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Who Gets to Vote? State's Struggle to Register Veterans, Felons and Minorities

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

In the aftermath of the presidential primaries, stories of unprecedented voter registration and turnout are drifting to the back burner. But with an exceedingly imbalanced electorate, the fight to create access to the voting rolls and enforce the voting rights of all Americans continues. With historic voter registration drives underway and a preview of the types of problems that could occur in November, the focus of the media is beginning to shift towards the less sexy, but crucial elements that work to maximize voter participation while ensuring eligible voters can cast their ballots and have them counted. In Project Vote's view, this is a welcome development since many of the potential issues require more time to sort out than is available if problems are noted only weeks in advance of the election. This week, election officials, advocates and a presidential candidate worked to assist in or restore voting rights for hospitalized veterans in Connecticut, minority citizens in Georgia, and former felons in Tennessee.

In protest of a ban on voter registration drives issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in May, Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal held an impromptu registration drive outside of a VA center on Monday, according to the New Haven Register. Last week, Bysiewicz's office had been verbally denied access to the VA centers to conduct registration drives on site. “I believe that there is a concerted effort going on to suppress voter registration,” [said] Bysiewicz, pointing to the department's directive, and a separate ban issued for Indian reservations, because they are on federal property,” the Register reported. “To ban voter registration drives is a slap in the face to veterans like Mr. Onieal, who have served and sacrificed greatly for our country and for the basic freedoms that we have here,” Bysiewicz said, referring to Martin Onieal, a World War II veteran and one of a “handful” of VA patients that she registered Monday. But state-by-state interpretation of the new directive creates more worries. According to Roger Johnson, director of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, nonpartisan voter registration drives are indeed acceptable and Bysiewicz's denial was a mistake. Other states deny all voter registration activity, according to the Register. “What you have here is either a colossal misunderstanding, or an unconscionable misreading of this directive,” said Blumenthal. “The VA has to have its act together when it is talking about basic rights.” Those basic rights are being defended on behalf of former felons in Tennessee, according to the Tennessean. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the state's felon voting rights policy that bars ex-felons from voting if they owe child support or court-ordered restitution, a measure that advocates argue comes “dangerously close to a poll tax.” With the urgency of the upcoming presidential election, the number of requests to restore voting rights has more than doubled since last year. “African-Americans, disproportionately arrested, charged and convicted of crimes, are a major part of the surge to get their rights restored,” the Tennessean reports. An estimated 90,000 adults have lost their right to vote in the state due to felony convictions – just a fraction of the 5.3 million nationwide, according to the Tennessean. Tennessee is one of 48 states to strip felons of voting rights and one of 11 that make it more difficult for former felons to reintegrate into society by not automatically restoring their civil rights upon completion of his or her sentence. With less than half of all eligible Americans participating in the electoral process, one would expect public policy to encourage access to voter registration, rather than making it more difficult to obtain. This problem particularly affects minority and low income citizens whose over representation in the criminal justice system and high residency mobility rates appear to contribute towards low registration and voting rates. In the 2006 midterm election, 52 percent of eligible citizens did not participate, most of whom were simply not registered, according to Project Vote report, Representational Bias in the 2006 Electorate. Particularly, minority voters lag at least 10 percentage points behind White voters, perpetuating the imbalance in the electorate. However, once registered, voters in general are more likely to actually participate, as illustrated in the 2006 election with more than 70 percent of registered voters casting ballots. The participation trend continued on Super Tuesday when Black and Latino voters showed tremendous increases in voter turnout in several states, surprisingly including Georgia, a state with a history of low turnout from voters of color. The state's boost in voter registration is significant with more than a 20 percent increase since the last presidential election, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The recent surge is largely attributed to the Obama campaign, which is targeting Black and young voters. Black voter registration in particular has increased one percent since November 2006.

Quick Links: Urbina, Ian. “V.A. Ban on Voter Drives Is Criticized.” New York Times. June 13, 2008. “Out of Step with the World: An Analysis of Felony Disfranchisement in the U.S. and other Democracies.” ACLU. May 26, 2006. Hess, Doug R. “Representational Bias in the 2006 Electorate.” Project Vote. September 2007.
In Other News: Republican Campaign Against Likely Democratic Voters Begins: The GOP’s latest accusations are long on rhetoric but short on fact – AlterNet Across the country and on the Republican National Committee website, a handful of GOP office holders and party officers are trying to discredit recent voter registration drives and record-setting turnout by Democrats in 2008 primaries, saying efforts seen as benefiting Democrats are rife with "voter fraud." N.Y. Voter Turnout Among Lowest in the Nation – The New York Sun New York State has some of the lowest voter turnout numbers in America, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau. Erin Ferns is a Research and Policy Analyst with Project Vote’s Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD).

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