Estelle H. Rogers, Esq., legislative director of Project Vote. “While the Justice Department cannot prove discriminatory intent, they have nevertheless concluded that Florida cannot prove that the purpose of the law is not discriminatory. And under the Voting Rights Act, that’s just what the state has to prove. The reason we have the Voting Rights Act is to make sure that laws in states or localities with a history of racial discrimination in voting are reviewed especially closely, and those jurisdictions have the burden of showing that their voting changes have neither the purpose nor the effect of denying the right to vote.”

While the motive for these laws is hard to prove, their effect is unmistakable. Restrictions on voter-registration drives have almost no impact on so-called “voter fraud,” which all sides in the debate agree is incredibly rare. What these laws will do, consistently, is make it difficult for community organizations to help low-income and minority citizens register to vote.

“It’s a documented fact that minority and low-income citizens, in particular, rely on community voter registration drives to register to vote,” says Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote. “We agree with the Justice Department that Florida cannot prove that the strict regulations on community voter registration drives are not discriminatory both in effect and purpose. Making community voter registration drives arduous is a big step back in our nation’s voting rights movement.”

The importance of voter registration

Voter registration drives have assumed increasing importance in the life of every election cycle. Across the nation, an estimated 28 million citizens rely on community-based voter registration drives to register to vote for the first time or update their registration whenever they move. According to the 2008 Current Population Survey, nine million citizens reported having registered through a “voter registration drive.” But, “This likely seriously undercounts the total impact of voter registration drives, however, as [another] 9.4 million citizens…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,” wrote Doug Hess and Jody Herman in Project Vote’s 2009 report, Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate.

Community voter registration drives are particularly important to racial minorities seeking to register. The 2010 Current Population Survey indicates that minority citizens in Florida were approximately twice as likely to register to vote through drives as were white voters: 16.2% of African Americans and 15.5% of Hispanics, as opposed to 8.6% of whites. The data from both the 2004 and 2008 election cycles indicate similar patterns: African-American and Hispanic citizens are about twice as likely to register to vote through drives as white voters.

Registration numbers down in Florida

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that Florida is enrolling fewer new voters than it did four years ago:

Florida, which reminded the nation of the importance of every vote in the disputed presidential election in 2000 when it reported that George W. Bush had won by 537 votes, is now seeing a significant drop-off in new voter registrations. In the months since its new law took effect in July, 81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than during the same period before the 2008 presidential election, according to an analysis of registration data by The New York Times.

The story cites the Volusia County supervisor of elections who attributes the decline in new registrations to the drop in community voter registration drives.

“It may be too soon to say what exact proportion of the drop off in new voter registrations is due to the anti-community voter registration drive laws, but it’s not too soon to say the Florida laws are having a negative impact,” says Slater. “These laws are undemocratic at their core and have the very real effect of silencing community voices. We should be making voting more convenient and accessible for everyone.”

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