Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Voter registration: archaic, gratuitous but perhaps fixable

When people start tearing their hair about the state of U.S. democracy, about voter apathy and low voter turnout, they are not getting to the nub of the problem. Our entire notion that voters must jump through an administrative maze in order to register to vote is archaic nonsense.

This year, Democratic campaigns have some plausible, smart ideas about how to turn out people who might not vote and who need a shove. That's well and good. But some of us who want to heal our broken democracy should be looking as well at longer term fixes. The most important would be doing away with the unnecessary hurdle created by voter registration procedures.

You often hear that the U.S. has very low voter turnout -- about 60 percent in presidential years and 40 some percent in non-presidential elections. but these reports seldom mention that those percentages are based on "eligible," not "registered" voters. Among registered voters, turnout is closer to 90 percent in Presidential elections. When people clear the registration hurdle, they vote a lot more regularly.

Among persons eligible to be voters, about one quarter are not currently registered. In 2008, that meant some 50 million people were out of the process. They were most likely to be young, of color, and poor; that's who moves around a lot and who doesn't take up bureaucratic tasks comfortably. These are also the people who tune in to elections late -- often in the last two weeks which is too late to register. Several states now offer Same Day Registration and they all should; contemporary databases can handle the task.

Registration serves the public purpose of ensuring that the office holders we vote on are the relevant ones for the place where we reside. It would not be a good thing if we were voting for a Congressperson in some other district or for the mayor of the next town. For that reason, registration is tied to our addresses. But come on -- if the post office can (usually) succeed in delivering our mail when we move, voting authorities (at least within the same state) should be able to keep track of where we live. Maybe the all seeing eyes of the NSA could do something useful here?

Though in states where Republicans are currently in control, moves are afoot to reduce access to voting, there are countervailing trends. I was pleased to see this little item about California procedures:

 SACRAMENTO, California – California’s system of online voter registration – launched in English and Spanish in 2012 – has been expanded to allow voters to register online in eight additional languages: Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.

New [California] voters can now register online at this link.

New American Media

Way to go California, though we still don't have same day registration and we should!

The new national health insurance law, Obamacare, may have a positive effect on voting. When it was being fought out in Congress, a friend who made himself a very public expert on the program confided to me that "there is nearly a one-to-one correlation between having health insurance and being a voter." Interesting. Now that more people, especially more poorer people, have insurance will that mean they also become voters? If they survived healthcare.gov, they've proved they can navigate bureaucratic systems.

Experts urge that in the process of signing up for health insurance, people can be offered the chance to get inside the voter registration maze. Project Vote explains

Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), voter registration opportunities must be provided to persons applying for public assistance programs. This requirement was included specifically to provide voter registration services to individuals who were less likely to register through other means. ...

The NVRA mandates that covered agencies must:

  • ask the applicant, in writing, whether he or she would like to register to vote or update his or her voter registration address;
  • distribute a voter registration application form, unless an individual declines in writing;
  • inform the applicant, in writing, that no one may interfere with his or her right to register to vote or not, right to privacy while registering, and right to choose a political party; and
  • help the applicant complete the voter registration application form, to the same degree as assistance is provided in completing benefits application forms.

In the initial rush to get Obamacare off the ground, it is not clear that this happened; the focus was just on getting numbers signed up in a cumbersome process. But over time millions of us will cycle through the Obamacare exchanges. Surely voluntary registration assistance, as already required by law, can become a normal part of the experience. Yes, Republicans won't like that -- but their states were also the ones that ceded building the internet health insurance interfaces to the feds. There ought to be a voting rights campaign in this ...

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Interesting details you provide. And they square with what I have observed about voter registration on the Big Island.
And yes, people without health insurance also don't vote. They are self employed and insecure financially and don't see any reason to vote, because they don't believe in "the system." And it could well be that if they get insurance under the ACA they might be willing to take some civic responsibility.
Also, several people I know have refused to register to vote because they don't want to pull jury duty.
We Leaguers will be out registering voters here soon. We have some interesting races shaping up.

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