Between Voting Rights and Voting Wrongs

May 1, 2012

Published in The New York Times.

Since the beginning of 2011, lawmakers around the country abruptly enacted laws to curb voting rights and tighten registration rules. These measures are fiercely controversial. But lately the debate has taken a surprising turn. Suppressive voting laws have met resistance at the polls and in the courts. This surprisingly emphatic twist is good for our democracy. If the restriction of voting rights can be blocked or blunted, it will give us an opportunity to move forward with bipartisan reforms to our ramshackle registration system.

Consider the recent backlash.

In Maine, voters reversed a new law, passed in June 2011, that ended same-day registration. Now voters will be able to register on Election Day in 2012.

In Ohio, more than 300,000 citizens signed petitions, enough to temporarily suspend the state’s new law that curbed early voting and force a statewide referendum in November. Now nervous Republicans are close to a deal with Democrats that would repeal the law and restore early voting for the three days before the election.

Florida, meanwhile, imposed onerous penalties and paperwork burdens on volunteers who sign up voters. Helping your neighbors participate in our democracy is not something we should restrict, which is why the Brennan Center is leading the fight to challenge this law. We represent the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, and other civic groups that have shut down registration drives. The league has won similar lawsuits twice before and now awaits a judge’s ruling, which is expected soon.

Even on the contentious issue of requiring government-issued photo identification to vote, the strictest new laws have slammed into legal barriers.

In March a state judge struck down Wisconsin’s new law, which required showing a government-issued photo ID with a current address to vote, on the grounds that it violated the state’s Constitution. In Missouri, a judge blocked a ballot measure to pass a similar law.

This month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Arizona law that required voters to show proof of citizenship when registering.

Other states have run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department must “pre-clear” laws in South Carolina and Texas, and has refused to do so. Both states have already admitted that hundreds of thousands of voters lack the necessary documents required by new voter ID laws — and minority voters would be most affected. “Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card,” wrote Thomas Perez, a Justice Department official, in a letter denying pre-clearance.

Conservatives respond by insisting that the Voting Rights Act is itself unconstitutional and that it is no longer necessary. They are challenging the act not only in Texas, but also in Alabama and Florida. They would have a slightly easier time making that argument if these states, and others like South Carolina and Mississippi, did not keep passing laws that made it harder for blacks and other minority groups to vote.

No one is saying that people should be able to vote without proving who they are. But these laws have been devised in a way that leaves out large segments of the electorate. Around one in 10 eligible voters do not have a driver’s license. As courts are beginning to rule, the problem is not requiring identification — it is requiring identification that lots of voters just do not have.

We do not know for sure how these fights will end. Other states are continuing to move forward with suppressive measures. Pennsylvania just enacted a strict new law requiring documents, principally a driver’s license, to vote. Mississippi voters passed a harsh voter ID referendum, and Minnesotans will consider a more restrictive referendum in November. No doubt many eligible citizens will find it far harder to cast ballots this year.

But the push to curb rights, so successful in 2011, has prompted a considerable response in 2012. This brawl will continue all the way to November. After all, it is wrong to push through partisan laws that hit minorities, young people and the elderly the hardest, especially in the middle of an election season. After two centuries in which we have (mostly) expanded the right to vote, now is hardly the time to start marching backward.

Whatever the outcome, let’s avoid another season of assaults on voting rights.

The best solution is to fix our paper-based voter registration system. As the Pew Center on the States notes, millions of names are out of date or duplicated. Some deceased voters even remain on the rolls. Voter registration modernization could unite the combatants in the “voting wars.”

With a modern voting system, state governments could use computer records to assure that every eligible citizen had the opportunity to register. Election officials could get information from databases — like those of the D.M.V., public assistance agencies, the Selective Service, and more — to make corrections and automate registration. A complete, up-to-date voter file could be at the polls so if any eligible voter was not already in the system, he or she could register and vote on Election Day. Such a plan would add up to 65 million people to the rolls, permanently.

In recent years, 17 states have quietly moved forward to automate voter registration, supported by officials from both parties. These states have enjoyed increased turnout and cost savings. In Maricopa County, Ariz., for example, modernized registration has saved $450,000.

Automatic registration would also curb the potential for fraud. We can assure that only those eligible are registered and that all those eligible can vote. We started in the states, but we should take the next step and make such moves universal.

So yes, we should repel the push to make voting harder for millions of Americans. If lawmakers really want to protect the integrity of our elections, modernizing our registration system is the answer.