Oral testimony of Ralph G. Neas, President People For the American Way on Election Reform Before Senate Governmental Affairs Committee
Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. My name is Ralph G. Neas, President of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation, citizens’ organizations with 500,000 members and supporters dedicated to protecting constitutional and civil rights, improving public education, and promoting civic participation. I very much appreciate the opportunity to testify before you today.
Restrictive voter registration laws and practices were introduced in our country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in order to keep certain groups of citizens –particularly new immigrants, African Americans and other minorities from exercising their right to vote. Court decisions and enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated some of the obvious barriers to voter registration. But a complex maze of local laws and practices continued to make it difficult for many citizens to exercise their right to vote.
Impact of Motor Voter Reforms
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), popularly known as “motor voter,” took a major step in the right direction by calling for voter registration at motor vehicle departments, welfare offices, and other governmental agencies; registration by mail; and limitations on discriminatory and unfair purging of registered voters. Implementation of the law was slow in some areas, because some states refused or delayed carrying it out. For example, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia and several other states refused to implement “motor voter” altogether. This led to successful legal action by the Department of Justice, People For the American Way Foundation, and many others to defend the law.
Despite the slow start in some areas, however, NVRA has been enormously successful. Project Vote recently estimated that the law has led to more than 70 million new voter registrations. And it has been implemented, as the Congress intended, in a way that has continued to protect the integrity of the electoral process. The legislation, which includes criminal penalties for voter fraud, specifically requires states to conduct a uniform and non-discriminatory program for removing ineligible voters from the voter rolls.
The Federal Election Commission reported to Congress that over 9 million names were deleted from voter registration lists during the 1997-98 cycle and that over 14 million other names were subject to removal after 2000 if they failed to respond to notices or to vote in that election. The FEC’s report is based on surveys from the 43 states and District of Columbia, which are subject to the law. While the report contains important recommendations from the states for improving implementation of voter registration and list maintenance, what it does not contain is evidence of a problem with voter fraud.
Election 2000 Problems
Unfortunately, if the 2000 elections proved anything, it is that we have the opposite problem. In states like Florida, registered voters were improperly purged from voter rolls and disenfranchised from participating in our democratic process. The NVRA’s procedures and requirements of other federal voting rights law were violated. Thousands of citizens were incorrectly identified as felons. Countless others who had been placed on an “inactive” status were wrongly denied the opportunity to vote when they showed up at the polls and found their names missing from the rolls. Others were denied the opportunity to vote because of unnecessary voter identification requirements, including being required to present a photo identification, even though state law provided alternative identification procedures.
The media has reported, and groups like the NAACP and NAACP Voter Fund have documented, similar problems in other states. For example, voters in Virginia reported that names had been improperly removed from the registration rolls, polling places were moved without notice, and registration at Department of Motor Vehicles offices did not function properly. Citizens in Richmond who wanted to participate in voter registration efforts were told by local election officials that no registration forms were available. In New York City, there were reports of numerous unprocessed Motor Voter registration forms. At a Michigan town hall meeting sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, it was reported that there were major problems with voter files that reportedly did not include some voters who had been voting at one site for many years.
As requested, I have focused on problems with registration. But I must note that voters in many states voters also encountered intimidation, disinformation, and other tactics designed to keep people away from the polls. Outdated, inaccurate, and broken voting machines inexcusably prevented tens of thousands of people nationwide from casting a vote that counted. Our nation has clearly made a lot of progress with respect to voter registration and participation. But events in November clearly indicate that we still have a long way to go.
Here are some recommendations: First, maintaining and enforcing our existing laws, like the National Voter Registration Act and the Voting Rights Act, is absolutely critical. The idea of erecting new or old barriers to voting in this situation is simply unfathomable. We as a country simply can not move backwards to the days of discouraging participation by any citizens.
The 2000 elections prove there’s much that urgently needs to done to move forward to ensure uniform, non-discriminatory, accurate and effective implementation of list maintenance procedures. Congress can play a crucial role in that effort by holding hearings like this one, resisting misguided efforts to weaken our laws, and assisting states and localities in complying with these laws. In particular, some of the problems experienced in Florida and elsewhere could have been avoided with better trained and equipped election officials, voter registrars, and poll workers.
People For the American Way therefore supports the Dodd-Conyers and Schumer-Brownback bills. Among their other provisions, these proposals would provide grants to states and localities to improve practices relating to education of poll workers and voters, as well as for improved election technology and administration. Officials should prevent and remedy the wrongful purging of voters and ensure, as the National Voter Registration Act states, that all purging procedures are uniform and non-discriminatory. Lists of “inactive” voters should be maintained at polling places and be just as accessible to poll workers as active lists.
Voters should be affirmatively notified of their rights at polling places, by posted notice or otherwise, including their rights to assistance, to correct their ballots if they believe they have made an error, and to cast a “challenged” ballot if there is a dispute as to their registration. Election officials should ensure that no registered voter is turned away because of list maintenance problems. And procedures should be developed to eliminate unfair delays in processing voter registration applications so that everyone who fills out registration forms on time can vote in the next election.
Some have suggested that despite the problems experienced in the last election, there is no real interest among legislators in pursuing election reform. We fervently hope that this is not the case.
This hearing is an important demonstration to the contrary. We agree with the New York Times this week that it is “past time” for the federal government and many state governments to take action on election reform.
We urge the Congress to follow up this hearing with action to help guarantee to all Americans the right to cast a vote that truly counts in all federal elections.
Thank you very much.