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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/4/09

Making your city a model for voting rights and civic participation

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Message Rob Richie

FairVote's Rob Richie's delivered this testimony on January 26, 2009 to the Washington, D.C. Council Board of Elections and Ethics. It has potential relevance for many localities trying to improve participation, voting rights and representation.

Thank you for inviting me to testify today. My name is Rob Richie. Born in the District in 1962, I am executive director of FairVote. FairVote is an innovative catalyst for electoral reform founded in 1992. We act to transform American democracy based on a simple premise: our nation's policies should respect every vote and every voice. FairVote engages in innovative research into problems with current electoral rules and practices and potential reforms and convenes democracy advocates to learn from each other's work, analysis and strategy.

Most Americans believe that a fundamental right to vote in our democracy is explicitly guaranteed in our Constitution and laws. In 2000 we found out that this is not so. In the Bush v. Gore decision, the Supreme Court reminded us that Americans have no explicitly protected right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Today there continue to be millions of Americans disenfranchised indirectly by errors in voter registration, long lines, machine failures and partisan election rules and directly by state laws that deny the vote to citizens with felony convictions and federal laws that don't provide opportunities to vote for federal representation. American citizens should, as a human right, have a right to vote, one that establishes a mutual responsibility between government and the governed to ensure that everyone who seeks to cast a vote for their representatives will be able to cast a secure, protected and meaningful vote.

Given that Washington, D.C. is denied voting representation in U.S. Congress, we have a special reason to start this journey right here in our nation's capital. The District can be a showcase to the world and the rest of the country, a veritable "beacon of democracy," demonstrating that its commitment to democracy begins with its own actions. Furthermore, as shown by today's slate of remarkable panelists, this area has an excellent pool of experienced students of reform that I'm sure would be willing to help in this enterprise.

Washington, D.C. should act to ensure every eligible voter in our city can vote conveniently, securely and meaningfully. The proposals in our platform of ideas below fall under two categories: expanding on current legislation and introducing new ideas for Washington, D.C.

Youth Registration and Education: Systematic means to encourage lifelong participation
  • Register every high school student to vote through Washington, D.C. Public Schools before they turn 18.

  • Grant the right for advance voter registration to all citizens turning 16. This will make it easier to reach all high school students with a voter education module that includes voter registration and all youth when obtaining a learner's permit to drive.

  • Implement deputy registrar recruitment and outreach for high school seniors of voting age who are interested in participating more fully in the election process. Explore having the board of elections train and hire high school students to as contract employees during the fall to assist with implementation of voting technologies.

  • Follow the model of Montgomery County, Maryland on two practices: allowing students as young as 6th graders serve four-hour shifts as assistant pollworkers for community service hours and granting 6th-12th graders suffrage rights to vote annually on city voting equipment for a student school board representative.

  • Require a voter education program in high schools that introduces our students to voting mechanics in our community, through a separate program or through civics classes. Consider a K-12 voting curriculum that introduces students to their role as voters through age-appropriate presentations.

Seeking Universal Adult registration: Full and accurate vote rolls for our city elections

  • Act to pursue automatic voter registration using District tax forms, post office change of address and other District of Columbia government databases

  • Give an NVRA (National Voter Registration Act) form to every new tenant in public housing. Implement a program to deputize landlords and other housing officials to be voter registrars.

  • Explore requiring all eligible adults to either register to vote or decline to register, but if and only if the government acts pro-actively to make registration easy and cost-free.

  • Explore allowing legal immigrants who are permanent residents to vote in city elections. Note that legal immigrants are overwhelmingly taxpayers and often homeowners with children in the schools. The path to citizenship can often take many years.

Uniformity, Transparency & Accountability: Establishing trustable and verifiable elections

  • Adequate funding and pollworker training: Increase the District's election budget to increase the number of poll workers and election judges, and raise their pay. Expand training and provide for contingencies. Recruit people of all ages and from all neighborhoods, including bilingual and multilingual volunteers.

  • Transparency and accountability: Our election administrators should make all their plans for running elections and ballot designs available for public review and comment well before an election. We should establish clear measurements of successful election administration such as number of miscast votes, length of lines at the polls and responsiveness to problems exposed on Election Day to be able to evaluate election administrators' performance and strengthen accountability. 

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FairVote is a non-profit, non-partisan organization devoted to electoral reforms that respect every vote and ever voice. Signature proposals we have developed or advanced include proportional voting, instant runoff voting, ranked choice voting, the (more...)
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