Bush Government to Poor Voters: We Don't Want You to Vote
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State welfare offices across the country are not offering millions of low-income Americans the opportunity to register to vote when applying for public assistance despite a federal law requiring them to do so, according to an analysis of a recent federal voting registration report and experts who say the Department of Justice and states are to blame.
"It's huge. It's another area where the administration is failing us," said Donna Brazile, chair of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute, speaking of the Department of Justice's oversight of the nation's voter registration laws. "They are not pushing states to recognize their voter registration responsibilities."
At the same time, the Justice Department's Voting Section, which enforces voting rights and supervises elections in some states, is pressuring 10 states to do more to purge voter rolls -- or remove ineligible voters -- before the 2008 presidential election, according to letters sent to state election officials this spring.
"We conducted an analysis of each state's total voter registration numbers as a percentage of citizen voting age population," wrote John Tanner, the Department of Justice Voting Section chief, in an April 18, 2007, letter to North Carolina's top election official. "We write now to assess the changes in your voter registration list ... and the subsequent removal of persons no longer eligible to vote."
Cynthia Magnuson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, confirmed in an e-mail that similar letters had been sent to 10 states, but did not list the recipients. "The Department actively works with all states to comply with all provisions of the statutes we enforce," she said.
Voter lists are updated because people move, die or lose their right to vote if convicted of felonies. But because this process occurs out of public view and without much regulation, it can be open to partisan abuse or produce incorrect results, such as in Florida in 2000 when an estimated 50,000 voters were incorrectly removed from voter registration lists.
The contrast of a Justice Department that apparently has not enforced voter registration opportunities for poor people -- who tend to vote Democratic -- and a department that is pressuring states to more thoroughly trim voter rolls has prompted some voting rights advocates to accuse the agency of selective enforcement and partisan bias.
"I think it's pretty clear the Justice Department is pursing a partisan agenda to get states to purge voters while ignoring requirements to get states to register voters," said Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote, a national nonprofit specializing in voter registration drives targeting low- and moderate-income families.
Voting Section chief John Tanner did return a telephone call to discuss his office's priorities and accomplishments. On Monday, July 16, the House Judiciary Committee announced it was postponing a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, July 17 "because the Department refused to make Voting Section chief John Tanner available to testify," its press release said.
However, Hans A. Von Spakovsky, a former assistant attorney general who served four years as a top Civil Rights Division lawyer overseeing the Voting Rights Section discussed accusations of changing "the enforcement direction of the department" in a June 29, 2007, letter to the Senate Rules Committee. He became a federal elections commissioner in December 2005, and his appointment is under review.
Von Spakovsky's 18-page letter is a detailed defense of some of the department's most controversial recent rulings, such as approving a Texas congressional redistricting plan and a Georgia voter I.D. law that later was blocked in court as a violation of the Constitutional amendment barring poll taxes. Nowhere in the often-technical letter is any mention in section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which is intended to help poor people vote by requiring state welfare agencies to offer the chance to register.
Instead, Von Spakovsky defended an aggressive stance with enforcing the NVRA's voter purge provisions, which fall under section 8 of the law. "The division could not willfully ignore the list maintenance requirements of the NVRA," he wrote. "It is the responsibility of DOJ to enforce these laws."
While the national media has followed the department's firing of U.S. attorneys who, in some cases, did not pursue voter fraud cases -- another priority of longtime GOP lawyer-activists like Von Spakovsky -- the department's oversight of the nation's voter rolls has mostly gone unnoticed. The potential impact on the 2008 election could be enormous, however, especially if millions of disenfranchised people registered and voted.
A just-released federal voter registration report reveals the stakes. In late June, the Election Assistance Commission issued a biennial voter registration report to Congress for 2005 and 2006. The report found that 16.6 million new registration applications were received by state motor vehicles agencies while only 527,752 applications came from state public assistance offices -- a 50 percent drop from 2003-2004. The report also found 13.0 million voters were purged nationwide and 9.9 million were put on "inactive" status, meaning these people have to provide identification before receiving a 2008 ballot.
The potential number of public assistance recipients who could register runs into the millions. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration's FY 2008 budget, federally subsidized "health centers" will serve an estimated 16.3 million patients, a population where "91 percent are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, 64 percent are from racial/ethnic minority groups and 40 percent are uninsured." This is the same population who typically seek a variety of federally subsidized public assistance, from food stamps to fuel assistance to welfare.
Another indication of how many poor people could register is Tennessee, whose elections are federally supervised. From 2005-2006, Tennessee registered 120,992 people at public assistance offices -- nearly a quarter of the national total, the EAC reported. Tennessee registered more voters than the combined totals of welfare office registrations from California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
Karen Lynn Dyson, EAC Research director, said there were several reasons why many states have not made voter registration more available through public assistance agencies. First, the NVRA was passed in 1993, and many state and county election officials have been paying more attention to newer federal election mandates and transitioning to new voting machines. Moreover, many state welfare agencies don't see voter registration in their job descriptions -- despite the federal law. The same factors were also cited by Project Vote's Michael Slater, who emphasized that low-income people tend to move more often than better-off Americans.
"Our organization exists to correct the problem that voting is skewed toward upper-income folks," he said. "We are trying to make voting more representative of the population."
Justice Department spokesperson Cynthia Magnuson cited two department enforcement actions concerning increased voter registration; suing New York in 2004 because its state universities did not "offer voter registration opportunities at those offices serving students with disabilities," and the department's 2002 suit against Tennessee, which led to federal oversight of its elections. The New York suit is still pending.
Scott Novakowski, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a centrist public policy group based in New York that has followed this issue for several years, said it was ironic the Justice Department cited Tennessee because that state's welfare office registrations reveal how many potential voters could be involved if the department enforced the law.
"This is not a lot of numbers until you see Tennessee," he said. "We have looked at how many people can feasibly get on the rolls and it is enormous. Tennessee is under a court order and is doing it right. If you look at the number of people who go through public assistance offices, in some states it is in the millions."
The public interest groups that have tracked this issue -- Demos, Project Vote, ACORN and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law -- have issued reports citing a steady downward trend in these voter registrations and met with Justice Department officials in 2005 to present their findings and concerns.
"In January 2005, we had a 10-year report, which documented the 59 percent decline from 1995 through 2004," Novakowski said, adding follow-up letters cited violations from Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. "John Conyers (now the House Judiciary Committee chairman) and 29 other representatives asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to look into this, and there was no response."
This spring, after learning of Voting Section letters to North Carolina and Kentucky pressuring those states to more aggressively purge their voter lists, the same coalition called on the House and Senate Judiciary committees to investigate the "selective enforcement" of voter registration laws.
"We are concerned that the Justice Department's Voting Section is ignoring the primary purpose of NVRA to "establish procedures that will increase the number if eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for federal office."" it wrote in a May 8, 2007, letter. "Instead, the Voting Section is concentrating its NVRA enforcement priority on pressuring states to conduct massive purges of their voter rolls."
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).