An article appeared in the October 24 New York Times that misrepresents comments made by Project Vote about the total number of registrations gathered through the organizationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s joint voter registration drive with the community organization ACORN. Project Vote issued the following statement in response:
"We are puzzled by todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s New York Times article. It has always been Project VoteÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s position that we collected over 1.3 million registration applications, and we have always said that we identified potentially problematic cards. The core responsibility of local boards of elections has been and continues to be to determine which registration cards are duplicates, which are new registrants, and which are people that changed their addresses. The Times article mistakenly assumes that much of the impact that voter registration drives are designed to have Ã¢â‚¬â€ enabling people to update their addresses so they are able to vote on Election Day Ã¢â‚¬â€ is of no value. In the end, after taking into account these change of address registration applications, nearly one million people we helped to register will be eligible to vote on Election Day because of our work.
"In our interview with the Times we explained that roughly 35 percent of our registrants are expected to be brand-new voters, and another 35 percent will be Americans who needed to update their registrations. Perhaps another 30 percent will be incomplete, will fail to match in government systems, or will be from people who did not realize they were already registered. Less than 1-2 percent will turn out to be deliberately falsified by canvassers.
"The Times articleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s characterization is particularly disappointing since Project Vote has been open and forthcoming about these numbers throughout our drive, and in fact explained the same realities about voter registration drives to New York Times reporter Shaila Dewan for a story that appeared on June 15th of this year. "Michael Slater, the deputy director of Project Vote, said high numbers of incomplete applications were not unusual in such drives. He said as a rule of thumb, 35 percent of voter drive applications were new voters, 35 percent were change of address, and 30 percent were duplicates or incomplete."
We spend a lot of time in these news updates showing how charges of voter fraud are used to discredit voter participation efforts and prime the pump for voter suppression efforts, such as the passage of voter ID bills, pushing for proof of citizenship, engaging in draconian voter purge efforts, and imposing sever restrictions on voter registration drives. We have also spent a lot of time carefully delineating the politics behind these efforts, starting with our March 2007 report The Politics Of Voter Fraud and continuing on in these diaries to name but two venues.
What is striking about how the process of disenfranchisement and voter suppression works is how much it relies upon the media to repeat and amplify the breathless and hyperbolic accusations of so-called voter fraud against voter registration drives. If journalists were to spend any time at all investigating the sensational claims -- often made by people with a direct partisan interest in the outcome of an election -- they would find that the accusations are mostly taken out of context, are limited to a few instances, and have never, ever, been proven to have resulted in any fraudulent vote being cast.
Sadly, the history of this issue shows that it has been bereft of this kind of basic journalism, even through the 2006 mid-term elections. This is important because haphazard reporting of partisan claims of voter fraud without checking the facts is how the media helps these voter suppression efforts. These stories not only deter potential voters from getting on the rolls, but, as noted above, inspire bad election reforms aimed at disenfranchising voters, particularly those that are currently underrepresented in the electorate.
A new Project Vote report shows that of the 21 million unregistered young Americans, most are not likely to be affiliated with a college or university -- and larger proportions of young whites are registered than young non-whites. Project Vote seeks to close these gaps.
What makes a young person likely to vote or not vote? New data from Project Vote shows that young Americans who have had at least some college are three times more likely to be registered to vote and to vote. Race also is significant -- voter registration rates among young non-whites has been ten percentage points lower than rates for young whites. Fully half of Americans age 18-29 have not had college experience, but 79 percent of young voters who cast a ballot on Super Tuesday had attended college. Large numbers of young African-Americans and Latinos are still out of the voting process. Out of the 21 million Americans age 18-29 who are not registered to vote, 62 percent is white and 38 percent is non-white. But this election cycle, responding to candidates who speak to the issues they care about most and an unprecedented effort by political parties to engage them, voter registration among young non-whites is picking up speed. And Project Vote is on the heels of this new energy for voting, working in the places with the freshest faces on the voter rolls: helping to register new voters at bus stops and shopping centers in low-income neighborhoods, at nonresidential colleges and trade schools in communities of color, and by apartment complexes and other locales in the inner city. "Roughly half of the 435,000 new vote that Project Vote has helped to register so far this year are 29 and under, and our work is largely in communities of color," said Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote. "These new voters will be a force to be reckoned with in the election this November and in elections to come. Project Vote is proud to be part of the effort to reach out to these voters and expand their engagement in the civic process."
