Voter Registration Drives: A Thing of the Future

By Erin Ferns Lee July 22, 2010

Community driven voter registration drives are still the gateway to democracy to millions of Americans. However, after the overall success of voter registration drives in 2008, states have increasingly imposed severe restrictions on voter registration activity. With more than 60 million unregistered Americans missing the opportunity to have a voice in their communities, lawmakers and advocates must recognize the significance of voter registration drives and work to facilitate and improve such practices with the help of effective regulations and modern technology.

While the National Voter Registration Act is effective in providing voter registration at motor vehicle and public agency offices, community driven voter registration activities are still an important factor in helping register the millions of unregistered citizens. In 2008, nearly nine million Americans reported having registered to vote through a voter registration drive and 9.4 million more said they registered “at a school, hospital, or on campus,” where drives are often conducted by civic organizations and student groups, according to new Project Vote legislative brief, Restricting Voter Registration Drives.

Historically underrepresented groups are also more likely to rely on voter registration drives to register to vote. According to Project Vote report, Representation Bias in the 2008 Electorate, 12 percent of all reporting non-whites were more likely to register through a voter registration drive, compared to just six percent of whites.

As it is clear that citizens in underrepresented communities are more likely to rely on voter registration drives, “…it is equally true, then, that attacks on civic organizations, and burdensome legal and administrative restrictions on voter registration drives, have a negative impact on the very minority communities whose voices are most needed—and most often missing—at the voting booth,” according to the report.

Over the last decade, states have implemented restrictions on voter registration drives that could impede or shut down such activities, and many of which may fundamental rights of political speech and association guaranteed by the First Amendment. These restrictions, for example, include the unclear definition of voter registration drives whereby anyone outside of a political party— including a church member or roommate who wants to register her friends— is held accountable for running a drive, having to pay fines as high as $5,000 for turning in an application late, as was the case in Florida before the restrictions were declared unconstitutional in League of Women Voters of Florida v. Cobb.

Similarly, in New Mexico, the American Association of People with Disabilities is challenging a 2005 law that requires all “third-party registration agents” to supply the secretary of state with the personal information of volunteers or employees, as well as their sworn statements that they would abide by applicable laws. The law further restricts the number of cards given to any organization to 50 at a time and provides an exceedingly short 48 hour window of time that the organization has to return a completed card.

Community-run voter registration drives are not only protected by the First Amendment, but also the National Voter Registration Act, which ensures that more eligible citizens—especially underrepresented minority citizens—are registered to vote.

“To that end, Congress mandated that states distribute voter registration forms ‘with particular emphasis on making them available for organized voter registration programs.’ Overly-restrictive laws or regulations on voter registration activities may thus violate the letter and the spirit of both the First Amendment and the NVRA.”

While there are other mechanisms for reaching the tens of millions of eligible but unregistered Americans—including the National Voter Registration Act’s “motor voter” and public assistance agency programs, and new paperless and online alternatives—there is still no substitute for the simple, affirmative act of sending voter registration canvassers into America’s neighborhoods to help community members complete voter regsitration applications. State and local election officials should work together with community organizations to ensure reasonable regulation without unfairly impeding the vital role community-based voter registration drives play in America.