Protecting Votes, One Call at a Time

How many lawyers does it take to run an Election Protection Hotline? You can come up with your own punchline, but the actual answer is about thirty at a time, in five hour shifts....

May 8, 2008

How many lawyers does it take to run an Election
Protection Hotline
? You can come up with your own punchline, but the actual
answer is about thirty at a time, in five hour shifts, sitting around a board
room table on an otherwise empty floor of a mid-town law firm, fielding
hundreds of calls from primary voters in Indiana
and North Carolina.

In terms of voting issues, the big
story
was the group of elderly nuns who had been turned away from the polls
because they did not have current photo ID. (So much for the Supreme Court divining
that voter ID laws would probably not really impact any voters). Other calls
ran the gamut, from questions about polling location to reports of machine
malfunctions, from possible voter intimidation to confusion as to whether or
not people with felony convictions could vote. One North Carolina woman had been mistakenly
registered as a Republican, which meant she could not vote for either of the
Democratic candidates. Another called, upset that she had been asked to leave a
polling place because she was wearing a t-shirt with her chosen candidate's
name on it.

For all these anecdotes, there was a certain type of call,
perhaps the most basic, that has stuck with me. Throughout my shift, I answered
calls from people who had been registered, had moved, and had never gotten
around to changing their address on their voter registration record. For those
who had switched counties, this was a considerable problem. In both North Carolina and Indiana,
if voters move from one county to another without updating their addresses on
the voter registration rolls, they cannot vote. Unless they've moved within the
past thirty days, they can't go to their old polling place, and they can't go
to their new polling place. They might have been registered once, but not
anymore. Sorry.

This struck me as the most mundane, unnecessary reason to be
disenfranchised, which might have been why it bothered me so much. And it
doesn't just happen in these two states. As our Executive Director Michael
Waldman points out in his new
book
, "in a country where one in six Americans moves in a year, government
does not routinely keep such people registered to vote, even if they stay in
their own state."

Why do we do it like this? Some might be quick to offer the
line that voting is a privilege, the government shouldn't have to hold our hands,
voting is the voter's responsibility, etc. etc. Heaven forbid we "spoil" our
citizens by making it convenient to vote. True patriots don't need convenience!
Or something like that... Maybe some would feel that the voters I spoke to on the
phone have rightly learned their lesson and will be better citizens next time.
But I certainly didn't feel like delivering the civic scolding.

And yes, in this country it is the voter's responsibility to register, re-register, make it to
the polls, and jump through any other hoops on the way to the ballot box. But
this does not mean that it would be illegal, wrong, or a waste of time for the
government to facilitate registration and re-registration more than it does now.

The solution is fairly simple. People should be able to
register on Election Day. Eight states already allow this, and they have found
that it boosts
turnout
by 5-7 percentage points, reduces confusion (and the need for
provisional ballots) when people try to vote but can't, and does not lead to
any increase in reports of voter fraud or bureaucratic malfunction. Just last
week, Senators Feingold and Klobuchar and Rep. Ellison introduced
a Federal Election Day Registration Bill, which would allow people to, you
guessed it, register on Election Day.

Or, when people change their address through the post
office, why can't they also change their voter registration? Will such
convenience turn us into a nation of softies and whiners? I doubt it. But it
will make our voter rolls a lot more accurate, which is in everyone's interests—those who lie awake at night fearing voter fraud and those who want as many
people to vote as possible.

It would not be difficult for the government to help people
get, and stay, registered. And look on the bright side. At least that will make
fewer lawyers necessary to run an Election Protection Hotline.