The Battle Over the Denver Ballot Contributes to a Bigger National Problem: Voter Confusion

This week a Denver court will determine whether Colorado's Secretary of State Scott Gessler can keep eligible, registered voters in Denver from participating in the city's November 1 election. Gessler ordered the Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson to stop mailing ballots (it's an all-mail election) to registered voters because they did not vote in the 2010 general election. Most of the 55,000 voters affected are Latinos and African-Americans.

Johnson refused to obey, saying, "This is a fundamental issue of fairness and keeping voting accessible to as many eligible voters as possible." According to the Colorado Independent, "If Gessler wins -- it could begin a vicious circle of registered voters becoming 'inactive,' no longer receiving mail ballots, and disengaging from the electoral process."

The Wall Street Journal noted on Monday, "The clash comes at a time of intense, often sharply partisan, national debate about whether it has become too easy to vote." Too easy to vote? At the Voter Participation Center (VPC), we argue voting is way too hard, complicated and chaotic -- and that keeps voters away from the polls. Whether the Secretary of State or the Denver Clerk prevails this week, the outcome will be the same: more voter confusion. Confusion about registration and voting rules and requirements is a primary reason Americans give for not registering and voting.

Unfortunately, misunderstandings over ever-changing voting rules are not rare or isolated. Just last week in Albuquerque, confusion over whether Secretary of State's absentee ballot application form or the City Clerk's should be used led to the disqualification of close to a thousand absentee ballot applications. The applications were sent by the Voter Participation Center, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization that works to boost voter turnout among underrepresented groups -- unmarried women, Latinos, African-Americans, and young people. Albuquerque City Clerk Amy Bailey admitted the process was confusing and noted, the VPC "did have the best of intentions, and that their intention was to get out the vote."

Right now our nation suffers from a patchwork of voting laws that actually discourage people from voting -- especially the underrepresented, politically disengaged groups who are the targets of the VPC's registration and turnout activities. Too many find constantly changing election laws opaque and off-putting. Territorial disputes between state and city elections officials don't make the process of registering and voting any clearer.

Add to this mix the fact that states have been busy passing new laws about voting -- changing voter identification requirements, extending or shortening registration deadlines, instituting or discontinuing same day registrations -- and the processes becomes even cloudier and chaotic. According to a just-released report by the Brennan Center for Justice, these new voting laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters -- primarily "minorities, poor and young voters" to cast ballots in 2012.

Election reformers, including the VPC, have long advocated creating a national uniform set of registration and voting laws. But short of that, the VPC has worked hard to make to registration and voting easier and more convenient for the groups most likely to be unaware or intimidated by the kaleidoscope of changing rules and regulations. For example, unmarried women, people of color and young people tend to move often. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 percent of this combined group moved between 2006 and 2010. The VPC tracks these movers and reminds them that they need to re-register at their new address, a task that's often overlooked when a family relocates.

Bottom line: At the VPC, we believe our nation benefits most when every voice is heard and citizens are encouraged and enabled to register and vote. We also believe it is going to take an unprecedented and herculean effort to educate voters, to clear way their confusion and uncertainty to ensure they turnout in 2012 -- and that's before next year's state legislative sessions and state and local election officials add to the muddle.