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A Higher Register

Triumph beats truth in today's spate of voter-registration stories
October 6, 2008

Today is the deadline, in nineteen states, for residents to register to vote in the presidential election that will take place four weeks from tomorrow. So, knowing a good news peg when they see one, several outlets are using that fact as an opportunity to report on voter registration issues. The Washington Post has a cover story discussing “a wave of newcomers to the rolls in key states in numbers that far outweigh any gains made by Republicans.” USA Today fronts an article discussing both parties’ attempts to win the new-voter war, as well as an accompanying piece focused on the Obamic leanings of the youth vote. NPR this morning reported on the new registrations’ shifting of the electoral map.

It’s certainly news that new voters are registering in such high numbers–and good news, at that, that more people than ever are becoming engaged in the electoral process. But by focusing on the sheer number of new voters registering–and on the What That Means and the How It Could Affect November’s Outcome and whatnot–the stories ignore an even more important angle to the story: the What’s At Stake.

While voters certainly should learn about the bigger picture of voter registration, they first need to know how to ensure that their own vote counts. (It’s the old oxygen mask theory of voting: get your own taken care of before helping others.) A report released last week by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice provides a sobering reminder of the dark side of voter registration:

A citizen typically cannot cast a vote that will count unless her name appears on the voter registration rolls. Yet state and local officials regularly remove—or “purge”—citizens from voter rolls. In fact, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia reported purging more than 13 million voters from registration rolls between 2004 and 2006. Purges, if done properly, are an important way to ensure that voter rolls are dependable, accurate, and up-to-date. Precise and carefully conducted purges can remove duplicate names, and people who have moved, died, or are otherwise ineligible.

Far too frequently, however, eligible, registered citizens show up to vote and discover their names have been removed from the voter lists. States maintain voter rolls in an inconsistent and unaccountable manner. Officials strike voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.

Among the report’s findings:

• In Mississippi earlier this year, a local election official discovered that another official had wrongly purged 10,000 voters from her home computer just a week before the presidential primary.

• In Muscogee, Georgia this year, a county official purged 700 people from the voter lists, supposedly because they were ineligible to vote due to criminal convictions. The list included people who had never even received a parking ticket.

• In Louisiana, including areas hit hard by hurricanes, officials purged approximately 21,000 voters, ostensibly for registering to vote in another state. A voter could avoid removal if she providesd proof that the registration was cancelled in the other state, documentation not available to voters who never actually registered anywhere else.

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Anecdotal evidence bears out such findings. Just last week, residents of two black neighborhoods in Philadelphia found fliers posted around the streets announcing–falsely–that anyone with outstanding parking tickets or warrants may be arrested at the polls on election day. In Montana, Republican leaders are challenging the eligibility of thousands of voters who live in Democratic strongholds. In Steubenville, Ohio, forms to be used for a voter registration drive led by College Republicans went missing. Only a portion were recovered.

Last Thursday, an Ohio court ruled that disputed absentee ballot applications mailed to state voters by the McCain-Palin campaign should be accepted by local elections officials. In fact, in Ohio, five registration-related lawsuits were filed against the secretary of state in the month of September alone. (One of these, a GOP-issued challenge to the right of voters to register and vote the same day, was dismissed by state courts just last Monday.)

Perhaps more disturbingly, simply because it affects voters in every state, the Social Security Administration announced in September that it plans to shut down its databases for maintenance from October 11 through October 13. This could have an immensely negative impact on new-voter registration. Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center’s work on voting rights and elections, explains why:

A 2002 federal law, the Help America Vote Act, requires all states to “coordinate” their voter registration databases with the Social Security database (and state motor vehicle databases) for the purpose of processing new voter registration forms. For the millions of voters who do not have current driver’s licenses and register using the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, state election officials are required to try to match their voter registration information against Social Security records. But if the Social Security database is down—as it will be for four days—they won’t be able to do that. Across the country, the processing of these voter registration forms will grind to a halt for four days.

The SSA shutdown, Weiser continues, would affect “new voters, as well as people who re-register because they have moved, who do not have state-issued driver’s licenses or non-driver’s IDs.” And those citizens are disproportionately older, African-American, and low-income.

Which is, quite literally, outrageous. Imagine all the effort expended and all the drama upended, from all sides, over the 2008 presidential contest–and all the metaphorical blood, and all the literal sweat and tears–that have gone into this campaign. And imagine that everything that has taken place so far, and everything that will take place over the next month, has happened in the service of an Election Day that isn’t fundamentally fair. The fact that we can imagine that happening–since, of course, it’s happened before–makes it no less appalling.

So where’s the comprehensive reporting on the voter-fraud controversies? On any day, but specifically today? Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein decried the SSA shutdown, which earned a mention in Roll Call. CBS Evening News, last week, offered a brief segment on the Brennan report. The American Prospect ran a Web-only Q&A with that report’s author, Myrna Perez. Good stuff, all of it.

But, with the exception of CBS, those are niche outlets. (How often do you hear average voters discussing the latest Roll Call article?) Will their stories reach the older and lower-income voters–the citizens whose votes are most in jeopardy when it comes to attempts at voter fraud? Likely not. Which makes it all the more important for mainstream, high-readership outlets–say, The Washington Post, USA Today, and NPR, just to name a random sampling–to inform their audiences about how to ensure that their votes will count. That would be service journalism, sure. But in the best sense–since it would have the rare attribute of providing a service that voters actually–urgently–need.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.