On behalf of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s oldest, largest and most diverse civil rights coalition, we write to provide our assessment of the final conference report on H.R. 3295, the “Help America Vote Act of 2002.” In a number of significant respects, the House-Senate election reform agreement is an important step forward in improving election procedures and administration throughout the nation. However, we do have several remaining concerns about the report language that prevent us from being able to endorse the final package.
Given the fact that millions of American citizens were denied their basic right to cast a vote and to have that vote counted in the 2000 election, the enactment of meaningful election reform has been the Leadership Conference’s highest legislative priority. We greatly appreciate the efforts of Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Charles Schumer (D-NY) as well as Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), John Conyers (D-MI), Charlie Gonzalez (D-TX) and others to reach a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive election reform. Among its beneficial provisions, the conference agreement will:
- Set uniform, minimum standards for federal elections nationwide, including providing voters with a chance to check for and correct ballot errors;
- Ensure accuracy of state voter registration databases by implementing uniform, statewide computerized lists;
- Provide provisional ballots, which allow voters who are erroneously left off the voter registration lists to vote and be counted once eligibility can be verified;
- Help eliminate outmoded punch-card and lever voting systems, and upgrade voting systems and equipment in every state; and
- Provide funding to ensure that voters with disabilities are able to cast ballots privately and independently.
The conference report language, however, does contain several troubling provisions:
First, the report contains a requirement that all persons seeking to register must provide the state with a drivers license number or, in the event they do not have one, the last four digits of their social security number. Any person who has either number but does not provide it ? even for privacy reasons ? will not be registered. Once a voter provides either number, the state must verify the accuracy of the data provided by checking it against state motor vehicle or Social Security Administration (SSA) databases. This system set out by the conference report is both cumbersome and prone to error. There are many legitimate reasons why the data provided by an eligible voter may not match the data in a motor vehicle or SSA database. For example, a woman may marry or divorce without updating her last name in the database; many Latinos use two last names, which the SSA may list incorrectly; some Asians list their last name first; and in entering their date of birth, some people enter the date followed by the month, the opposite of U.S. custom. Even a simple juxtaposition of a number could result in a “no-match.”
Second, amendments that have been made to the ID requirement fail to reduce its disenfranchising impact upon first-time voters. While the conference report includes minor improvements, these provisions fall far short of reducing the disproportionate negative impact of the ID provision.
In order to reduce its harmful impact on first-time voters, the ID requirement should have been linked to the requirement that a state have a computerized voter list in place. Instead, while the compromise bill requires mail-in registrants to meet the ID requirements in the 2004 election-cycle, it gives states a waiver until 2006 to create the statewide computerized lists. As a result, voters in states without state-wide lists will have to comply with the ID provision anytime they move within the state. Thus, the burden of the ID requirement will fall more heavily on renters, who change residences more often than homeowners, and who generally have lower incomes.
Third, the conference report would invalidate the registration of any voter who does not check off a new box on the registration form declaring that he or she is a U.S. citizen. Many elderly voters and voters with low levels of literacy, who find filling out forms difficult, will be likely to inadvertently fail to check the boxes and will, as a result, disproportionately be kept off the registration rolls.
Provisional ballots will not solve the above problems. Even if a voter is allowed to file a provisional ballot, it will not be counted because he or she was never “properly” registered, due to these onerous registration and verification requirements.
We hope you will keep the above issues in mind when deciding how you will vote on the conference report to H.R. 3295. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Rob Randhava, LCCR Policy Analyst, at 202/466-6058 or Nancy Zirkin, LCCR Deputy Director/Director of Public Policy, at 202/263-2880. Thank you for your consideration.
Dr. Dorothy I. Height