Voter Suppression Is Not The Solution To Problems With Voter Registration

Throughout out his campaign, Donald Trump has been sounding the same voter fraud alarm that Republican leaders have been sounding for years.

Trump had this to say on the subject during Wednesday's final presidential debate:

If you look -- excuse me, Chris -- if you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote -- millions, this isn't coming from me -- this is coming from Pew Report and other places -- millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn't be registered to vote.

What he appears to be referring to is a 2012 research report commissioned by the Pew Center on the States, which says:

  • Approximately 24 million—one of every eight—voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.
  • More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters.
  • Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state.

Nowhere does Pew assert that there are 24 million cases of voter fraud. The only use of the word "fraud" in the entire report is this:

The inability of this paper-based process to keep up with voters as they move or die can lead to problems with the rolls, including the perception that they lack integrity or could be susceptible to fraud.

In fact, the rate of voter impersonation fraud is staggeringly low – 31 credible instances out of more than 1 billion ballots cast, according to another study.

A comprehensive 2014 study published in The Washington Post found 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast. Even this tiny number is likely inflated, as the study’s author counted not just prosecutions or convictions, but any and all credible claims.

In case you're wondering, that's 0.0000031 percent.

What we have is a system desperately in need of modernization. Some states have taken positive steps forward on voting rights, while others have failed or been unable to act, or even worse, have taken steps backward with new, potentially suppressive restrictions. Members of Congress have introduced federal legislation, which has yet to receive any meaningful attention from the Republican leadership – the failure to restore the Voting Rights Act being one of the worst cases.

So, Mr. Trump, we do have a voter registration problem in this country. But fraud isn't the problem. And voter suppression isn't the solution.


Voting Rights Hang in the Balance – 32 Days and Counting

On June 25, 2013, the US Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in its Shelby County v. Holder decision. Congress has had more than three years since then to restore the VRA’s critical protections aimed at fighting racial discrimination in voting. Indeed, legislation known as the Voting Rights Advancement Act was introduced to develop a new coverage formula and make additional updates to this landmark law. Not only has GOP leadership failed to bring it to a vote, but people like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte have outright denied the need to restore the VRA, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Now there are just 32 days left before the first presidential election in fifty years in which ballots will be cast without full VRA protections.

According to the Brennan Center, 6 of the 14 states with new restrictive voting laws in effect for the first time in a presidential election were previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA, meaning that in the past they had to get prior federal approval for any voting changes.

Nearly Half of New Restrictive Voting Laws in Former Sec 5 States

Even when we have won victories for voting rights, there have been attempts to resurrect voter suppression. Talking Points Memo spoke to voting rights advocates about this disturbing trend:

“You take a step back and it’s really appalling,” said Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project who has been involved in many of the legal challenges to state voting restrictions.

“I mean the Department of Justice and other groups, we have all won the cases ... you would have thought we would have been finished with this whole thing, when, up until Election Day, we have to stay on these people," Ho told TPM.

. . . “There’s two things going on: One is that we have seen court-ordered softening [of voter ID laws] in places like Wisconsin and Texas, and then either foot-dragging or incompetence in carrying it out, which has led to follow-up lawsuits or threats of lawsuits,” said Richard Hasen, a professor at UC-Irvine School of Law who also runs the Election Law Blog. “The other thing that is going on is new shenanigans in response to court rulings. And that’s North Carolina.”

. . . “The trend that you’re definitely seeing is that although you may win in a court, so much of what actually matters to voters depends on implementation of a court victory,” said Jennifer Clark, counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. “So getting a ruling that blocks or softens a restrictive voting law is really only the first step in making sure that people have the right to vote.”

It's painfully clear that voters are vulnerable this November. But that doesn't mean that anyone should shy away from the ballot box. It just means that we need to be prepared. Our affiliate PFAW Foundation is part of the Election Protection coalition that is preparing voters with what they need to know to vote and what they need to do if they have a question or something goes wrong.

Failing to defend the right to vote is simply not an option.


Judicial Vacancies Wreaking Havoc In U.S. Courts

Judicial vacancies slow down courts’ work, drive up litigation costs, cause evidence to go stale, make it harder to settle civil cases, and even pressure defendants into pleading guilty, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center. The report cites example after example of how not having enough judges erodes our nation’s system of justice. Everyone counts on having their day in court, a fundamentally American principle that is threatened by persistent vacancies. The report quotes Chief Judge William Skretny of New York’s Western District:

We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.

Heavier caseloads and backlog created by vacancies also take a toll on judges, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on each case.

Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis in the Eastern District of Texas described the situation in his district as “simple math.” With more cases “you have less time to give to [an individual] case,” he explained. “It affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quantity of work you can complete,” he added.

