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Let's Not Miss the Chance to Change Voting Laws

Millions of Americans face huge obstacles when they try to register, cast their ballot, or have it counted. But we can change voting laws and reform election administration, in states across the country.
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As progressives prepare for the political season, we might rue the "one that got away." There's a rare chance to reform voting laws to expand the electorate and strengthen democracy, not just next year but for the next decade. But election reform in 2008 must start in 2007 -- and time is slipping by.

Voting is the heart of democracy. Yet millions of Americans face huge obstacles when they try to register, cast their ballot, or have it counted. We now know that last year partisans waged a frenetic effort to disenfranchise voters -- orchestrated, remarkably, by the Justice Department itself. Happily, a growing grassroots voter protection movement pushed back. (The Brennan Center for Justice, to cite just one example, stopped the disenfranchisement of some 300-700,000 voters, with lawsuits and advocacy.) That was needed, and right, but ultimately defensive.

Now we can go on the offense: to change voting laws and reform election administration, in states across the country. Why the opportunity? The new Congress, of course, but even more, twelve new secretaries of state elected on voter protection platforms; sixteen states with potentially sympathetic Democratic governors and legislatures (up from eight); in some places, competition among both parties to be "pro reform." Rarely do the stars align as now. Key goals:

* Keeping eligible citizens on the voter list. State officials routinely purge voters from the rolls -- a secret process prone to partisan manipulation. A purge list of "potential felons" in Florida in 2004 included 22,000 African-Americans and only 63 Hispanics, in the one state where those blocs vote for different parties. (What a coincidence!) Now we can end the system of secret and partisan purges of the voter rolls. Several Secretaries of State are preparing to reform their own systems. And the Brennan Center plans lawsuits in other states to force standards and accountability.

* Ending felony disenfranchisement, an ugly relic of Jim Crow. Florida's new Republican governor, Charlie Crist, with a stroke of a pen created the chance to restore the vote for about 500,000. Virginia's laws disenfranchise for life one out of three black men. The Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, could -- and should -- do what Florida's conservative Republican governor did, and change the state forever.

* Allowing Election Day Registration. States with EDR have 5-7% higher voter turnout. That's an astounding jump, far higher than even the best voter registration or GOTV drive could muster. Recently Iowa and Montana joined six other states with EDR, and North Carolina is poised to be the ninth. Drives are underway in a half dozen other states.

* Fixing electronic voting. A Brennan Center task force of the nation's top computer scientists concluded emphatically that every one of the nation's electronic voting systems is insecure. Next week, the U.S. House of Representatives votes on the bill introduced by Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Tom Davis (R-VA), a strong measure that would ban touchscreen machines that lack an audit record, require random auditing, and prohibit wireless components in voting machines. Numerous states can be pushed to require paper trails and audits.

* Stopping onerous ID requirements. An individual is more likely to be killed by lightening than to commit voter fraud. The U.S. Attorney scandal has revealed the "voter fraud" scare for the political witch hunt that it is. But it has proven a highly convenient way for partisans to push for proof of citizenship and other ID requirements that are end up preventing voting, not fraud. (The necessary paperwork can cost up to $200. By contrast, the notorious poll tax was $8.97 in current dollars when it was declared unconstitutional in 1966.) For the first time in years, civil rights proponents are able to push back -- which helps clear the field for pro-enfranchisement reform.

It all adds up to a rare opportunity for lasting change. But progressives must be truly strategic. In 2004 they spent hundreds of millions of dollars to register and mobilize voters. Activists plan similar, even larger efforts next year. Voter mobilization is vital. But this time there's a difference: a fraction of that significant investment, sharply targeted, can help sweep away barriers to civic participation. Soon it will be too late. Most state legislatures will finish their work just a few months into next year, and the polarized political season looms. For needed changes to have a chance to empower voters in November 2008, the activism must start now.

Stakes are achingly high. Voting rights should be a nonpartisan issue, but not everyone got the memo. In a moment of candor about just one obstacle to voting, the former Political Director of the Texas Republican Party told the Houston Chronicle "that requiring photo IDs could cause enough of a dropoff in legitimate Democratic voting to add 3 percent to the Republican vote." That's an affront not to a party, but to democracy.

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