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Why do we make it so hard to vote?

News item: Many voter registrations around the country are outdated or incorrect.

Some 24 million voter registrations in the United States contain significant errors, including about 1.8 million dead people still on the rolls and many more approved to vote in multiple states, according to a report released Tuesday.

Even though the inaccuracies impact one in eight registrations, researches at the Pew Center on the States said they don’t see it as an indicator of widespread fraud. Rather, they believe outdated systems are failing to keep pace with the most basic changes in people’s lives, feeding perceptions that U.S. elections are not as airtight as they could be.

In conjunction with Pew’s report, eight states said they are working this year on a centralized data system to help identify people whose registrations may be out of date.

“A lot of people probably assume we do this already,” said Sam Reed, who oversees elections as Washington’s secretary of state. “I think it’s going to bring more trust and confidence in the election system.”

About 2.7 million people have active registrations in multiple states, including about 2,000 people registered in four or more states, according to the Pew report. Elections officials said it is difficult to track when someone has moved to another state without canceling their previous registration.

Dead people on voter rolls get a lot of attention. What gets much less attention is the number of eligible voters who get purged from voter rolls as election administrators try to clean them up. Database management is hard. People with common names are often mistaken for each other, but even people with relatively uncommon names can have this problem. There’s another person with the same name as my wife in the Houston area who isn’t very good at paying her bills. We know this because we have received many, many phone calls over the years from various collection agencies trying to track her down. With the best of intentions and the most careful practices, mistakes can be and are made by elections administrator. Of course, some of them don’t have good intentions, and some of them aren’t particularly careful.

News item: Nonprofit group files federal lawsuit against Texas over voter registration practices.

The only voter ID anyone should need

Why do we make this so hard to get?

The nonprofit Voting for America filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging Texas voter rolls have been actively suppressed by excessive restrictions on volunteers who conduct registration drives, aggressive purges of county voter rolls and poll workers who improperly requested identification from voters.

“A developing body of state practices and provisions targeted at voter registration activities is endangering the rights of many Texas voters,” the lawsuit alleges.

The group, affiliated with the Washington D.C.-based Project Vote, runs nonpartisan voter registration drives nationwide and has previously mounted legal challenges to state voter registration procedures in Missouri, Ohio, Indiana and New Mexico, among other states.

The latest lawsuit filed in the Southern District of Texas courts names Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade and takes aim at the state’s new mandatory training for all volunteer registrars – in which almost anyone who handles a voter’s application as part of a registration drive has to complete training before he or she can be “deputized” to operate in any Texas county. A spokesman for Andrade refused comment.

Population growth in Texas exceeds most other states, while many voter registration rolls throughout the state remain stagnant. As of January, 12.9 million Texans had registered to vote -up just 2 percent from January 2008.

That’s a companion to a Chron story from January 30 that I still haven’t seen online that notes voter registration totals in Harris County have stagnated despite its growth over the past decade. In response to which local Dem activist Stan Merriman wrote this op-ed about simplifying the voter registration process:

First, the voter, once registered should always be registered; any changes can and should be treated with a simple change of address process, excepting those few who lose their right to vote.

Second, voting at all times and locations should be treated like we do early voting. Voters should be allowed to show up at any polling place within the county and, with verification that they are county residents, be allowed to vote. Our sophisticated data base technology today can take care of the verification process.

Third, the county should routinely allocate adequate funding to maintain an ongoing voter registration and participation outreach campaign to motivate our citizens to participate in a simple process that ought to be routine, not torturous. The scale of our outreach now is comparable to that of a backwater, rural Texas county.

Fourth, my own party has never made registration a priority; it is not even mentioned in our State Platform. We should get into registration in a huge way, rather than relying on other groups.

Fifth, we should allow election-day registration, as is done in many states. Studies have shown at least a 15 percent increase in participation levels compared to states with burdensome advance registration processes, such as those in Harris County.

As I see it, there are two types of people in this country: Those who believe voting is a right, and that everyone has the right to vote unless they are too young, not citizens, or have an unresolved felony conviction; and those who believe voting is a privilege that one must earn by successfully completing a series of bureaucratic obligations. (Or, preferably, by being born in the right places to the right people. They don’t usually say that part out loud.) I am in the former group. All of these problems, along with the well-documented Republican efforts to suppress voting via onerous voter ID requirements, convince me that the solution is to reaffirm the right that every free adult citizen has in this country to vote and do away with all the needless and nettlesome requirements that hinder that right.