[Judge Davis] also highlighted the impact of the Sherman vacancy on the timing of sentencing. “It’s a hardship for the litigants,” he explained. “Due to the backlog and [the] vacancy [in Sherman], we have a very high population of criminal defendants, about 200, sitting in county jails, having pled guilty and waiting for sentences. They can’t get their cases processed.” He noted that inmates are typically housed in a county jail because there are no federal facilities available, which is more costly for the government and leaves inmates with fewer work and educational opportunities. “That’s not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities,” he said.

As the report makes clear, vacancies have real impacts for all citizens. This is why PFAW supports the speedy confirmation of qualified judicial nominees to federal courts. Filling judicial vacancies with quality judges will reduce backlogs and costs while allowing the judicial system to better serve all Americans. Maintaining the third branch is one of the most important constitutional functions that the Senate performs.


Voting Rights – We Can Win

The New York Times and NPR recently shared somewhat different takes on where voting rights stand now and what the picture might look like come Election Day 2014.

It is true, as suggested by The Times:

Pivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing . . . bills, laws and administrative rules — some of them tried before — [that] shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote.

It's also true, as quoted by NPR from its interview with the Brennan Center's Myrna Pérez:

We've seen a lot of real momentum in 2014, thus far, towards improving our elections both at the states and nationally[.]

PFAW thought it would be good to take a step back and look at what has gone right at the state level in 2014 – and why we can and should keep fighting the challenges that lay before us.

Florida has an especially troublesome history with voter purges, but now the trouble is headed back toward the chief architects. On April 1, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that Gov. Rick Scott’s voter purge of suspected non-citizens in 2012 violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), because systematic removal programs are barred within 90 days of a federal election. This came just days after Secretary of State Ken Detzner did an about-face and called off his 2014 plans.

In the final hours of its legislative session, thanks to a flaw in the bill language, Georgia looked poised to take the early voting days for municipal elections down to ZERO. Because staunch advocates like the League of Women Voters closely monitored the bill and sprang into action when that fatal flaw was discovered, the session adjourned on March 20 with early voting intact. As the League's Kelli Persons noted:

The message here is that it's very important . . . to pay attention to what's happening at the local level[.]

Even in North Carolina, where the Moral Mondays movement began and challenges to voting reach far and wide, there's been a victory of sorts. On March 27, US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled that lawmakers must release correspondence related to the formation of the state's new voter ID law, saying that though some records might be shielded, many are considered public. We need transparency as this case moves forward.

There is much more work to be done to enact needed reforms and to step up and counter threats when the right to vote is under attack – but we can win, and let's not forget that.

Check out PFAW’s website for more voting rights updates.


Florida Puts Hold on Voter Purge, North Carolina Lifts the Veil on Voter ID Law

When we last checked in with the controversial Florida voter purge, advocates and media alike were speculating over what route Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner would take in 2014, with Detzner's office considering comparing its voter records with the US Department of Homeland Security's federal citizenship database known as Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE).

Now we know: the purge is off for 2014.

The about-face on Thursday by Secretary of State Ken Detzner resolves a standoff with county elections supervisors, who resisted the purge and were suspicious of its timing. It also had given rise to Democratic charges of voter suppression aimed at minorities, including Hispanics crucial to Scott’s reelection hopes.

Detzner told supervisors in a memo that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is redesigning its SAVE database, and it won’t be finished until 2015, so purging efforts, known as Project Integrity, should not proceed.

“I have decided to postpone implementing Project Integrity until the federal SAVE program Phase Two is completed,” Detzner wrote.

As the Brennan Center reported in 2008, election officials across the country are routinely striking millions of voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.

Florida has an especially troublesome history with this practice, so voting rights advocates will have to keep a close eye on what shape it takes next year.

Also this week, in North Carolina US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled that lawmakers must release correspondence related to the formation of the state's new voter ID law, saying that though some records might be shielded, many are considered public.

Dale Ho of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project:

North Carolinians have a right to know what motivated their lawmakers to make it harder for them to vote. Legislators should not be shrouding their intentions in secrecy.

Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice:

Defendants have resisted at every turn disclosing information about their reasons for enacting this discriminatory law. Today's ruling will help ensure the court has a fuller picture of why the voting changes at stake are so bad for North Carolina voters.

In other voting rights news, Colorado considers recall election changes, Pennsylvania ID remains in legal limbo, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker approves (mostly) of the state's new voter suppression law.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.


Presidential Commission Issues Report on Election Administration

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama announced the formation of a nonpartisan commission focused on improving our country’s system of voting. Yesterday, nearly a year later, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) issued its report.

As Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post summarizes, the PCEA covered online voter registration and early voting, voter registration modernization, polling place resources and accessibility, poll workers, and more.

The PCEA recommendations are indeed a welcome addition to the voting rights debate, helping us move closer to the day when every eligible voter can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts.

Jon Greenbaum, Chief Counsel, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law:

We are encouraged by the recommendations in this report. If fully implemented, practical commonsense measures like early voting and voter registration modernization will improve voter participation and satisfaction.

Michael Waldman, President, Brennan Center for Justice:

The Commission’s report marks a significant advance in the way we think about voting. Too often voting issues have been marked by partisan discord. The Commission makes clear that there are achievable, bipartisan reforms that can be implemented now to transform voting in America. Most importantly, it recognizes that we can’t fix long lines until we first fix our outdated voter registration system.

Robert Brandon, President, Fair Elections Legal Network:

The bipartisan recommendations released from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration are a compilation of the good reforms advocates have been fighting for across the country. As the Commission points out, some of the reforms like online voter registration, expanded early voting, and increased poll worker training are already in place in various jurisdictions. But for real change to be made and access to voting improved, these reforms need to be broadly implemented in many more states. The responsibility now lies with election officials, and state and local elected officials to improve how elections are run in their communities as soon as possible. We will continue our work to promote these reforms and use the Commission’s work as support for these much needed changes.

In fact, much of what the PCEA recommends, and much of what these and other allies have long recommended, is covered by PFAW in Money Out, Voters In: A Guide to Democratic Reform. Released last fall, the toolkit is founded on our belief in a democratic system where all Americans have equal access to the voting booth and where all Americans, regardless of wealth, can express their views to one another and their government on a level playing field.

PFAW looks forward to using the PCEA recommendations as we continue to realize a 'Voters In' vision.

We must keep in mind, though, that the PCEA isn't the last word on American electoral reform. There is much more work to be done to enact needed reforms and to step up and counter threats when the right to vote is under attack.

Nor does the PCEA replace what the Voting Rights Act lost after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. PFAW and African American Ministers in Action welcomed last week's introduction of the Voting Rights Amendments Act, and we look forward to working with the House and Senate as they take up this vital legislation. It is imperative that this year, as soon as possible, the President sign into law a strengthened VRA. Please join the fight.


PFAW Releases New Toolkit on Getting Money Out and Voters In to Our Democracy

Americans today face twin threats to the integrity of our elections. The threats are multifaceted and formidable, involving all branches of government at the local, state and federal level – from legislative bodies, to governorships, to courthouses. The aims are clear:

  • Manipulate the campaign finance system to get "the right people" elected.
  • Manipulate the balloting process to make it harder for "the wrong people" to vote.

These measures must be confronted. But we also need long-term proactive and pro-democracy strategies of our own.

The “Money Out, Voters In” campaign embodies this long-term vision premised on the concept of political equality, of one person = one vote.

We believe in a democratic system where all Americans have equal access to the voting booth and where all Americans, regardless of wealth, can express their views to one another and their government on a level playing field.

Through A Guide to Democratic Reform, a new toolkit released today by People For the American Way, we provide the structural framework for enacting this vision. We do not have all the answers, nor could we. We must embrace an evolution of ideas, tactics, and legislative language to achieve our goals. Yet, as the local, state, and federal initiatives cited herein show, much of that work is already well-underway.

Click here for information about critical allies and other resources.


UPDATE: Making voter registration easier in New York

UPDATE: New York is continuing to take positive steps toward voter registration reform, as Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced an initiative that will allow voter registration applications, as well as party and address changes, to be completed online through the state DMV website. Every DMV office will be equipped with computerized data entry devices where voters will be able to register themselves. Driver License applications—which include voter registration applications—will be made available in more languages. While DMV reforms are just one among many types needed, they promise to make voter registration easier, cheaper, and more efficient across the state. Click here for more information and here for the reactions of election officials and voting rights supporters.

The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation, details the worst of the worst of the Right’s fight to suppress the vote. Many states have indeed taken up this fight with voter ID, proof of citizenship, and other suppressive legislation.

It was refreshing to see New York buck that trend. On June 7, State Senator Mike Gianaris and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh introduced the Voter Empowerment Act.

Senator Gianaris:

As election season approaches, government bureaucracy continues to impede too many people from voting. […] Our proposal would remove these obstacles and maximize voter turnout while saving the state and its counties hundreds of thousands of dollars per election, thus preventing disenfranchisement and enabling better record keeping.

