Skip Navigation

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…

  • Maggie Barron
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.