Project Vote is aiming to help 1.2 million American in 26 states register by Labor Day. It's the largest on the ground voter registration drive effort in the nation.
Project Vote's analysis shows that voting among young people has been steadily climbing since 2000. Voter turnout among young voters increased more in 2004 than it did for any other age group, in a year which saw an upward participation flux in all demographics. In 2006 young voters again turned out in increased numbers. This year promises to see youth turnout skyrocket as young voters get psyched like never before about voting.
"It is the mission of Project Vote to reach these young voters who may not be at a college or university," said Slater. "Every single day we see that these young people want more and more to participate in the elections process. We aim to help them do that. Our democracy works best when all Americans participate."
February 26 was not a good day for Asheesh Agarwal, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U. S. Department of Justice. During a hearing of the House Committee on the Judiciary, the bookish bureaucrat was raked slowly over the hot coals by several irate members of Congress.
At issue was the DOJ's enforcement of key provisions within the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which was passed by Congress in 1993 to increase participation in federal elections. Committee members attempted, with little success, to get Agarwal to explain why DOJ has spent the lion's share of its resources to pressure states to purge voters rather than ensuring their rights.
"Rights on paper are not the same as rights in fact," intoned Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York. "For that we need vigorous enforcement."
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Congresswoman from South Florida, cited alarming statistics about voter registration decreases documented in Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007, a report written by Project Vote and Demos. The report found that voter registrations generated from public assistance agencies within that period had declined by 79 percent, despite the NVRA's specific requirement that states offer the service in agencies that help the disadvantaged.
Wasserman Schultz noted that the Justice Department's Voting Rights Section had filed five lawsuits containing NVRA claims since 2006, but that four of the suits "were filed not to enhance voter registration opportunities, but instead to force states to conduct massive purges of their registration lists."
Agarwal attempted to explain that of ten NVRA-related suits the Bush administration has filed, two involved possible cases of voters being improperly removed from the registration rolls. He also noted that in late August, DOJ sent letters to 18 states seeking information "regarding their compliance or lack of compliance with Section 7 of the NVRA."
But the Congresswoman was having none of it. She pressed the Deputy Assistant Attorney General to explain why the department was concentrating on purging cases rather than easing registration.
"Much of that purging in recent years has been shown to be overly aggressive and purged voters that were valid and belonged on the roll," she argued. "If you're only pursing two Section 7 lawsuits and the others relate to purging voters from the rolls, I think one could logically conclude that you are more aggressively going after states to ensure that they purge. Is that the case?"
His glasses slipping down his nose to half-mast, Agarwal attempted to deflect this line of questioning, before finally announcing that he was familiar the Unequal Access study and its findings were "part of the reason why we sent out the 18 letters in 2007."
Wasserman Schultz pressed Agarwal again, asking why three states with the worst records in complying with the NVRA's provisions on voter registration did not receive letters from the DOJ. "Can you answer why you chose not to send letters to Florida, Texas, and Virginia?" she charged. "Why did you not take measures to ensure that all of the [states], including the worst offenders of Section 7 violations, were included in your pursuit?"
Agarwal's stumbling non-reply only inflamed the Congresswoman. "Why not Florida?" she countered. "We specifically have had egregious violations of purging voters from the rolls, of lists of felons who turned out not to be felons. Why have you excluded Florida?"
"Congresswoman, I can't answer that," Agarwal replied.
Wasserman Schultz then asked committee chairman John Conyers to request that Agarwal find the answers and put them in writing before the committee's next meeting.
