Lopez: Voter Participation Center should be applauded
August 10th, 2012
By: Alfonso H. Lopez
A recent news story, “Voter group has history of problems,” fails to address the history of barriers to registration that the Voter Participation Center and the National Voter Registration Act attempt to solve.
This country, and Southern states in particular, have had a long history of manipulating voter registration laws and procedures to prevent Americans of color and low-income Americans from voting. Election officials wielded an array of disenfranchising tools that included arbitrary purges, lengthy residence requirements, forced re-registration, literacy tests and narrow registration windows. They also had unfettered discretion to deny registration applications.
These policies and practices were instituted in Virginia and across the South after Reconstruction. For example, the African-American electorate in Virginia was reduced at the turn of the 20th century from 147,000 to 22,000. Even today, Virginia is one of only four states that have a lifetime ban on voting by former felons, a policy that disproportionately impacts underrepresented communities and minorities.
According to the Sentencing Project, more than 350,000 otherwise eligible Virginians are denied the vote.
Congress recognized that state registration practices were significant barriers to voting, and so passed the National Voter Registration Act in 1993. The NVRA required states to offer registration to citizens at driver’s license offices and public assistance agencies. It requires election officials to register applicants who meet the state eligibility requirements, and forbids states from closing registration any earlier than 30 days before the election. To the extent that Americans think voter registration is easy, it is in large part because of the NVRA.
The NVRA also created a simple mail-in registration form to make registering widely accessible and easy to do. Virginia has created its own mail form. It is this simple state form that the Voter Participation Center (VPC) mails to people whom public data indicate are alive, over 18 and not registered to vote. In the past few years, more than 55,000 Virginians have used VPC’s mailing to register to vote.
Some election officials — and now the Romney campaign — have made much of the fact that VPC’s lists are not completely accurate; even an otherwise supportive editorial in this paper suggested VPC was somehow sloppy. But both the Romney campaign and election officials know that even government-maintained records and lists, such as Social Security Administration databases and death records, will have a number of inaccuracies.
Any large-scale effort to reach millions of Americans is guaranteed to include some clerical errors and inaccuracies. However, focusing on these harmless errors to attack the efforts of the Voter Participation Center to bring more Americans into our democratic process does the organization an injustice. In light of the fact that there are nearly 2 million eligible but unregistered Virginians, the work of the Voter Participation Center should be applauded, not criticized.
Continue reading on the Richmond Times Dispatch website here.