October 17, 2008

Beware of Accidental Disenfranchisement

Voting Rules Have Changed

By Laura Goode
New America Media

Voting in America isn’t as simple as it seems.

Just ask, for example, any of the 17,000 New Mexicans who cast provisional ballots during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries when they showed up to the polls to find that actually, they weren’t registered after all.

Or you could ask one of the 38,000 Arizonans whose applications for voter registration have been rejected because they didn’t, or didn’t know how to, provide identification that proved their American citizenship.

The bottom line: voters who don’t have current election information specific to their state are at risk of accidental disenfranchisement. The trouble is that state-specific voter information is always changing, and the people who might be impacted by the changes are less likely to be monitoring them—recent immigrants, non-English speakers, ex-felons, first-time voters, or any combination thereof.

How familiar are you with recent changes? Did you know, for example, that in many states, your name can be removed from your statewide registered-voter list if you don’t respond to an address-confirmation notice, or if you haven’t voted in four years? Alternatively, did you know that your name can be purged just for being difficult to spell?

Voters with “foreign-sounding” names, according to Steven Rosenfeld, author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting,” are particularly at risk for database purging. Rosenfeld cites the example of the 14,000 Florida voters, mostly Haitian, who have been in court since 2006 because the spelling of their names didn’t match their state’s records.

“What’s particularly ugly about the Florida situation is that it’s not the bureaucrats’ fault,” sighs Rosenfeld. “It’s the voters’ responsibility to fix problems like this, and people don’t know that.”

“In some states they match the names on voter registration forms with other statewide voter databases such as driver’s licenses or Social Security numbers,” Rosenfeld continues. “The spelling of people’s names is not always consistent and as a result voter registrations get rejected because of typos.”

Though often a result of simple human error, this issue is hardly color-blind. “What we’re talking about here is minorities, people of color, Latino spellings of names, not simple American English. The system is not really set up to catch typos,” Rosenfeld says.

Voter identification requirements also hit minority and first-time voters hard. Currently, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, and South Dakota are the only states that currently require government-issued photo IDs to vote, but as of June 1, 2008, states with pending voter ID requirement bills included Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

This indicates a nationwide trend towards tightening voter ID laws—a trend that becomes disturbing when you stop to consider the reasons a person might not possess a photo ID. How can you vote in states requiring photo ID, for example, if your spiritual beliefs prevent you from taking a picture of yourself, as in the case of some Native American tribes?

Equally tricky is this issue’s partisan division: Republicans advocate bolstering voter ID laws by mandating photo IDs, while Democrats argue that such requirements place an unconstitutional burden on voters.

What’s complicated about requiring photo ID is what it takes to obtain one. In Indiana, for example, a state with stringent voter ID laws, you must present a federal- or state-issued photo ID to vote. Usually, that means a driver’s license or passport. If you don’t have either of those, you can obtain a non-operating state license (basically a driver’s license without the driving part), but in order to do so, you must present a “primary document” like a birth certificate or a passport. This can be a difficult demand to meet for voters born outside the United States, or those who don’t know where their original birth certificate is.

Here’s a rundown of how to make sure your vote counts, before and after you go to the polls this November 4.

1) Visit your state’s Secretary of State website, or another website that provides an overview of state-by-state voting regulations, like GoVote.org or the San Diego County Register of Voters www.sdvote.com, the National Campaign for Fair Elections’ 2008 Voter Registration Guides, and make sure you’re informed of the voting regulations specific to your state. Google Maps also provides user-friendly voting information for your state when you provide your address.

2) Check to make sure you’re registered, even if you’re positive that you are. Voters who show up to their polling place to find they’re not registered are forced to cast provisional ballots, which are always at high risk of not being counted. Call your county clerk’s office to verify the spelling of your name, your current address, and your registration status. Even if the registration deadline for your state has passed, as most states’ have by now, some states will still allow you to update or verify your voter information. Websites like votepoke.org will tell you instantly if you’re registered to vote.

3) Don’t wear anything that could be construed as electioneering to your polling place on Election Day—no buttons, no apparel. 2008 has yielded some very hip and creative candidate T-shirts, but it’s safest not to give the haters any reason to disqualify your vote.

4) Bring your ID. Bring two IDs. Check your state’s ID laws. Provide inarguable proof that you are who you say you are.

5) Know that you are always entitled to ask for help at the polling place if you are confused by any part of the process—electronic voting machines are a new American adventure, for one. If the staffers at your polling place, who are often elderly and limited in their training for the job, don’t provide you with the help you need, call 1-866-OURVOTE for live assistance from their staff of lawyers.

This election is too crucial to be swayed by ignorance or human error on the part of America’s voters. Educate yourself, do your part to inform those around you, and make your voice heard in 2008.

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