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Barriers To Voter Registration

by Doug Israel, Oct 04, 2004
 

Juliana Zuccaro had not realized when she started registering students to vote that she would be accused of committing a felony. "We were registering students when we were interviewed by Fox News,� Zuccaro of the University of Arizona, told Katha Pollitt of The Nation; the Fox reporter �claimed that we were committing 'unintentional felony' by registering out-of-state students.�

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There is a contentious debate over the fairness of having students vote using their school address instead of their parents' address; that there is any debate at all is both outrageous and odd, since the United States Supreme Court already ruled, back in 1979, that students can do so. Nevertheless, the attempts to intimidate them from doing this remain numerous. Students at Prairie View A&M, a historically black college located in Prairie View, Texas, in the heart of a majority white county, have also reportedly been informed that they will be committing a felony -- voter fraud -- if they register and vote at their university.

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The outright discrimination against students may be the most blatant barrier to registering eligible voters, but it is certainly not the only one.

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It is fashionable to lament the lack of citizen participation, especially among the young, and to assume that the fault lies in the would-be voters ďż˝ that there are psychological or cultural reasons for not participating in elections. (See "Fighting the Fear of Voting" in the Community Gazette for Jackson Heights.) While culture or psychology do sometimes play a part, there are also concrete, external barriers that prevent many from registering to vote who might otherwise ďż˝ barriers that can, and should, be taken down:

PREMATURE DEADLINES

Friday, October 8th is the last day that citizens in New York City can register to vote and still be able to choose a president on November 2nd. New York City requires 25 days advance registration (the New York State Constitution only requires 10 days advance registration); most states require 30. Why so far in advance?

That is not the way it has to be, according to New York State Assemblymember Scott Stringer. �The effect of this rule is to lock out from the process new voters who had recently moved or just turned 18, but it also excludes people who did not become interested in the contest until things started heating up in the last few weeks,� Stringer wrote in an article explaining why he has proposed legislation that would allow for Election Day Registration.

Currently six states permit people to register on the same day that they vote. Those states have seen a surge of up to six percent in new voters. If New York were to implement it, Stringer believes, there could be a million new voters.

Supporters of advance registration say it prevents voter fraud and vote buying, and that eliminating it would increase the administrative and financial burdens on the Board of Elections. But Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have yet to experience the presumed breakdown in the integrity of their electoral system.

Some advocate a hybrid system, where voters can vote on election day during the primaries, which have much lower turnout and are considerably less hectic for poll workers, but not during the general election. Proposals for a two week waiting period have been advanced as has a proposal to bring New York City inline with the State Constitution requirement of 10 days.

THE LANGUAGE BARRIER

Well over 150 different languages are spoken in New York City. Yet, the Board of Election�s voter registration forms are in only four languages.

Most New Yorkers speak English, and to become a citizen of the U.S. you must possess basic skills in the English language. But reading and writing are often the last language skills a new citizen acquires. And getting access to informational material in other languages is hard.

Shirley Lin has been registering voters through New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a grass-roots non-profit organization that uses advocacy and public education to ensure new immigrant engagement in civic affairs. �Across immigrant communities we find a hesitation to fill out government forms, especially those that require an affidavit signature,� says Lin. �Working with the new voters and walking them through a form in their own language is extremely helpful.�

Lin has fielded several complaints from Queens residents who say that the Board of Elections in the borough has not had the forms in Korean this election season (one of four languages required by amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965) on hand. They have been turning away potential voters and directing them to their Web site.

Lin states that while immigrants on the whole do want to learn English, free classes in the city can only accommodate five percent of the need. �We see immigrant communities very civically engaged, due to a proliferation of non-English press,� says Lin. �The fact that people want to vote means they will be a positive force in their communities.�

UNAVAILABLE VOTER REGISTRATION FORMS

In 2003 New York City passed the �Pro-Voter Law� which was supposed to greatly increase access of all city residents to voter registration forms. It followed on the heels of the federal �Motor Voter Law� that was passed with the same intent. Both bills attempted to address the most basic of all obstacles to voter registration -- a lack of access to voter registration forms.

The New York City Pro Voter Law mandated that a wide array of city agencies distribute voter registration forms to the public. But an investigation (In PDF Format) conducted by the Committee on Oversight and Investigations of the New York City Council found that 65 percent of the agencies it investigated had actually failed to make those forms available to the public. The committee recommended training administrators in implementing the law, and went on to call for legislation that would require New York City public high schools to distribute forms along with every high school diploma. The council passed that law this year.

TURNING STUDENTS AWAY

Many election officials view the potential student vote as a threat to their way of life and a challenge to the beliefs that they hold. Students are more transient, and in many cases more liberal, than the average person living and working in the towns and county surrounding a university. Students, if registered in large numbers, have the potential to sway an election, as was seen in the mayor�s race in New Paltz, New York in 2003 where Jason West, a 26-year-old SUNY New Paltz graduate, was elected mayor on the Green Party line with a margin of 64 votes.

The issue is further polarized by the fact that most county clerks, Board of Elections staff and poll workers also happen to be appointed by political parties. Ensuring that young people who don�t hold the same political views stay away from the polls is often an unstated mission of those with ties to the candidates and the local political parties.

Advocates for student voting rights are quick to point out that 10 months out of every year young people provide jobs for local employees, engage in community service projects, and contribute to the culture, livelihood and tax base of both the small towns and big cities where institutions of higher education are located

The efforts of those in City Hall in New York City contrast greatly with those in Pima County, Arizona and Prairie View, Texas. However, ensuring access to the ballot, as well as to the voter registration form, is a challenge in big cities and small towns alike.

For a registration form, click here. If you are already registered, send it to somebody you know who may not be.

 


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