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Know Your Voting Rights Issues

Learn about all the issues facing a voter as he or she moves from the registration process to the election.

Published: August 19, 2008

Searching for a clear definition of “voter caging”? Perhaps you would like examples of election day problems? Find the important issues facing the voting rights and elections community here, conveniently grouped in one place with definitions. Scroll down below for “voter registration” or click “voting” to skip to issues specific to voting. For more information, click on a category heading to be direct to the appropriate Brennan Center issue page.

Voter Registration | Voting

Opportunities to Register to Vote 

Restrictions on Voter Registration Drives: Several states have enacted laws that impose unnecessary burdens on organized efforts to register voters, which target communities that have the greatest barriers to registration. Threats of criminal penalties and civil fines for failure to comply with requirements (such as short submission times and mandatory training) have forced community groups to stop or substantially cut down on registering voters. A policy brief on restrictions to voter registration drives can be found here.

NVRA Implementation: States are not fulfilling all the requirements for the provision of voter registration services under the NVRA, or National Voting Rights Act. For example, many states are not offering voter registration at social service agencies.

Election Day Registration: Election Day registration would allow eligible citizens to register and to vote on the day of an election.

Adding Voters to the Rolls

Processing Voter Registration Forms: A number of states reject forms because of minor errors that are immaterial to voters’ eligibility. For example, voter registration forms are required to have check boxes for registrants to affirm that they are at least 18 years of age and that they are U.S. citizens. Registrants also must sign a statement on the form attesting to their eligibility. Some states reject voter registration forms that do not have these two boxes checked, even if registrants have signed the statement.

Voter Databases (“No match, no vote”): States compare identifying information on voter registration forms to records in other government databases. If there are discrepancies between records, such as maiden name in one place, and married name in another, a hyphen on one list and not another, or a typo, some states will not add a person to the voter registration rolls. Click here to read a policy brief on using databases to keep eligible voters off the rolls.

Challenging and Removing Voters from the Rolls

Voter Caging: Through a practice known as “voter caging,” mass mail returned to sender as undeliverable is often used as evidence to challenge voters’ registrations at the polls or to urge election officials to purge them from the rolls. Returned mail is not a reliable indicator of ineligibility. To read a 2007 Guide to Voter Caging, click here. Additional, reported instances of voter caging compiled in 2007 can be found here.

Challenges: Political operatives sometimes challenge voters’ registration at the polls, based on names culled from caging lists or other lists they develop. This often leads to voter intimidation, long lines, and disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

Voter Purges: Election officials are required to purge voter rolls of ineligible registrants, but the purge procedures they use are opaque, conducted in secret, without advance notice to affected voters, and often inaccurate.

Universal Voter Registration

Universal Voter Registration: A universal voter registration system is a system in which election officials build voter rolls that are as comprehensive as possible in advance of Election Day and provide a fail-safe mechanism if an eligible voter shows up at the polls but cannot be found on the list.

Permanent Registration: A voter’s registration should automatically move with her whenever she changes residences.

Automatic Registration: Under an automatic registration system, when a citizen turns 18, when a voting-age individual is naturalized, and when eligible citizens interact with the government in other ways, the government automatically registers her to vote.

Election Day Registration: See above. EDR is a fail-safe for the small number of eligible voters not captured by a universal voter registration system.

Obstacles for Particular Groups of Voters

Veterans Voting: The department of Veterans’ Affairs has blockedefforts by community groups and election officials to provide voterregistration and applications for absentee ballots to patients andresidents of VA facilities. The VA does not provide such services totheir patients and residents.

Citizens with Criminal Convictions: 5.3 million American citizens are not allowed to vote because of a criminal conviction. As many as 4 million of these people live, work, and raise families in our communities, but because of a conviction in their past they are still denied the right to vote by state laws.

Student Voting: Students who attend school away from their homesoften fulfill residency and other requirements to be able to registerand vote in the communities in which they attend school, but there areobstacles and efforts to discourage them to register and vote.

Military and Overseas Voters: Applications for registration andabsentee ballots offer suffer from delays. The ballots of military andoverseas voters sometimes arrive after election results have beentallied and certified.

Ballot Design and Voting Machine Policies

Ballot Design: Poorly designed ballots (not just butterflyballots) and confusing ballot instructions have caused thousands morelost votes in recent elections than voting machine glitches andsoftware errors. Often, voting machines are not configured for usableballot designs.

Post-Election Audits: Voter-verifiable paper records onelectronic voting machines are only useful if they are used to “audit”or check electronic vote tallies stored on machine memory. Statesshould implement automatic and routine audits of a percentage of suchrecords after every election.

Restrictive Identification Requirements

Voter ID: States have pushed for and/or enacted restrictivevoter ID laws requiring voters to provide government-issued photo ID atthe polls in order to receive a ballot. Approximately 10% of eligible Americans do not have the kinds of ID required by these laws, and minority, low-income, and elderly voters (including nuns) areespecially burdened. States assert that these laws are necessary toprevent voter fraud, but studies show that impersonation fraud at thepolls is exceedingly rare, and that voter ID would not prevent real threats to our election systems. Read a policy brief on voter Id by clicking here.

Proof of Citizenship: States have proposed legislation that would require documentation proving citizenship (such as a birth certificate, passport, or naturalization papers) as a condition of registering to vote or voting. Arizona has such a law, and already 38,000 voters have been blocked.

Election Day Problems

Deceptive Practices / Dirty Tricks: In recent elections, robo-phone calls and misleading flyers have spread false information regarding elections, voting qualifications, and candidates’ positionson issues, often targeting minority and low-income communities.

Long Lines: Recent elections have seen long lines at the polls, especially in minority neighborhoods. These lines are often caused by poor planning, inequitable allocation of election resources such as poll workers and voting machines, machine breakdowns, voter list malfunctions, and voter challenges.

Emergency Paper Ballots: In the event of voting machine malfunctions, every polling place should provide emergency paper ballots for voters to use, and those ballots should be counted as regular ballots, not provisional ballots.