Assemblymember Kavanagh:

When voters try to register, or change their address, or change their party, they often find that the rules prevent them from making the change in a timely way or, worse, that the change doesn’t take and they are excluded from voting. […] By modernizing the way we collect, process, and store voter information, we can make registration virtually universal among New Yorkers who are eligible to vote.

Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center:

We applaud Senator Gianaris and Assemblymember Kavanagh for taking this much needed step to bring New York’s outdated and error-prone voter registration system into 21st century. Through this effort, New York will lead the country in having a voter registration system that is accurate, complete, and works for all voters.

The bill would make the voter registration process more efficient and accessible in several ways. Consenting citizens would be automatically registered at designated government agencies. Pre-registry would be introduced for 16 and 17-year-olds. Residents who move within the state would have their registration automatically updated. Registration information would be put online and the process would be computerized. Registration and party identification changes would be allowed to continue later in the election cycle.

All of these provisions have been included with the intent of correcting New York’s recent underperformance in voter registration. In 2010, the state’s registration rate ranked third worst in the nation.

PFAW Foundation

UPDATE: Right-wing Florida officials win fight for citizenship data

UPDATE: Secretary of State Ken Detzner says that Florida, which expects imminent access to the SAVE database, will resume the purge and complete it prior to the November election. The Department of Justice is moving forward with its legal challenge.

8/3/2012: New developments continue to shed light on the purge and its far-reaching impact. An article in the Atlantic details the possibility that it could lead to a 2000-style fiasco. A woman who is most certainly alivewas removed from the rolls twice because the state thinks she is dead. The Guardian has profiled several other voters who are battling to preserve their rights. Thankfully, there is some good news, as despite being granted access to the SAVE database, it now looks like county election supervisors won’t be removing more voters from the rolls before the August 14 primary. Officials are being encouraged to proceed cautiously since the state may not be able to settle its ongoing disagreement with the federal government over the purge. In other news, Congresswoman Corrine Brown has filed a lawsuit to try to stop early voting cutbacks.

The federal government has granted Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner access to the Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database, further fanning the flame under their voter suppression fire. The move followed last month's ruling that the purge did not violate the National Voter Registration Act.

Voting rights supporters remain concerned about the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters – and rightfully so.

Jonathan Brater, Brennan Center for Justice:

No matter what database Florida has access to, purging voters from the rolls using faulty criteria on the eve of an election could prevent thousands of eligible voters from exercising their rights. Florida must use a more transparent and accurate process, and must leave enough time for voters targeted for removal to be notified and correct errors.

Ion Sancho, Leon County Supervisor of Elections:

[T]hose who have been here in 2000 and 2004 realize that if you produce a list that’s highly inaccurate, in all probability what you’re going to do is disenfranchise legal voters.

Further litigation is expected and also remains underway regarding HB 1355, the Florida law commonly referred to by voting rights supporters as the Voter Suppression Act. Last week, Judge Hinkle’s injunction blocking most of its worst provisions was appealed. HB 1355 was originally sponsored by Representative Dennis Baxley, who has ties to ALEC.

Click here and here for more information, and be sure to check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box , a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

Fighting student voter suppression

As the Right ramps up its efforts to put up barriers to voting, from voter ID requirements to restrictions on third-party voter registration, it is becoming more urgent to empower students and defend their voting rights. That’s why People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) program wants to empower young progressives with tools to get out the vote among people their age in their communities. With the help of YP4, they will coordinate activities on their campuses, including rallies, phone banks, shuttles to the polls, and student housing canvassing. They will lead the charge to combat political attacks on student voting.

We are among many great organizations working to mobilize and protect the student vote.

The Brennan Center Student Voting Guide is a go-to source for all the information that students in all 50 states will need about how to register and vote.

Our Time runs a voter registration and information campaign in tandem with its support of business endeavors started by young people. They want to maximize the influence of Americans under 30 so that politicians and businesses will better represent their needs. They offer voting FAQs and registration guidance helpful for students.

Rock the Vote is continuing its work to bring young people into the political process—registering more than 5 million of them to vote so far—using pop culture, grassroots organizing and new technologies.

The Campus Vote Project of the Fair Elections Legal Network was started this year as an effort to help college students work with administrators and local election officials to make the process of voting easier and overcome barriers like residency laws, registration deadlines, and strict voter ID requirements. Their Student Voting Guide for 2012 has information to address the typical needs of student voters, including FAQs about voting out of state, absentee voting and registration deadlines. They’ve also produced an Activate Your Campus! Toolkit.

As part of Project Vote's efforts to promote voting in historically underrepresented communities they provide information about the state of the youth vote and recommendations and tools for increasing the participation of young Americans in the electoral process.

PFAW Foundation