After Voter ID --The Next Battle in the War on Voting

November 9, 2011

It’s official. With yesterday’s off-term elections now behind us, the one-year countdown to Election Day 2012 has officially begun.

One year is an awful lot of time for political campaigns. Candidates can thrive, perish, and come back to life in less time, particularly in today’s fast-paced media environment. But for election officials—many of whom are now tasked with educating the public about several recent changes to state voting laws—one year is not very much time at all.

That’s why these election officials must begin reaching out to voters right now to make sure they have all the information they need to cast ballots in next year’s election. With the rash of restrictive state voting laws that have passed in recent months—many of which impose burdensome new requirements on voters—state election administrators must work diligently to prepare voters for the 2012 election.

This will be especially important in states that have recently enacted strict voter ID laws. These laws, which typically require voters to show a valid government-issued photo ID at the polls, pose a significant barrier to electoral participation for the 11% of eligible voters who do not have such identification. These individuals will likely lose the chance to cast a meaningful ballot next November unless they obtain the necessary ID before then—regardless of whether they’d voted regularly in previous elections without an ID. Election administrators must therefore develop comprehensive voter education programs to inform these people about the new laws and show them how and where to obtain requisite photo IDs.

Unfortunately, state lawmakers and election administrators often underestimate the time and cost required to conduct effective voter education campaigns. In 2006, for instance, a federal court blocked initial enforcement of Georgia’s voter ID law after the state failed to commence its voter education program far enough in advance of the primary election to meaningfully inform voters of the new ID requirement. A recent analysis of Kansas’s new voter ID law concluded that lawmakers there had similarly underestimated the cost of public education efforts.

This problem doesn’t just apply to the new voter ID laws but also to other new voting restrictions. Maine lawmakers skimped on voter education funding this summer when they passed a bill to eliminate Election Day voter registration opportunities. Although the state’s Election Day registration policy had been in place for nearly four decades, state lawmakers nevertheless concluded that they could spend less than $3,000 to notify the state’s one million eligible voters about the changed rule (Maine voters approved a referendum yesterday repealing the new law).

Florida lawmakers went even further by passing a bill in May that actually cuts back on state funding sources for voter education. The bill—which also raises several new roadblocks for community-based voter registration drives—repealed a provision of Florida law that previously allocated revenue from fines for election-related violations to the state’s voter education budget. Worse still, the bill failed to allocate any new funding to inform the public about the new restrictions on voter registration activities. As a result, a pair of Florida high school teachers are now facing major fines for unwittingly breaking the new law by organizing voter registration drives for their students.

Although Florida’s bill provides an extreme example of neglect, election officials elsewhere are still struggling to reach voters most affected by the new voting restrictions. This is not surprising given that election budgets have been slashed in many states. And, even without the budget cuts, the voters who bear the greatest brunt of the new voting restrictions—namely, the poor, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people of color—are often the hardest to reach through traditional public education campaigns because of language barriers and diminished media access in their communities.

These difficulties highlight the need for more creative thinking—and more research—about how voters find information about election rules. Initiatives like the Voting Information Project, a Pew-sponsored partnership between election administrators and media companies like Google, illustrate the possibilities for future innovations in voter education. But they require greater buy-in from election officials. More importantly, they require broader recognition of the fact that voters’ familiarity with our new voting rules can influence democratic participation as much as the new rules themselves.  

With less than a year to go until next year’s election—and primary elections just around the corner—election officials must not wait to begin educating voters about these new rules. The clock is ticking.