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Voter Registration Surges, But Fuels Voter Suppression Attempts In State Legislatures

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

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

Voter registration applications continue to pour into elections offices across the country at record breaking rates, contributing to unprecedented turnout over the course of the presidential primary season so far. The closely contested primaries, especially on the Democratic side, are one factor behind the surge. Another includes a spark of political interest in young people. Whatever factors are involved, the bottom line is that more Americans are engaging in the electoral process. This reality of exploding participation in American democracy should be closely considered by lawmakers when evaluating legislation that could expand or restrict access to the polls this November.

"This year's presidential battle has brought a record [number] of voters to the polls. So far, primaries in 23 states and the District of Columbia have broken turnout records for at least one party," Martha T. Moore of USA Today reported this week. Primary turnout this year "is on pace to eclipse the record set in 1972, when nearly 26% of eligible citizens cast ballots," Curtis Gans, director of Center for the Study on the American Electorate at American University, told Moore.

In state after state, the electorates are expanding as voter registration forms flood elections offices. North Carolina experienced a "nearly 3% jump in total registration" since January with more than 165,000 new voters. Registration and turnout could be even greater in North Carolina, which passed a form of Election Day Registration last year that allows voters to both register and vote during a "One Stop Voting" period. The state's primary is May 6.

Indiana, which also holds its primary on May 6, is seeing some of its counties struggle under the stress of massive voter registration, while others take proactive steps. Understaffed Delaware County, which received a "flood of applications" Monday is experiencing flare-ups of partisan friction according to the Muncie Star Press. State Republican Party chairperson, Kaye Whitehead, refuses to appoint a third Republican in order to balance out the staff that currently consists of three Democratic appointees and two Republicans. The Star Press reports there is fear that some applications may not be processed in time for voting in the primary, Most of the applications being received are from "Democratic sources."

However, Marion County - which recently added 37,000 new and transferred registrations to the rolls, not including the 10,000 waiting to be added and the "potentially hundreds more that are still in the mail," as reported by Indianapolis CBS affiliate, WISH-TV - is addressing the challenges brought on by the surge of applications squarely.

A Marion County clerk said she would help avoid Election Day ills by reviewing the locations of the new voters to ensure "extra machines and ballots are at those [sites]."

One Indiana voter commented that this year's election is "almost like an arms race. Everybody is just kind of realizing the importance of this vote and they've decided to step it up and get out."

Applications are still being processed in Pennsylvania, three weeks past the registration deadline, according to the Fort Mill Times. The state, which has made recent headlines for outstanding registration rates, is "close to setting a new record" with 8.32 million registered, just 50,000 shy of breaking the record set in the 2004 presidential election.

Despite all this activity, the American electorate still did not reflect the composition of its citizenry. In 2006, just 68% of eligible citizens registered to vote and only 48% of eligible citizens actually turned out on Election Day, according to a 2007 Project Vote report. Black, Latino and young voters were especially underrepresented in the electorate, each group registering well below the national average.

However, despite the continuing reality of underrepresentation and the sustained high levels of interest in participating in the civic process, dozens of of harmful election-related bills are pending in state legislatures around the country. These include proof of citizenship proposals, voter registration drive restrictions, voter ID requirements and voter caging practices. Often driven by false claims of protecting the integrity of the electorate, these bills are expressly designed to perpetuate the existing imbalance in the American electorate. Super Tuesday exit polls showed a rise in minority and youth turnout. Increasing voter registration is a sign of increased civic engagement and adds to the strength of civil society.

The danger is that in face of the increased interest in taking part in the civic life of the nation, or in fact because of it, laws passed on the state level will curtail and suppress the ability of underrepresented groups to exercise the foundational right of American democracy: the right to vote.

Project Vote tracks all kinds of election and voting rights-related legislation in 21 states through our program (registration required). Designed for advocates and activists, is it a useful tool for anyone interested in taking action to strengthen democracy in the United States.


Quick Links:

Election 2008 Guide. New York Times.

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