After A Surge in Registration, A Surge in Suppression
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The voter registration deadlines of most states have either just passed or will come in the next two weeks, and there has been an unprecedented surge in registrations across the country. For most observers, this is evidence of a renewed public interest in participating in our democracy. Others, unfortunately, see the prospect of higher voter turnout as a threat -- and are working to keep voters from registering and voting.
The efforts to suppress voting range from challenging the eligibility of voters whose homes have been foreclosed to scaring college students out of registering where they go to school. And, as we've written previously, efforts are under way in a number of states to use trivial imperfections in paperwork to keep voters off the registration rolls or kick them off when they are successfully registered. One way citizens are blocked from casting ballots that count is through so-called "no match, no vote" policies.
The details of different states' no match, no vote rules vary around the margins, but they all involve attempts to match voters' registration data with records in other government databases -- generally, the motor vehicle and the Social Security databases. Under no match, no vote, if a voter's data isn't matched, the voter is deemed ineligible -- even though matches fail all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with voters' qualifications (like typos, data entry errors, and mis-placed hypens). At the moment, officials are using no match, no vote (or trying to use it) in a number of different states:
In Wisconsin, after the elections agency wisely refused to implement a strict matching rule this summer, the Attorney General sued the elections agency to implement no match, no vote. Together with a coalition of other voting rights advocates, the Brennan Center filed an amicus brief explaining that, not only does federal law not compel no match, no vote, but federal and state law actually prohibit removing voters from the rolls because of failed computer matches.
The Republican Party of Ohio sued the Secretary of State, seeking an order that would require Ohio to conduct retroactive matching on voters who registered as early as January 1, 2008. The stated intent is to prevent voter fraud, presumably by challenging voters whose data wasn't successfully matched, but as Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner observed, it looks like the real motivation is to intimidate voters into staying home from the polls. (On Friday, The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Brunner and rejected the Ohio GOP's suit).
In Florida, where litigation continues over the state's matching law, Secretary of State Kurt Browning made the decision to re-implement no match, no vote on September 8, 2008 -- less than a month before the voter registration deadline. After just a few weeks, nearly 230,000 new registrations had been submitted, about 14% of which were flagged as mis-matches. Officials subsequently resolved about two-thirds of the mis-matches after catching obvious typos, but thus far, 7,489 voters remain blocked from the rolls because they haven't been matched. That number will grow in the coming days as the state and counties continue to process registrations submitted in the final days of the registration period.
Five members of Florida's Congressional delegation have urged Governor Charlie Crist to suspend enforcement of the law. And county officials are fighting an unnecessary -- and profoundly unwise -- part of the matching law which prohibits voters from presenting evidence at the polls to help resolve mis-matches. The Pinellas County supervisor of elections, for example, wants to count the votes of un-matched voters if they show their driver's license at the polling place. But the Secretary of State insists that such votes must be thrown out unless the voters submit the same driver's license to county election officials a second time within 48 hours of the election. He is threatening to sue Pinellas County if they continue trying to make voting convenient by insisting on counting the votes of citizens who have verified their identities at the polls.
Suing county election officials who are trying to count every vote cast by eligible citizens -- citizens who have confirmed their identity by showing photo ID at the polls -- doesn't sound like what a state's chief election officer should be doing.
It makes no sense at all -- unless you're trying to suppress voter turnout.
Adam Skaggs works on a range of election administration and voting rights concerns at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, including the Centerâ€™s efforts to reform the process of voter registration. Before joining the Brennan Center, he was a litigation associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.