With an estimated 60 million eligible Americans not registered to vote, our democracy still has a long way to go to be representational. So why is there is a nationwide attack on community-based voter registration drives?
Community-based voter registration drives have been a symbol of equality and empowerment since the civil rights era, but there is a new trend of draconian legislation that threatens to stop the drives in their tracks. Florida and Texas have already passed laws that will prevent community organizations from conducting voter registration drives, and four more states—including Missouri, Mississippi, New York, and South Carolina—are currently considering bills that create restrictions that would make voter registration drives prohibitively risky or difficult.
The controversial Florida law has drawn congressional attention. Friday in Florida, there will be a Field Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights to discuss Florida’s “war on voting.” Voting rights groups, individuals, and community-based organizations will testify about the difficulties of helping Americans to vote under Florida’s law, which makes it nearly impossible to run a community-based voter registration drive in the state. The League of Women Voters, for example, has decided to suspend voter registration work in the state for the first time in 72 years. Even well-intentioned individuals are at risk: recently, Florida high school teacher Jill Cicciarelli discovered she had inadvertently broken the law and could face thousands of dollars of fines just for trying to help her students register to vote.
States attempt to severely limit voter registration drives
Texas is another state seeking to undermine community-based voter registration drives with laws that create onerous rules on how drives can operate, including how to manage employees in the hiring and firing process. Like Florida’s law, these laws are subject to preclearance by the Department of Justice or the US District Court for the District of Columbia under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, due to their potentially harmful impact on minority groups. Other state lawmakers have increasingly introduced measures to prevent community-based organizations from successfully helping citizens to register to vote by way of restrictive deadlines and excessive fines, among other undue hurdles. Missouri is currently considering two bills that would make voter registration more onerous. Mississippi is doing the same. Just this week, the SC Judiciary Committee passed out of committee H.4549, a law that is similar to the Florida law. New York has a bill that would place restrictions on how voter registration drives manage their employees. All of these bills have a chilling effect on voter registration.
Why do voter registration drives matter?
Voter registration drives have assumed increasing importance in the life of every election cycle. Across the nation, an estimated 28 million citizens rely on community-based voter registration drives to register to vote for the first time or update their registration whenever they move.
Community-based voter registration drives are particularly important to racial minorities seeking to register to vote. The 2010 Current Population Survey indicates that minority citizens in Florida were approximately twice as likely to register to vote through drives as were white voters: 16.2% of African Americans and 15.5% of Hispanics, as opposed to 8.6% of whites. The data from both the 2004 and 2008 election cycles indicate similar patterns: African-American and Hispanic citizens are about twice as likely to register to vote through drives as white voters.
So what is this really about?
None of these restrictive voter registration bills result in substantial benefits to the government that cannot be attained through cooperation with voter registration groups and the application of current laws, so what is this new trend really about? Restrictions appear to be about stopping community-based voter registration drives before they can begin, even though millions of low-income and minority Americans rely upon them. Voter registration is the first step to becoming a voter and it should be made easier, not more difficult. Because our democracy works best when every American participates.