The recent decision to move New York's presidential primary to February 5 -- which is now being called "Super Duper Tuesday" -- is not only expected to give New Yorkers more influence in choosing the Democratic and Republican nominees, it could also boost voter turnout and increase the power of urban and minority voters.
According to recent report by The Century Foundation early primaries in states like California, Nevada, New Jersey and New York mean that Latino voters in particular, "could not only affect the outcomes, but also the topics the candidates focus on, including wage and labor issues, education and immigration reform."
At the same time, though, because of the debacle in Florida in 2000, new voter identification requirements are being implemented that may have the opposite effect, discouraging minority groups from going to the polls.
Voter identification requirements have become a critical part of the national debate over election reform. Supporters of more stringent regulations argue that voter fraud is frequent enough to justify strict new identification requirements. Others disagree, arguing that the consequences far outweigh the benefits.
"At a time when not nearly enough people vote in the United States, some political players are making it more difficult for people to vote," said Tova Wang, a fellow at the Century Foundation and a co-author of a report on voter fraud now at the center of a brewing controversy. According to Wang, the federal Election Assistance Commission rewrote the report's findings before its final release and issued a gag order to keep Wang from speaking about the report.
VOTER IDENTIFICATION REQUIREMENTS
The 2002 Help America Vote Act (known as HAVA) tried to address voter identification issues by calling for updated voting procedures and technology across the country.
HAVA requires that first-time voters present a state driver's license or the last four digits of their Social Security number at the time of registration. Voters with neither form of identification may use a valid photo ID, a current utility bill, bank statements, government check or any other government document that shows the registrant's name and address. Voters who do not supply this information at the time of registration will be asked for it at polls when they go to vote for the first time.
Although HAVA is a federal program, each state must come up with its own ways of complying with the regulations. New York State's laws largely mirror those of HAVA and are not considered overly burdensome by many election reform experts.
IS FRAUD A REAL CONCERN?
The main reason for the new voter identification regulations, proponents argue, is voter fraud. And they point to news stories that appear after nearly every election relating instances of impersonation, double voting, and even votes cast on behalf of the dead.
But the prevalence of voter fraud depends on who you ask, with Republicans generally arguing that it is widespread and Democrats typically arguing that it is not.
A lengthy, bi-partisan study (in pdf) on voter fraud conducted by the Election Assistance Commission concluded only that the issue has "created a great deal of debate among academics, election officials, and voters" and noted that "past studies of these issues have been limited in scope and some have been riddled with bias."
But that mild conclusion proved to be controversial. The New York Times reported that the editors of the report intentionally revised the findings of the primary authors to reflect the sentiments of White House officials (to view original draft report, in pdf, go here). In a statement released April 26, Wang stated "It has been my desire to participate in this discussion and share my experience as a researcher, expert and co-author of the report. â€¦ Unfortunately, the EAC has barred me from speaking." Wang continues, "As numerous press reports indicate, the conclusions that we found in our research and included in our report were revised by the EAC, without explanation or discussion with me, my co-author or the general public. â€¦ From the beginning of the project to this moment, my co-author and I have been bound in our contracts with the EAC to silence regarding our work, subject to law suits and civil liability if we violate the EAC-imposed gag order."
There has been little prosecution of fraudulent voting. Since 2000, the Justice Department has charged only 120 people of fraudulent voting. Eighty-six were convicted. This low level of prosecution been cited by some as a possible explanation for the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
WILL NEW REQUIREMENTS DETER VOTERS?
Advocates for minority communities argue that even minimal identification requirements can disenfranchise eligible voters, because people of color and immigrants are more often subjected to requests for identification, either properly or improperly.
In the February Special Election in Nassau County to fill a vacant State Senate seat, voting rights groups became alarmed that there might be widespread voter intimidation at the polls because of comments by Joseph Mondello, the Republican Party Chairman for New York State and Nassau County. "Our poll watchers and election inspectors will challenge people to show some kind of identification as to who they are," Mondello reportedly said. "They have a right to ask for identification to make sure you are John Smith. Our people have been cavalier about this in the past. This time, in this election, we're dearly concerned."
According to the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, overzealous poll workers have been improperly implementing identification requirements at voting places in recent elections, and minority voters and voters with limited English are the groups most often asked for identification when it is not actually required.
Research also suggests that Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans are less likely to vote when required to show identification than when they simply have to state their names.
THE NEED FOR VOTER EDUCATION
To avoid confusion at the polls and the disenfranchisement of voters, election reform advocates have argued for years that New York City, with such a large and diverse population, has to be sensitive to a wide array of voter needs that other localities might not need to consider.
City residents, for example, are less likely to drive or own a car than their suburban and rural counterparts, and therefore are less likely to hold a driver's license.
The personal and cultural experiences of many of New York City's immigrants, some argue, should be taken into consideration. For instance, a significant portion of New York's immigrants come from oppressive regimes where identification cards were used by authorities as a form of intimidation.
Members of these communities may be less likely to carry identification, or to provide it on demand, especially if it is not legally required.
Unfortunately many voters are unaware of their rights. And so some voters who are asked to show identification may simply decide to leave the polling station and not return. While New York may not have the strict identification requirements that other states have, some experts fear that the misuse of HAVA identification requirements, especially when it results in the disenfranchisement of a voter, could damage long and short term voter participation among minority and non-English speaking voters.
The New York City Board of Elections has been urged to increase poll worker training and voter education, to ensure that poll workers and voters are aware of the HAVA requirements and their rights. With the eventual introduction of new voting machines and processes, poll workers will be asked to perform more services for voters and voters will be less familiar with the process.
In the coming years, overall training and education will become more important for the Boards of Elections. Election reform advocates, civic groups and community organizations will be asked to play a significant role in educating voters as well.
Doug Israel is director of public policy and advocacy for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette. Andrea Senteno is program associate.