Skip to main content

Fight back against restrictive voting laws

By Lawrence Norden, Special to CNN
July 4, 2012 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Voters in Beverly Hills, California, in November 2010.
Voters in Beverly Hills, California, in November 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lawrence Norden: Since 2011, more than two dozen restrictive voting measures have passed
  • Fortunately, some states have rejected them, as Michigan did Tuesday, says Norden
  • Florida will probably not resume its notorious purging of voter rolls, he says
  • Norden: Modernizing voter registration could add 50 million eligible voters to the rolls

Editor's note: Lawrence Norden is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

(CNN) -- Amid our vacations, fireworks and barbecues Wednesday, it's easy to forget that we are actually commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The most famous phrase from that document is one of our nation's founding values: "All men are created equal." As it happens, this July Fourth week brings two significant victories for that value that are worth celebrating.

Most Americans are probably not aware that since 2011, more than two dozen measures have passed that will make it more difficult for some eligible citizens to vote, denying them the opportunity to participate equally in our democracy. Too often, it appears that politicians are trying to manipulate voting laws to save their jobs and pick their voters, rather than allowing all voters to choose their politicians.

The good news is that the public, the courts and some elected officials have fought these new restrictions in several states, including Ohio, Maine, Missouri and, just Tuesday, Michigan.

Lawrence Norden
Lawrence Norden

Another view: Voter ID laws are common sense

To the surprise of many -- at the urging of good government and voting rights groups, several editorial pages and many of Michigan's citizens -- Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a package of restrictive voting laws in that state. One of the bills would have restricted voter registration drives.

Florida defies DOJ with voter roll purge
Voter purge? Fla. respectfully disagrees

Under that bill's proposed rules, the League of Women Voters of Michigan, which has conducted voter registration drives for decades, would need to attend mandatory, state-approved training sessions. But the law did not say how widely those trainings would be available. The law also would have required volunteers to sign an intimidating form threatening them with criminal prosecution for vaguely defined offenses. (In May, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle stopped a similar requirement in a Florida law, saying this can have "no purpose other than to discourage voluntary participation in legitimate, indeed constitutionally protected, activities.")

Also this week, the state of Florida confirmed it will likely not resume its purge of the voter rolls, which gained national notoriety and could have kept thousands of eligible citizens from voting in November.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott claimed the purge was necessary to get noncitizens off the registration rolls. Of course, if a state confirms that noncitizens are on the rolls, it should take appropriate steps to remove them. But that is not what the Sunshine State was doing. Rather, the state created a list rife with errors that many local election officials warned from the start was inaccurate. This flawed list was used to send purge notices to hundreds of eligible citizens, disproportionately Hispanic and members of other minority groups. Among them was Bill Internicola, a Brooklyn-born 91-year-old WWII veteran, who said he was "flabbergasted" when he received such a letter.

Another view: Economic policies will discourage Hispanics, not voter ID laws

Last week, the same judge who stopped part of Florida's registration law scolded the state for the "major flaws" in its purge, which was "likely to have a discriminatory impact" on the tens of thousands of newly naturalized citizens in the state each year. Moving forward, Florida must create strict and uniform criteria for developing purge lists, as suggested in the Brennan Center's 2008 "Voter Purges" report, one of the first systematic examinations of the chaotic and largely unseen world of purges.

Sadly, the news isn't all good. The Brennan Center estimates that 16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to affect the 2012 election. These states account for 214 electoral votes, or 79% of the total needed to win the presidency.

Elections should not be decided by politicians who manipulate voting laws for partisan gain. Improving our elections need not come at the expense of our shared value that all citizens should have the opportunity to participate in our democracy. If we truly want to make our election system better -- and get past the voting wars seen in Florida, Michigan and across the country -- the first step is to modernize voter registration, which could add more than 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, permanently.

Even though voter files are kept on computers, citizens must fill out paper forms to register, and can be dropped from the rolls due to errors or address changes. Modernizing registration would use digital technology to enable citizens to register and stay registered to vote, and to update their registration online.

In recent years, at least 21 states have moved forward to automate voter registration at Department of Motor Vehicle offices, a step supported by officials from both parties. Experiences in the states demonstrate that this increases accuracy and registration rates, minimizes the potential for fraud and saves money.

All eligible citizens should have the opportunity -- and responsibility -- to vote. The right way to honor our Founding Fathers is to ensure their bold ideals of equality of opportunity are upheld. Let's make our election system better, and reject measures that restrict access to the polls.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lawrence Norden.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT