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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008

Cutting Off the Vote

Ending same-day registration would protect incumbents, decrease

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THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO REGISTER AT THE POLLS IS LARGE ENOUGH TO SWING AN ELECTION. NEIL ALBRECHT, ASSIS- TANT DIRECTOR OF THE CITY OF MILWAUKEE’S ELECTION COMMISSION, SAID THAT ALMOST A THIRD OF MILWAUKEE VOTERS REGISTERED ON ELECTION DAY 2004, ABOUT 80,000 OF 277,535 CITY VOTERS.

Just as young people are becoming engaged in the voting process and turning out in record numbers, a proposed bill in the state Legislature would make voting more difficult for students and other first-time or infrequent voters. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Suzanne Jeskewitz (R-Menomonee Falls), Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), Rep. Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin) and other Republicans, would end Wisconsin’s tradition of allowing voters to register at the polls on Election Day. Instead, registration would be cut off 14 days before an election. The current 10-day residency requirement would be changed to 14 days as well.

On Tuesday, the state Assembly Elections and Constitutional Law committee passed the bill on a 5- 3 party-line vote.

According to documents from the Wisconsin Department of Administration, terminating the popular Election Day registration system would make Wisconsin subject to the federal “motor voter” law, which would require a host of state offices to become involved in voter registration. It would also require “significant changes” to the computerized statewide voter registration system.

The state estimated that the cost of these changes would exceed $730,000.

Who Would Be Affected?
According to studies by Demos, a New York-based nonpartisan think tank, voters who register on Election Day tend to be those who are mobile—such as students, low-income individuals, newly naturalized citizens, people of color and young people—as well as those who make up their minds about participating in the election either shortly before the election or on Election Day itself. These first-time voters and late deciders would be cut out of the process if the bill is passed into law. (Rep. Stone did not return a call seeking comment for this article.)

The number of people who register at the polls is large enough to swing an election. In Wisconsin, 392,391 voters— or 18% of all voters—registered on Election Day 2006. Neil Albrecht, assistant director of the city of Milwaukee’s Election Commission, said that almost a third of Milwaukee voters registered on Election Day 2004, about 80,000 of 277,535 city voters. Wisconsin consistently has one of the highest rates of voter participation in the country, a phenomenon largely due to Election Day registration, Albrecht said.

Albrecht noted that students and other mobile residents are likely to register at the polls. “When we look at the wards that have the highest number of Election Day registrations in proportion to voters, by far where we see the highest [proportion of Election Day registrations] are the more transient areas of the city, like the East Side, for example, and the voting sites around college campuses, and also in neighborhoods with residents who are in the lower socioeconomic sector,” Albrecht said.

Steven Carbo, senior program director of the National Voting Rights Institute at Demos, said that opposition to Election Day registration is not a partisan issue, even if efforts to repeal it are usually instigated by Republicans. Instead, Carbo said that those who oppose Election Day registration are incumbents who fear what he called the “unknown voter,” whose voting patterns are unpredictable.

“With Election Day registration there will always be unknown voters because they will show up on Election Day and register,” Carbo said. “So while someone might be elected into office by a group of people, if in the next election the unknown voters are expanding, that may undermine a person’s chance at re-election. You’re changing the electorate with Election Day registration. Some incumbents perceive that as a threat to their re-election.”

In the race for the Democratic nomination, candidates are competing for the youth vote, a voting bloc that is becoming more engaged in elections. There are indications that the youth vote helped Sen. Barack Obama win Iowa’s caucus, and also that young people are trending Democratic. According to U.S. News & World Report, four out of every five Iowa caucus voters between the ages of 17 and 29 supported a Democrat over a Republican. Iowa added Election Day registration on Jan. 1 of this year, so the impact of these new voters could be felt on the presidential race this November.

New Hampshire’s presidential primary also saw a “surge” in the youth vote, and 61% of these young voters supported Democrats over Republicans.

The Fraud of Voter Fraud
Efforts to decrease voter participation—such as ending Election Day registration or mandating voter IDs—are offered as ways to prevent voter fraud at the ballot box. Yet Demos’ Carbo said that there is no reliable evidence that links Election Day registration to voter fraud.

“The track record in places in Wisconsin and other states with Election Day registration is that they are able to offer the opportunity to register at the polls and maintain the security of the ballot,” Carbo said. Albrecht, of Milwaukee’s Election Commission, agreed that registering at the polls is not linked to widespread fraud.

A Demos report found that allowing Election Day registration substantially cuts down on the number of provisional ballots, which require much time and labor to verify. Demos also found that provisional ballots are still a problematic option for voters.

Carbo said that while nine states currently offer voters the option of registering on Election Day, the trend is to allow voters more access to the polls, since it provides more access to the voting process and voters clearly like it. “Voters benefit, they use it, and more and more states are considering adopting it,” Carbo said.

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