Voter Registration: It doesn’t have to be like this

This week and next, Classroom to Capitol will focus on electoral trends, issues, and strategies that, together, can set the foundation for successful enactment and implementation of the progressive policies about which social workers so deeply care. We know that it does matter who is elected, that our clients’ voices will be heard differently by different elected officials, and that participation in electoral processes, in itself, holds potential to change clients’ lives. Primaries are less than a month away in many states, and it will be November before we know it. Ya es hora!

Suffragettes gathering--Thank you, sisters.


Today’s post is about one of my favorite topics: the onerous voter registration rules in the United States, and how we can and should change them. I could go on and on about this, so, to discipline myself, this is a post in three parts: first, what’s wrong with the status quo; second, what a truly just voter registration policy would look like (that’s the short part); and, third, interim steps that would make a big difference in voter registration and participation. If you’re so inclined, there’s a special treat for the first 5 readers who each register 5 unregistered voters; just leave a comment about how you accomplished it and any barriers you encountered (difficulty figuring out the rules, trouble navigating the forms, etc…).

The Broken Status Quo:
In November 2008, approximately three million people were turned away or forced to vote provisionally due to a registration problem. Only 70-75% of US eligible voters are registered. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld restrictive voter registration schemes that will make it harder for low-income individuals (who often do not have primary identification documents or the money to request them) to comply with new rules. Young people, those without private automobiles, and people of color are among the least likely to be registered to vote, although voter turnout among registered voters in those populations is comparable to other populations.

The Ideal:
Automatic registration of all eligible voters–every citizen automatically ‘opted-in’ on his/her 18th birthday (I’d like to see the repeal of bans on suffrage for convicted felons, too; voting is more of an obligation and duty, than a privilege, as it’s understood in our society, and we need a policy that acknowledges that). There are minor technical challenges to overcome in making this happen, but they are minor. In the age of the REAL ID Act and rising intelligence, I’m hard-pressed to think of any real obstacle besides the obvious political one: we want to make it hard for people to vote.

What We Can Do To Get There:

  • Same-day voter registration: It’s not as good as universal registration, but allowing people to show up and register on Election Day would give organizations more time to mobilize potential voters, send a message to voters that they are welcome at any point in the process, and reduce the uncertainty and confusion that surrounds current registration rules and barriers. It may require additional training for poll workers, to be able to verify voters’ eligibility, but it’s totally doable. Iraq allows people to fix their registration status and vote the same day, for crying out loud.
  • Pre-registration for young people: State Representative Milack Talia (Democrat from Kansas) filed legislation last session to pre-register young people (ages 14 and up) to vote; their pre-registrations would automatically be added to the voter registration rolls when they turn 18. The goal is to increase registration and turnout by increasing the time that organizations and individuals have to reach out to this population and streamlining the process. I think it’s another good interim step.
  • Election Day holiday: Even with same-day registration (or universal registration, for that matter), if low-income folks don’t have a day off to get to the polls, they won’t get there. We need to make Election Day a holiday (the way that it is in most of the world), and we need expanded advance voting options nationwide to reduce the lines and make sure that even essential workers who won’t have the day off can vote at their convenience.
  • Halt and repeal of repressive rules: I know how hard it is to get people to register to vote. I’ve stood outside in very, very hot weather for hours, begging people to complete a NONPARTISAN voter registration form and been cursed at and spat on. Seriously. So don’t tell me that there are so many people clamoring to vote illegally that we have to go to the extremes of requiring multiple forms of identification, cracking down on nonprofit groups trying to register people, and enacting other voter suppression tactics. It’s just not true, and it’s just not fair.

    We can’t expect to succeed in winning the policy debate if we don’t have rules that allow our folks to influence it at the polls. We need easy access to our democracy, for all citizens in this country, and then we’ll see that the best ideas and the best candidates for our nation’s future can rise to the top. Let’s change the rules so that, at the latest, the 2012 elections are our most open and vibrant yet.

    You know that I have to end this one with, Sí se Puede.

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