Legislative Priorities: Voting Rights


Legislative goals:

  1. States that require voter registration should make same-day voter registration available at the polling place on the day of the election
  2. Allow the use of a single absentee ballot application for subsequent elections
  3. Prohibit election officials for requiring identification that has a cost as a condition to vote or register to vote
  4. Require states to automatically register individuals registering with DMV’s for driver’s license.  Require states to follow pre-registration for individuals who are 16 to ensure that they are registered to vote by the time that they are 18.
  5. Change election day to  Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for the first Friday after the first Monday in November on even number years, as well as every fourth year for presidential elections.  Election day Friday should be declared a federal holiday.
  6. Create a new determination for preclearance by the Department of Justice for any changes made to voting laws and regulations.  This new determination will be for states if there there were at least 5 voting rights violations in the last 25 years and 3 voting rights violations during the previous 15 years, if at least one of the violations were committed by the state itself.  The preclearance requirement for districts and states would also be triggered if it was determined that less than 50% of those who are of voting age are registered to vote on November 8, 2016.
  7.  Restores the right to vote for non-violent felons provided that they are not in a correctional facility at the time of the election.  For those on probation, the right to vote will be restored at the end of their probation.  This will also apply retroactively.  Those affected will be automatically registered to vote and will be notified that their voting rights are restored and that they are registered to vote.
  8. Redistricting after a census can only take place once after each census and can only be done by an independent district commission.

Information for legislative goals:

Our goal is to try to make voting even easier than it currently is.  The hope is that when people do not have as many roadblocks in their way, it will increase voter turnout and provide a more representative electorate.  I’m not naive enough to believe that a more representative electorate will elect politicians that share my views.  I do believe that having a more representative electorate is a worthy goal in and of itself.

In the 1980 book, Who Votes?, the authors concluded that the voter registration date was the single largest impact on voter turnout.  They recommended a move to same-day voting registration.  Same-day voting registration allows voters who are not registered to vote to go to their polling place and fill out the voter registration form and then be able to vote.  The authors predicted that if same-day voting registration was enacted in all 50 states, voting turnout would be 9% higher.  This prediction held on rather nicely.  In a study titled “Election Day Registration’s Effect on U.S. Voter Turnout” the authors Craig Leonard Brians and Bernard Grofman project based on their studies that moving to same-day registration would product about a 7 percentage point boost in the average state.  Laura Rokoff and Emma Stokking looked at the effect of same-day registration in “Small Investments, High Yields: A Cost Study of Same Day Registration in Iowa and North Carolina” for Demos and write that average turnout in states with same day registration are 10-12 percentage points higher than states without same day registration.  In 2008, same-day registration states led the nation in turnout by 7 percentage points and by nearly 6 percentage points in the 2010 elections, they write.  Brians and Grofman conclude that it may be a higher turnout boost in states with higher urban populations.  By looking at past elections, they found that those in the low and high portion of the socioeconomic spectrum have a 3% boost by moving from voting registration from 30 days out to same day registration.  The middle socioeconomic status which has more people in it had a 5% increase when moved from a 30 day deadline to same day registration.

The biggest stumbling block for this policy is the idea that same day registration would advantage one political party.  While intuitively it would make sense that voters taking advantage of same-day registration would tend to be Democratic voters, they did not find any significant evidence that same-day registration would help one way or the other for either major political party.  The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Jacob Neiheisel and Barry Burdern found that there was a slight increase for Republican voters with the same-day registration rules. The other stumbling block that I can think of is that it is cost prohibitive.  Rokoff and Stokking looked at North Carolina and Iowa in their paper.  In 2008, over 250,000 citizens used same day registration in 2008 and 45,000 used it in Iowa in 2008.  Rokoff and Stokking found that the majority of counties in Iowa reported little to no additional costs.  The costs that they discovered were primarily due to printing and mailing the forms.  North Carolina, likewise, did not see that much of an increase in spending but did need additional staffing at smaller counties.

Voter ID is a very common response called on for trying to fix our electoral woes.  On the one hand, conservatives and Republicans argue that voter ID is necessary to ensure that the electoral system is not abused by fraud.  On the other hand, liberals and Democrats claim that voter ID unfairly target minority voters and the poor.  In an investigation of over 1 billion votes cast, Loyola Law School professor Justin Levett found only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation.  In a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) where they reviewed 10 studies regarding voter ID, they found that 5 studies showed that there was not a statistically significant effect on voter turnout.  In 1 study, there was an increase in voter turnout nationwide of 1.8 percentage points.  The 4 other studies showed voter turnout decreased by 1.5-3.9 percentage points. More than half of the population of the United States now lives in states that require ID’s to vote, as 34 states have passed some type of voter ID law.  The strictest voter ID laws have been passed since 2008.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has called the laws “purposely discriminatory.”