Conyers voiced similar concerns with DOJ's record. "I'm troubled by the department's overemphasis on pursuing voter fraud cases which were the basis of a number of the firings of U.S. Attorneys in what is now widely regarded as the politicization of the Department of Justice itself," he said. "We're pursuing these so-called voter fraud cases to the exclusion of voter suppression cases."
He cited DOJ records showing that only a handful of actual voter fraud cases have led to convictions, whereas evidence suggests that many more serious cases of voter suppression have been ignored.
Of great concern to Conyers (and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison's among others) DOJ's support of Indiana's controversial law requiring photo identification at the polls. "Without doubt this law will disenfranchise minorities, the elderly, the disabled," he said. Another issue was the lack of the Justice Department's interest in "vote-caging" incidents that occurred in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin during the 2004 presidential election.
Conyers returned to a point Wasserman Schultz had raised earlier regarding letters the Justice Department had sent to ten states pressuring them to purge their voter rolls before the 2008 elections. "In recent years, instead of promoting access to the polls, the voting section of the DOJ seems to have used its enforcement authority to deny access and promote barriers to block legitimate voters from participating in the political process."
At the age of 18, every American citizen is free to exercise his or her right to vote, as guaranteed by the Constitution. However, more than five million Americans in 48 states are denied access to this right due to an array of legislation barring former felons from the polls. This week, three states made headlines with starkly different takes on the voting rights of former felons. From an excited former felon who voted for the first time on Tuesday to a Secretary of State who hopes to restrict the voting rights of all felons, the question of who gets to exercise their Constitutional rights is at the center of an expanding debate.
Project Vote's diary
On Monday, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann pushed legislation to prohibit voting by felons. Claiming just 12,000 out of 50,000 felons are unable to vote under current law -- including "sexual predators and cocaine pushers" -- Hosemann used incendiary language designed to demonize in order to build support for the passage of the "Voting Reform Act," an omnibus election bill geared towards prevention of so-called voter fraud. The bill also includes voter identification requirements, among other restrictions, according to reports by the Meridian Star and Hattiesburg American.
Studies have shown that controversial voter ID laws disenfranchise citizens in low income and minority communities and felon voting rights restrictions fall heavily upon those same constituencies. According to criminal justice policy group, the Sentencing Project, "this fundamental obstacle to participation in democratic life is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in an estimated 13% of Black men unable to vote." These aspects of the Hosemann-supported bill would seem to indicate that it is an attempt to legalize and extend voter suppression policies in the state, as decision-makers seek to craft an electorate to their specifications rather than allow it to reflect the overall make-up of Mississippi's citizens.
Not only does the patchwork of felon disenfranchisement policies across the 50 states hurt former felons, they also have an impact on their surrounding communities. The right to vote helps build a sense of community, thus reducing the harmful impact on low-income and minority communities where a disproportionately high number of individuals are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. This sentiment was shared by a former prisoner who got to vote for the first time Tuesday in a story posted on AlterNet.
"This election is bringing out apathetic voters and first-time voters, and making both groups feel invested in the future of their country," wrote Andres Idarraga, one of 15,000 former Rhode Islanders with a felony conviction who recently had his voting rights restored. "I am so proud to be one of them."
While reinstating voting rights is an important step in fostering a healthy, representative democracy, educating former offenders regarding restoration procedures is key in reaching that goal, as exemplified by recent work in Alabama.
"Onetime criminal and founder of a ministry called The Ordinary People Society," Rev. Kenneth Glasgow had been helping people restore their voting rights for years but only recently discovered that some of the 250,000 disenfranchised Alabamans were actually eligible to vote. Glasgow's experience highlights the secrecy surrounding this aspect of Alabama. Until Friday, the Secretary of State's website wrongfully stated all felons are ineligible to register and vote.
Alabama's state constitution denies voting rights to only those who committed a felony involving "moral turpitude." Therefore, "those who have committed other felonies -- like marijuana possession or drunken driving -- can cast ballots even if they are still in prison, according to the state attorney general." In 2003, a statute passed making it easier for "some felons to regain voting rights," which was strongly opposed by Republicans "'because felons don't tend to vote Republican,'" chairman of the state Republican Party, Marty Connors said.
