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Calling for Election Reform: Universal Registration and Early Voting Take Lead in Voting Rights Discussions

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

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

Following one of the most momentous elections in the nation's history, officials and advocates across the country are already turning their attention to the future of American democracy. After a grueling battle over voter registration, voter roll maintenance, and ballot access for the ever growing electorate, leaders and advocates are evaluating what worked this year and considering major administrative and legislative overhauls before coming elections.

Last week, voters exhibited "remarkable persistence and patience" after "waiting in lines way too long" or "questioning challenges to their right to cast a ballot," the Washington Post editorialized Sunday.
"The fact that problems were not as pervasive as they might have been is due to the hard work of the voting rights community and election administrators in the months and even years before the election and the enthusiasm and persistence of voters," wrote voting rights expert, Tova Wang of Common Cause at AlterNet.

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Some are calling the turnout of 132 million voters, according to figures from Monday's Los Angeles Times, a "record." However, others claim the turnout, while high at 62 percent, was just shy of beating the record 67 percent turnout of 1960, according to Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate on NPR Tuesday. Although the number of voters always goes up--by about 6.5 million this year--Gans said the percentage may not. Despite clear electoral excitement across the country, with record numbers of young and minority voters registering to vote earlier this year, the relatively unremarkable turnout and the "forbearance" voters needed to cast a ballot may be indicative of a need to revamp the election system to provide access to all eligible citizens without compromising the democratic process.

After what voting rights advocate, Wendy Weiser calls the "ACORN issue," - referring to partisan attacks against third-party voter registration drives - voting rights advocates hope to "shift the onus on registering from the individual to government" through Universal Voter Registration, according to the Post.

"This means the registration process would no longer serve as a barrier to the right to vote," said Weiser, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law in the Times.

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"All across America, our people wasted untold hours dealing with duplicate registrations," said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Assn. of Election Officials, according to the Times. This issue, along with high mobility rates in the country (which tend to be higher among lower income and younger citizens), warrant a revamping of the system. Under the current system, voters are required to update their registration every time they move, something that many voters do not realize, according to the Times.

To help resolve this, groups like the Brennan Center are proposing Universal Voter Registration, whereby states "update their computerized voter rolls when residents move from one city to another. And they could add new voters who move to the state and apply for driver's licenses." Others propose to "automatically add teens when they turn 18," the Times reports. "Under some plans, Congress could create a national voter registration roll, modeled after the Social Security database. Others say states should take the lead in expanding and improving their voter rolls."

Similar methods have been discussed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D N.Y.), who has said she plans to introduce legislation to move automatic voter registration, according to the Times.

With an estimated third of all voters taking advantage of their state's early voting laws this presidential election, convenience voting (voting early or by mail without an excuse) is taking the lead in election reform discussions. According to the Post, "studies have shown that early voting results in greater participation."

As a result of the apparent early voting success across the country, various jurisdictions are considering early voting, including the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. City Councilors hoped to file legislation to allow early voting as well as Election Day Registration in the city, two measures that are not allowed under state law, according to the Worcester Telegram.  

"The intent behind early voting is to increase voter participation and relieve congestion at the polls on Election Day," according to the Telegram.

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However, some election experts are still skeptical of early voting and its mobilization powers: "There's no evidence that convenience voting...enhances turnout," Gans told NPR. "There is some evidence that it detracts from turnout. Of the 13 states that had the greatest decrease in turnout this time around, 12 of them had one of the convenience voting features. Of the 14 states that had the greatest increase, only six had convenience voting. This has been true in every election."

Gans continued, "this is a time shift for some people. Some people with no excuse absentee [voting] leave their ballots on the kitchen table. You diffuse mobilization over a period of X number of days rather than one day and you reduce the power. In this election, the Democrats did a major early vote mobilization effort, but it's not clear that they would've gotten the same amount of votes had they showed up on Election Day."

Other issues in election reform discussions include anti-voter caging and deceptive practices measures.  After incidences of voter intimidation, such as a phony flier in Virginia that misled voters to believe Republicans voted Tuesday while Democrats voted Wednesday, advocates are pushing legislation to ban deceptive practices. "It's amazing how many emails with deliberate misleading information were sent out this year," Wang told the Times.

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