Archaic Voter Registration Procedures Leave Citizens Behind

By Erin Ferns Lee August 12, 2010

Access to voter registration—the basis of democratic participation—is still limited in the 21st century by overly restrictive, “horse-and-buggy” laws across the country. Despite advances in technology, states struggle with politically charged or neglected election systems when such systems can (and should) simply focus on building a truly representative electorate in modern day America.

In a recent CNN opinion piece, political strategist Donna Brazile advises vigilance in protecting voting rights of Americans, reflecting on the history of the civil rights movement and today’s state-by-state effort to fashion “new ways to restrain voting rights.”

These new restraints include proof-of-citizenship requirements at registration and voter ID requirements at the polling places, as well as the perpetuation of outdated election administration rules that have been exhibited in the state of Georgia.

“Georgia…relies on outdated and inaccurate information to verify the citizenship status of Georgians registering to vote,” wrote Brazile. “The Department of Justice concluded that the program improperly harms minority voters. Rather than repair its program, Georgia elected to sue the federal government in hopes of continuing to use its flawed process.”

Meanwhile, the state is being sued for erroneously purging naturalized citizen Jose Morales from the voter rolls, reportedly one of many legitimate citizens disenfranchised by the problematic list maintenance procedure. In keeping with its reactionary efforts to stop the nonexistent problem of noncitizen voting in the state, the Georgia legislature approved a law in 2009 to require all voter registrants to present documented proof of citizenship with their voter application. The law is pending approval from the Justice Department while other states, including Michigan and Tennessee, have recently pushed similar bills.

But, immigrants and minorities are not the only groups that are reportedly affected by the (at best) archaic or (at worst) draconian election laws. These laws affect all citizens, even the seemingly mundane rules like voter registration deadlines.

“Nobody makes it more difficult to register to vote than we do,” said Dalton State college political science professor, Ken Ellinger in a recent Chattanooga Times Free Press report. “We say we want (voters) to participate, but I’m not sure we really do because, if we did, we’d make it easier.”

In particular, Ellinger asserts that the state’s “horse-and-buggy” 30-day deadline to submit voter registration cards before an election—the maximum window allotted under federal election law—puts a damper on voter mobilization.

“There are other factors, but registration definitely has an effect (on turnout) because it makes you think of the elections before most people are starting to think about it,” said Carl Cavalli, a political science professor at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega.

While the secretary of state’s office asserts Georgia’s voter turnout matches the national average (64 percent), participation still varies from county to county, according to the Times Free Press. For example, the Dalton city mayor complains that northwest Georgia is severely underrepresented because few of its registered voters actually vote.

The solution to improving voter registration rates, as well as turnout, the professors say, is Election Day Registration. Practiced in a handful of states, the ability to register and vote at the same time  has proven to increase in voter participation by 10 percent above the national average, according to research and advocacy group, Demos. (Contrary to common thought, states have implemented this convenience without any increase in fraudulent voting. )

Other states are passing laws to make voter registration accessible via Internet, a process favored by young people, according to Indiana publication, Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Citing a Pew Center on the States report that studied online voter registration programs in Arizona and Washington, the Journal Gazette notes “Internet registrants tend to be much younger, 55 percent younger than 40 in Arizona and 60 percent younger than age 34 in Washington.”

Whether based on anti-immigration rhetoric, fears of voter fraud, or keeping partisan political power, raising unnecessary barriers to the democratic process suppresses what it is to be American.

“The right of every citizen to vote is too fundamental to the health of our democracy to be wielded as a political cudgel or traded away in favor of other, fleeting interests,” wrote Brazile. “Meaningful equality…grows stronger with each voter registered and every ballot cast.”