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Election Regulations and Voter Disengagement

Super PACs and restrictive voting laws could lead less voters to participate this year. Congress must act quickly to counteract these measures.

  • Sundeep Iyer
May 4, 2012

Cross­pos­ted at Huff­ing­ton Post.

The super PACs and nonprofit groups domin­at­ing the 2012 elec­tion filed their latest finan­cial disclos­ures with the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion. The reports showed that these outside groups — some of which do not disclose any inform­a­tion about their donors — are poised to continue play­ing an outsize role in this year’s elec­tions. Karl Rove’s Cross­roads groups, for instance, raised about as much in the first quarter of 2012 ($49 million) as they did during all of 2011. This break­neck fundrais­ing pace will only accel­er­ate as Novem­ber approaches.

But this fundrais­ing is not just affect­ing the ads we see on TV. It may also be having a troub­ling influ­ence on voter atti­tudes toward our elect­oral process. Accord­ing to a national survey conduc­ted on behalf of the Bren­nan Center for Justice, 41 percent of Amer­ic­ans already say their vote does not matter because big donors to super PACs have so much more influ­ence than they do. Alarm­ingly, nearly one in four Amer­ic­ans say they are less likely to vote because of the influ­ence big donors have over elec­ted offi­cials.

This is noth­ing less than a crisis of confid­ence in the power of aver­age citizens to effect change through the elect­oral process.

Yet super PACs are only one reason voters might disen­gage this Novem­ber. Across the coun­try, more than a dozen states have passed laws making it harder for eligible citizens to vote. Voter ID laws are the most common — eight states have passed “no photo, no vote” laws since the last federal elec­tions. Several others have adop­ted laws restrict­ing regis­tra­tion drives, making it nearly impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to register voters. All told, during the 2011–2012 legis­lat­ive sessions alone, there have been 24 laws and exec­ut­ive actions restrict­ing access to the polls. These new restric­tions could make it harder for millions of Amer­ic­ans to vote in Novem­ber.

Poorer communit­ies and communit­ies of color will bear the worst consequences of this year’s new elec­tion law changes. The Bren­nan Center super PAC survey found that Amer­ic­ans with house­hold incomes under $35,000 are much more likely than the general popu­la­tion to think their vote does not matter in the face of super PACs. That holds true for African-Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos, too. Most voting law changes, like voter ID laws, also have their most perni­cious effects on people of color. For instance, the Depart­ment of Justice recently noted that Hispanic registered voters in Texas are between 46 percent and 120 percent more likely than whites to not have a driver’s license or non-driver’s photo ID.

The combin­a­tion of new campaign finance and voting law changes is almost certain to cause voter disen­gage­ment this fall, espe­cially among those tradi­tion­ally margin­al­ized in our polit­ical process. Of course, this would not be the first time that Amer­ica has had prob­lems with voter turnout. In 2008, an elec­tion noted for its high turnout, there were still 75 million voting-eligible people who did not vote.

We need struc­tural reform to the way we run our elec­tions, and fast.

Congress can imme­di­ately make outside groups less potent by adopt­ing mean­ing­ful rules to prevent coordin­a­tion between candid­ates and the super PACs that func­tion as shadow campaigns. But Congress can and should do more. Adopt­ing a system of public fund­ing for federal elec­tions would make the voices of aver­age voters matter as much as those of super PAC fat cats.

Modern­iz­ing our voter regis­tra­tion system is also long over­due. Regis­tra­tion-related prob­lems have peren­ni­ally been the biggest obstacle voters face each elec­tion season. In 2008, 80 percent of voting-eligible people who did not vote were not registered, and about three million more were preven­ted from voting because of prob­lems with their regis­tra­tion. Accord­ing to the Pew Center on the States, there are now 50 million voting-eligible Amer­ic­ans who are not registered.

To expand the voter rolls, Congress should require states to auto­mat­ic­ally register consent­ing eligible citizens to vote when they inter­act with any state agency — and to provide a failsafe proced­ure to register voters who are left out. In states like Wash­ing­ton, Kansas, and South Dakota, auto­ma­tion has substan­tially increased the number of registered voters. States should also be required to provide online voter regis­tra­tion, a more conveni­ent, secure, and cost-effect­ive altern­at­ive to paper-based regis­tra­tion forms.

Congress alone cannot completely coun­ter­act the harm­ful effects of the new rules govern­ing our elec­tions. But in an elec­tion cycle where these rules threaten to under­mine voter parti­cip­a­tion, Congress must act now to soften the blow.