It is estimated that at least 3,000 of the 29,000 inmates and thousands more on parole are eligible to vote.
Glasgow, who has registered more than 500 people in county jails, notes how including disenfranchised people in the electorate changes the terms of public policy debate. "There would be a lot of difference in our legislators, our elected officials and our presidents that we've had," Glasgow said. "It would definitely change the political spectrum of Alabama."
Connors' statement is an explicit example of the partisan analysis behind the positions of elected officials on laws dealing with who is and is not eligible to vote. Rather than focusing on upholding the right of every citizen to exercise this foundational right of democracy, thereby allowing maximum participation in addressing the issues that affect people's everyday lives, lawmakers seek to use the government itself to shape the electorate for partisan advantage.
Currently, Maine and Vermont are the only states where felony convictions do not affect voter eligibility.
As former felons in Alabama and Rhode Island voice their desire to take part in the civic life of their communities and country -- a situation that only strengthens American democracy -- officials and lawmakers in Mississippi are finding ways to turn a citizen's Constitutional right into a privilege reserved only for those who fit certain profiles. Excluding citizens from the most basic right of a representative democracy undermines communal bonds and weakens our civic society.
Project Vote is currently monitoring bills related to felon voting rights in six states at www.ElectionLegislation.org
As the nation prepares for the 2008 election, a new study reveals that many states are routinely failing to offer low-income Americans an opportunity to register to vote as required by the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007, published this week by the non-partisan voting rights groups Demos and Project Vote, shows that 12 years after the NVRA's requirements went into effect, voter registrations from public agencies that provide services to low-income Americans have declined dramatically.
Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007 examines voter registration data state by state, finding that in states across the nation -- Virginia, Florida, Texas, Nevada and many others -- public assistance agencies are neglecting to offer voter registration to all clients and applicants, as required by the law. Because of noncompliance with the NVRA, the rights of thousands of low-income citizens are violated daily.
"All Americans should have an opportunity to register and vote, but states are ignoring a federal law that requires them to offer voter registration to low-income citizens. In 2006, more than twice as many low-income Americans were unregistered as upper-income Americans. States need to follow the law. If they do, we can close the registration gap between rich and poor," says Unequal Access co-author Douglas R. Hess. "Our democracy works best when everyone, not just some, are allowed to participate."
Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007 findings underscore widespread state failures in enforcing the NVRA, including:
- Registrations from public assistance agencies have declined 79 percent between 1995, when the Act was first implemented in, and 2006; in other words, registrations declined from 2.6 million to just 540,000 by the 2005-2006 reporting period.
- Field investigations and analysis of available data strongly suggest that low registration rates are a result of states' noncompliance with the law.
- The decline in registrations from public assistance agencies occurred despite the fact that millions of citizens from low-income households remain unregistered. In 2006, 13 million (40 percent) of voting-age citizens from households earning under $25,000 were unregistered.
- The U.S. Department of Justice has failed in recent years to actively enforce the public assistance provisions of the NVRA. This is despite being provided with evidence of noncompliance by Project Vote, Demos, Congressional leaders and others.
The NVRA was enacted in 1993 with the goal of increasing the number of eligible citizens registered to vote. The law requires states to offer citizens an opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver's license ("motor voter") and when citizens apply for public assistance benefits such as Food Stamps or Medicaid. The latter provision was designed to reduce disparities in the voting population based on race and income.
"When public assistance agencies offer voter registration as the law requires, their clients register to vote," says Unequal Access co-author Scott Novakowski. "States like North Carolina and Iowa have recently improved their agency registration procedures, resulting in dramatic increases in the number of low-income citizens registering to vote. If all states were to fully comply with the law, thousands of eligible low-income voters could be drawn into the democratic process every day."
In conjunction with the publication of Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007, Project Vote and Demos has sent notices to Arizona and Florida for non-compliance with NVRA. Such notices are required before initiating litigation.
For more information about the National Voter Registration Act and to download a copy of Unequal Access, visit www.projectvote.org or www.demos.org.