It’s fairly difficult to pin down the exact percentage of the population does or does not have proper identification to be able to vote.  The Washington Post reports that there’s an estimated 1-11% of registered voters who do not have valid photo identification.  The GAO looked at various studies to help determine this information.  In a 2012 study that they looked at, 86% of all registered voters had a driver’s license, state id card, or gun permit.  Yes, a gun permit is a valid ID for voting purposes in Texas.  89% of registered whites had valid voting ID.  This compared to 83% of Hispanic registered voters and 79% of African-American registered voters.  Comparatively, a similar study showed that 84% of all registered voters had valid photo ID in Indiana.  In a nationwide study in 2013, they found that 84% of white registered voters had a valid driver’s license.  This compares to 73% of registered Hispanic voters and just 63% of registered black voters.  That seems like a problem as Zoltan Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi, and Lindsay Nielson present in a working paper from the University of California-San Diego note that there is clear evidence that they “tend to emerge in states with larger black populations.”  If we couple that with the fact that minorities are disproportionately asked for identification by poll workers, we can see the problem for voter id’s.

The studies show that there is not a statistically significant effect on voter turnout, overall.  However, as Nate Silver points out that is giving deference to the null hypothesis.  Or to paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, it depends on what your definition of statistical significance is.  In the working paper by Hajnal, Lajevardi, and Nielson they tried to identify the impact on voter id compared to states without strict voter id laws.  What they found is fairly striking.  In general elections, they found that Latino turnout was 10.3 points lower in states with photo ID than in states without strict photo ID regulations. For multi-racial Americans, turnout was 12.8 points lower under strict photo ID laws. For blacks, the turnout was 4.8 points lower in general elections with states with stricter voter id laws.  Multi-racial Americans voted at almost the exact same predicted rate as whites in non-photo ID states but were 9.2% less likely than whites to participate in general elections in photo ID states.  The GAO’s study looked at turnout in Kansas and Tennessee compared to a list of other states that did not implement voter id laws.  Turnout declined by 1.9-2.2 percentage points more in Kansas and 2.2-3.2 percentage more in Tennessee.  Nate Silver noted in that FiveThirtyEight piece that photo id decreased turnout by about 2% as a share of the registered voting population.

Possibly a bigger effect on voter turnout would be the restoration of voting rights who have completed their sentence and probation.  According to The Sentencing Project, 2.5% of the total US voting age population is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.  Taking away voting rights from those who are felons effects African-Americans disproportionately.  1 out of every 13 African-Americans of voting age is disenfranchised.  In some states including Florida and Kentucky, more than 205 of African-Americans are disenfranchised.  In a study of felon voting patterns, the authors found that on average about 30% of felons and ex-felons would vote, if given the chance.  Not surprisingly, based on the racial disparities of this laws, the vast majority (about 3 our of 4) would vote for the Democratic nominee for President.

Taking away the right to vote of a criminal has a long tradition going back to ancient Greece and Rome.  However, I don’t believe it does anything in our modern society.  The Brennan Center for Justice argues in numerous amicus briefs that “permitting individuals the right to vote upon release from prison substantially promotes” reintegration mechanisms.  In their amicus brief for Griffin v. Pate LVW, they argue that continued disenfranchisement “undermines the process of reintegration by treating individuals who have served prison sentences as second-class citizens.”  In McLaughlin v. City of Canton, the court argued:

Disenfranchisement is the harshest civil sanction imposed by a democratic society.  When brought beneath its axe, the disenfranchised is severed from the body politic and condemned to the lowest form of citizenship, where voiceless at the ballot box…[he] must idly by while others elect his civic leaders…choose the fiscal and governmental policies which will govern him and his family.

As we see with voting and most political issues, how you choose to vote is generally based on discussions that you have with your family or with other members of your community.  Giving felons the right to vote gives them an additional way of conversing with their neighbor to be able to help reintegrate into society.  Further, voting is an acquired trait.  In their amicus brief, the Brennan Center argues “taking one’s children to vote…is seen as a simple and effective way to demonstrate to them the function and importance of American democracy.”  They argue that this is a ripple effect.  If one person is disenfranchised, they will not take their children to vote and an entire family can become discouraged.  If the family is discouraged, they may not show up to vote.  Their voices are weakened and not heard.  It continues on until an entire community is weakened from their voices not being heard.

Changing the registration date deadline, not requiring ID to vote, and restoring felon’s voting rights would have the biggest impacts on voter turnout.  Our goal for a democracy is to have as many people turn out to vote to allow their voices to be heard.  We believe that out democracy and our communities are strengthened when there are more voices heard.  Much like the Brennan Center for Justice argues, is a ripple effect.  We will have more people interested in strengthening their communities.  These three ideas are relatively simple to implement and should be implemented as soon as possible on a national level to maximize turnout.