Voter Registration Organizations Should Be Unnecessary

In 2004, when I worked as a county coordinator for ACORN/Project Vote, I had the responsibility of hiring and training people to canvas for a major voter registration and get out the vote program. A major component of that training was teaching my employees how voter registration forms should be filled out and handled to comply with the law.

Many of the people I hired were from North Philadelphia, a poor area of the city with failing schools and very few legitimate job opportunities. One problem I had was dealing with an absolute flood of applicants. Another was that most of these people were young, didn’t have much work experience, and many couldn’t do an adequate enough job and had to be terminated. We had to set some basic standard for continued employment, so people who were sent out on four-hour canvassing shifts were expected to come back with at least ten new voter registration forms completed. If they failed, they’d get more training, eventually they’d get put on probation, and then finally we’d have to fire them if they couldn’t improve. An unfortunate consequence of this requirement was that people who were falling short had a powerful incentive to forge voter registration forms.

We had a system for handling this. Registration forms required a phone number, and we would call a sample of the forms that came in to verify that someone at that number had actually filled out an application. If we had suspicions about an employee, we’d do a more thorough vetting.

Despite these protocols, we inevitably turned in a lot of fraudulent forms to the Election Board. This obviously was a nuisance that squandered their limited resources. After the 2004 election, the Republicans exploited flaws like this to harass and demonize ACORN and even to threaten people like me with imprisonment. They succeeded in destroying ACORN as an institution, but their motivation was not to make for a more efficient administrative state. They wanted to prevent us from successfully registering (mostly black) folks to vote.

A similar battle is now going on in Tennessee, where the state legislature is looking to crack down on “voter registration organizations that turn in incomplete forms” by imposing onerous fines.

The legislation would impose fines ranging from $150 to $2,000 if groups turn in between 100 to 500 unfinished forms. If a group turns more than 500 incomplete forms, they could face fines up to $10,000. Additionally, the legislation would require the groups to submit voter registration forms within 10 days and would also prohibit poll watchers from out of state.

This is a particularly vexing gambit by the Tennessee GOP because state law requires that all forms be turned in, even if they are fraudulent or incomplete. This is a sensible regulation because you don’t want people to only turn in the forms for people who registered with one party or to otherwise screw around with people’s voting rights. But if you require that all forms be turned in, it’s not fair to fine people for turning in incomplete forms.

They should either ban independent voter registration efforts or allow them knowing they’ll have to manage the inevitable influx of flawed forms. They’re trying to have it both ways, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.

According to the Tennessee ACLU, the state ranked next-to-last in voter participation in 2018, so you might think that state lawmakers would be interested in improving on that number rather than taking actions to shut down registration efforts. But the GOP does not want more voter participation, particularly from urban areas with large minority populations.

The legislation comes after the Tennessee Black Voter Project sued Shelby County along with the Memphis NAACP last year. At the time, the county’s election commission was preventing people with incomplete voter registration applications from fixing any problems, like missing addresses or illegible handwriting, and ultimately from voting on Election Day.

The Black Voter Project and the NAACP won their case, and with just over a week to go before Election Day, ordered the election commission to allow people to fix any problems on their applications and vote in the upcoming election.

It’s obvious that the GOP’s main concern wasn’t that the state was receiving some incomplete forms. They were looking for any flaws in order to disenfranchise legitimate applicants, and force them to go to court before they would be allowed to fix any minor problems.

While I am willing to grant that independent voter registration efforts are inevitably inefficient and involve some low-level fraud, that, for me, is not an argument in favor of harassing these organizations out of existence, but rather for making them obsolete by adopting automatic voter registration.

Everyone should be presumptively able to vote. To make that easier, we should also adopt a universal vote-by-mail system. With those reforms in place, we would no longer have to keep fighting old battles with the Republicans about voter registration drives and mostly fictitious in-person voter fraud.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com