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How To Keep People From Voting: Make The System As Complicated As Possible

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Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters.

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

While many see voting as an implicit right in a representative democracy, decisions in America about who can vote and how are actually controlled by the states and vary greatly from state-to-state, even from county-to-county.

Misinformation and misinterpretation of each state's particular laws--not only by voters, but also by state officials--has the potential to influence the outcome of the election, a problem seen recently as two of the country's most disenfranchised groups - youth and former felons -have encountered procedural roadblocks to electoral participation.

Large voter registration drives are underway in Virginia, but the Roanoke Times has recently reported on problems that may hinder the participation of Virginia students. According to Kevin Litten of the Roanoke Times on Saturday, allegations of voter intimidation came out of Virginia Tech last week, when Montgomery County Registrar Randy Wertz issued a news release warning students that registering using their college addresses would be changing their permanent addresses. This, according to Wertz, could "affect student's scholarships or tax filings, and would obligate them to change car registrations and their driver's licenses."

Litten reports that officials from the Obama campaign, which has been conducting voter registration activities in Virginia, countered that "they had never heard of students' dependency status on their parents' tax forms affected by their voter registration," and that the "other laws mentioned in the release are rarely enforced or subject to interpretation." The officials worried that the statements could have a "chilling effect" on voter registration efforts, but Wertz denied that intimidating students was his intention, insisting that "his focus is making sure elections run smoothly and fairly."

Fair and smooth elections become even more difficult when more voters are involved and the state is ill prepared. Wednesday's Roanoke Times expressed concerns that the influx of newly registered students--assigned to what is already the county's most populated precinct--could create long lines and transportation problems on Election Day.

The precinct, E-1, already has 3,600 active voters; the state is required to split precincts when they exceed 5,000 voters, but officials say it is too late to obtain Justice Department approval for the split if E-1 exceeds capacity before November. To at least help alleviate the waiting period to vote, officials say they are making efforts to hire extra officials to run the polls. But, to make matters worse, the polling place assigned for the precinct is located four miles from campus without connecting public transportation - a potential problem for students without cars.

Whereas young people are subject to roadblocks and intimidation due to unclear regulations and ill-equipped precincts, many former felons remain unaware of their right to vote period.

"A lot of people, especially women, don't know they still count when they come home...they need to know that they can vote and maybe things will change," said Willeta Hughes in the Michigan Citizen. Hughes "was told in 1998 that she couldn't go to law school or vote as a result of a concealed weapons charge that led to a felony conviction."

Hughes is part of a Michigan pilot program to help engage former felons in the voting process and ultimately in their communities. The program, Unlock the Vote, was started by Neila Johnson to help combat misinformation, "disseminated from inside the Corrections Department itself," that told many felons, including Johnson's sister, that they had permanently lost their voting rights.

Before 2007, Florida had one of the toughest felon-disenfranchisement laws, which permanently revoked voting rights of all felons unless individually restored by the Clemency Board. Nearly one million ex-felons were not allowed to vote in the last presidential election, according to the Sentencing Project. Last year Governor Charlie Crist changed Florida law to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent criminals after release.

"Thousands of ex-convicts have had their rights restored but don't know it, or don't realize they are eligible to register as voters. The state has been unable to notify them because it has lost track of them," Kaczor wrote. Only 9,000 of those former felons were registered by the end of July, according to an August 27 Orlando Sentinel report.

Last week Crist issued an executive order requiring officials to provide voter registration cards and the ability to track voter registration status online for certain former felons. According to Bill Kaczor of the Associated Press, this long-awaited effort to help former felons restore their civil rights is being seen by many as "a lost opportunity," as only five weeks remain to register before the Nov. 4 election.

More than 5.3 million felons across the nation are prohibited from voting, and less than one quarter of eligible young voters turning out to vote in 2006 midterm election. These untapped voting blocs are often silenced thanks to poorly managed state control of election administration, which puts the burden on voters to seek registration.

One way to resolve some of these issues is to continue to inform voters of their rights and have outside parties help them register to vote. However, as state variance in election administration has shown, these steps alone are not enough to address the bias in the electorate and promote full participation in elections.

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