Admittedly, that’s easier said than done. One possible way to help is to take responsibility for tracking voters away from local officials and make it a federal responsibility. Kevin Drum suggests that a national ID card provided by the federal government would go a long way to solving this problem, and would make the voter ID issue moot as well. I realize that’s a black-helicopter issue for some people, but honestly in this day and age when Google and Facebook know more about you than you do about yourself, how scary is that really? But putting all the technical details aside, what this comes down to is very basic. Either you believe adult citizens have a right to vote that should not be interfered with by petty bureaucrats, or you believe that voting is a privilege that is arbitrarily granted and can be denied by whim or computer glitch. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would think the latter is acceptable. Stace and BOR have more.

UPDATE: Here’s that Chron story about voter registration totals in Harris County. Thanks to Fred King in the Tax Assessor’s office for sending it to me.

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3 Comments

  1. Mainstream says:

    I think you are too harsh on those who think it reasonable to require voters to follow procedures (in your mind, bureaucratic) and register in advance. I don’t think many such folks care about where or to whom the potential voter is born.

    I do hear those folks argue that requiring registration prior to election serves the purpose of making it more likely that voters who participate are the sort who study and research the issues and candidates, or who have a stake in the community and the tax costs of the services it provides. But I am not aware of any research which shows that a voter who registers is more politically savvy or community minded than those citizens who do not.

    From a campaign management perspective, allowing same-day registration would result in more surprises and upsets, and make it hard for candidates to figure out to whom to mail and telephone for support, but neither is a reason not to do so. Provisional voting could ensure that the registration is not a duplicate or fraudulent.

    The idea of allowing all voting precincts to handle voters from anywhere in the county would be a great improvement, and more efficient, especially if the number of voting sites could be reduced to allow larger voting sites with more staff and machines. But DOJ would probably not approve reducing the number of voting locations, and would argue that doing so disadvantages the poor, minorities, seniors who have more trouble to get to the more distant sites.

    One advantage would be that people from Kingwood and Tomball and Clear Lake could vote on their lunch hour downtown without driving back to the suburbs, so I think the net effect of this change would be a much stronger GOP vote.

  2. Ross says:

    I find it interesting that Progressives, who continually trumpet the superiority of government solutions to just about every problem, are aghast that government employees incompetence makes it difficult for some people to register to vote or to obtain the documents necessary to prove identity. If government employees can’t get simple processes like voter registration and document provision correct, why would anyone think that those employees are capable of performing any task that’s more difficult?

    None of the anecdotal evidence provided so far to support the concept that it’s hard to get an ID for voting has proven anything other than government employees are often uncaring and incompetent.

  3. Greg Wythe says:

    “The idea of allowing all voting precincts to handle voters from anywhere in the county would be a great improvement, and more efficient, especially if the number of voting sites could be reduced to allow larger voting sites with more staff and machines.”

    Collin County had a very bad experience this in their first year of Voting Center operation. Namely, there’s a matter of resource distribution planning that enters a big unknown. I’m not sure how much that improves over time since I’ve not heard of similar problems in Lubbock. There is, of course, an interesting comment on a prior post here about turnout in minority precincts: http://offthekuff.com/wp/?p=22499&cpage=1#comment-32590

    Whether there’s causality or coincidence behind that, of course, remains to be seen. I’m not any more inclined to accept one election as proof here any more than I am in accepting Indiana’s 2008 election turnout as proof that Voter ID improves turnout in minority precincts.

    The concept is perfectly fine and I’d agree that there are areas of improvement to be had. Not every precinct presently has well-trained staff operating an election. I was a bit surprised to see my precinct in 2010 not being run by the usual person who had done so before and the lack of experience (and possibly training as well) when I got in line at 6:59am on Election Day only to vote at 7:15.

    I’d hope that we’d be able to do an honest assessment of the impact of any move to Voting Centers and maybe find some ways to move toward them more gradually. A good first step, I think is to conduct one election at each precinct with the ability to vote anywhere before easing into a reduction of polling locations. I can’t say I’m an optimist that an “honest assessment” is likely, though.