Civil Rights Coalition Warns of Voter Registration Problems for 2004 Election

Media 05.26,04

The following statement on election reform was given by Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), at a joint LCCR and League of Women Voters press conference this morning.

“Good morning. My name is Wade Henderson, and I am the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition. I am pleased to join today with the League of Women Voters and several of our partners in the civil rights community to discuss the five top risks that voters face in this November’s elections.

“This discussion comes at what is obviously a very difficult time for our country. Americans are deeply concerned about the situation in Iraq, and, at the same time, with rising gas prices and a stagnant economy here at home. But there is yet another crisis we will be facing in six months, and this one deals with the legitimacy of our elections. As we try to serve as an example to the entire world of what democracy is all about, we simply cannot afford to have doubts about the outcome of this November’s election or repeat the nightmares of 2000.

“Before I briefly discuss the first threat, problems in registering voters, I’d like to say just a little bit about the role LCCR has played in the effort to reform our nation’s broken electoral systems. LCCR and its member organizations led the push for many of the reforms that were included in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). While HAVA clearly has a number of flaws, it can go a long way to improving faith in the outcome of this and future elections if it is adequately funded and properly implemented. LCCR has been playing a leading role, working with the states, in the push to ensure full funding. And LCCR helped to move the state planning processes established by HAVA forward by organizing and educating state-level civil rights coalition efforts. Finally, we’ll be continuing our efforts nationwide between now and November by helping to coordinate a wide range of efforts of the civil rights community, ranging from voter registration campaigns, to ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities, to combating the many forms of voter intimidation and misinformation on Election Day, making all of these efforts stronger.

“It should come as no surprise that voter registration problems is the first of the risks to eligible voters we’ll be discussing today. While much of the attention following the 2000 election focused on outdated voting technology, which continues to be a major problem as Jim will discuss later, a study by Caltech and MIT estimated that between 1.5 to 3 million citizens were kept from voting because of registration problems. There were a number of reasons for this, including:

·New registrations under “Motor Voter” were never forwarded to election officials,

·Incomplete and inaccurate voter lists at polling places; and

·Voters being sent to the wrong polling places.

“Statewide voter registration databases will be an important part of preventing voter registration problems in the future. More than two-thirds of the states will not have statewide databases in place in time for the 2004 elections. And regardless of whether states will have their statewide computerized databases in place by then, we are already seeing many signs that voters are still going to face significant obstacles when it comes to registration:

·New York City, for example, has received 62,000 mail-in voter registration forms that didn’t comply with the new ID requirements under HAVA, and the city now has to try to ensure that all these voters bring proper ID to the polling places on Election Day if they want to vote.

·One widespread problem we’re seeing so far is when election officials reject state voter registration forms on the basis of minor technicalities , although they often have the discretion to accept them. In Ohio and other states, for example, applications are being rejected if voters forget to check off boxes confirming that they are U.S. citizens – even though signing the form already serves to confirm the exact same thing. What’s worse is that many officials are claiming that HAVA requires them to reject these forms, when in fact it doesn’t, as the HAVA provision they cite only applies to the federal voter registration form, not the ones produced by individual states.

·In Miami-Dade County, voters were told in April that there were no more registration cards, and that people wouldn’t be able to register for nearly a month until the county got a new batch of cards from the state. Perhaps nobody there had heard of photocopying.

·And under Wyoming law, voters who register by mail are required to have their applications notarized. ID requirements in that state and others go beyond what HAVA requires.

“I’d like to wrap up with just a few recommendations. An especially important one is that states and counties should accept registration forms as long as they have the minimal information necessary to determine that a voter is in fact eligible. This means that registrars and secretary of state offices need to understand just how broad their discretion is under HAVA and state laws, and they need to make a point to exercise it in favor of getting more voters on the rolls. And that’s something we’re going to push states and counties to do.

“With regard to the voter registration rolls themselves, states are going to need to do a far better job of transferring voter registration information from other agencies, not just the DMV records but also from poverty & disability agencies. Ideally, this needs to be done electronically in order to minimize errors, which is something on which Michigan has taken a lead.
“Finally, like all of the problems we’re going to discuss here today, problems with voter registration are a nationwide issue, and there is an ongoing need to address them on that level. Congress needs to continue following through on its commitment by fully funding the Help America Vote Act, and providing not only all of the money promised to the states but also enough to let the new Election Assistance Commission do its job.”