Also in Rights and Liberties
Why Civil Unions Aren't Enough
Recruiter Sexual Abuse: Friendly Fire at Home?
Five Ways Bush's Era of Repression Has Stolen Your Liberties Since 9/11
In 2004, Floridians overwhelmingly voted to raise their state minimum wage after low-income advocates collected ballot petition signatures, registered thousands of new voters and turned out the vote. The following spring, Florida's Republican-majority Legislature reacted. It passed a law that so severely regulated voter registration drives that, before the 2006 primary, Florida's League of Women Voters stopped registering voters for the first time in its history. The league feared mistakes on just 14 voter registration forms could result in penalties equal to its entire $70,000 budget.
Florida's actions were not unique. In Ohio, where the 2004 presidential election lingered as its Electoral College votes were challenged in Congress, Ohio's Republican-majority legislature passed a series of election reforms, including tough new rules and penalties for voter registration drives. In 2006, that law stopped the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and community and church groups from registering voters in the state.
"In Florida, it absolutely shut down voter registration by all groups going up through the primary election of 2006," said Wendy Weiser, deputy director of the Brennan Center, a New York-based public-interest law firm that challenged the Florida and Ohio laws. "In Ohio, before there was an injunction in the case, voter registration was halted."
Both Florida's and Ohio's voter registration laws were challenged in court and were enjoined, or suspended, before the 2006 election, allowing voter registration to resume. Federal judges found they violated First Amendment rights and were hurting efforts to sign up new voters. But the trend of regulating voter registration drives did not end there. Between the 2004 election and today, six other states adopted similar laws -- Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New Mexico, Missouri and Washington -- and like-minded bills have been proposed in New Jersey, Arizona and elsewhere, according to the Brennan Center.
Not all of these laws were passed by Republican partisans seeking political revenge. But the line between ensuring an accurate registration process and intentionally suppressing voters is very thin, according to academics, opponents and supporters of these laws. On Wednesday, July 23, the Senate Rules Committee will hold a hearing on sections of an election reform bill (The Ballot Integrity Act of 2007 or S. 1487) that would ban states from passing laws that would negatively impact voter registration drives.
"I think it is a real serious concern," said Dan Tokaji, assistant professor of law at Ohio State University and an election law expert. "There are constitutional rights, free speech rights and petition rights at issue. What has a lot of voting rights activists concerned is states with GOP-dominated legislatures are going to put a lot of voter registration groups out of business."
American democracy depends on private groups more than the government to register voters. As a result, registration efforts have always been sources of political friction.
"The attempts to restrict registration and attempts to smear groups that attempt to register voters comes from people who don't think those voters are likely to support them," said Kevin Whelan, ACORN communications director. "I think there is another response to people who don't like to see a lot of minority voters coming onto the rolls. They could campaign for those votes."
"It was done to address real needs," said William Todd, president of the Ohio chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association, speaking of his state's voter registration reforms, which were since found to be unconstitutional. "Ohio was not alone in not having an updated election code. People hadn't looked at some of those laws in 50 years."
"There were two stories that stuck in my mind," he said, recalling lobbying for the laws. "Certainly there were a handful of fraudulent registrations here and there. The other thing was the state organization of election officials was complaining that there were certain groups that would save registration cards for months and then dump them on the boards of election at the last minute. Because they were brought in in such an untidy manner, the boards couldn't verify them and process them, and people lost the opportunity to vote."
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election, with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).