Virginia Illustrates Dos and Don’ts in Making Democracy Accessible

By Erin Ferns Lee August 5, 2010

Participating in democracy should be a simple exercise for anyone who is a citizen over the age of 18, but as voter registration and turnout stats indicate, it’s not always that easy. On their way to the polls, too many people encounter barriers and obstacles, and too often these impediments are a result of varying, nuanced election administration procedures across the United States. As a new Project Vote report illustrates, examples of many of these election administration dos and don’ts can be found in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Unlike other states where there is a significant racial disparity in voter registration rates, Virginia—home to more than five million voting-eligible citizens—has the laudable achievement of “near parity in registration rates across racial boundaries, according to the new Project Vote memo, Voting in Virginia: How the System Works and How it Can Be Improved by Daniel Charlton. The commonwealth also boasts a fair number of its eligible citizens on the voter rolls, ranking just a couple of percentage points above the national average at 74 percent.

Despite these positive points, however, access to the democratic process in Virginia still has room for systematic improvement. In the memo, Charlton discusses some of Virginia’s unclear or unregulated election administration procedures, which can allow some eligible citizens to slip through the cracks. This includes a notorious felon voting law (that depends upon, and fluctuates with, the whim of each governor); undefined deadlines for processing voter registration forms once they reach a registrar; a lack of clear protocols for rejecting or accepting applications; excessive use (and extremely low count) of provisional ballots; and an ultimate lack of transparency and access to records to determine election administration ills, a potential violation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

The latter raised issues in the commonwealth in the 2008 election and resulted in a currently pending, potentially precedent-setting lawsuit. In 2008, a large number of voter registration applications from Norfolk State University—a historically African-American college—were mysteriously rejected, causing a stir in the community. Alerted of the issue, Project Vote and Advancement Project asked the State Board of Elections for copies of the applications to determine the cause of the rejections, but were ultimately denied access. The failure to disclose such information to the public appears to violate the NVRA, which requires states to maintain and make available “all records” related to voter registration and list maintenance procedures.

“The NVRA was passed to ensure that all eligible Americans have the opportunity to register to vote,” said Project Vote election counsel, Teresa James. “Confidential information can be redacted for privacy, but registration applications should be available for inspection. The democratic process needs light and air to flourish.”

Virginia’s issues illustrate the need for election officials and voters across the country to be aware of state election administration procedures, a necessity that is heightened by the approaching midterm elections. Voter registration—the mainline to the democratic process—needs particular attention as it varies from state to state.

To help officials, voters, and anyone conducting voter registration drives understand these rules, Project Vote has updated and expanded its library of voter registration guides for 25 states, outlining eligibility requirements (including age and felony conviction nuances) and rules for conducting registration drives in each state.