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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Democrats Working to Increase Participation in Democracy

While the California Republican Party is busy defending tax breaks for yacht owners, Democrats are busy working to decrease barriers to voting and increase participation in democracy. The California Democratic Party Platform even talks about increasing participation:

To promote honest leadership and open government, California Democrats will:
  • Increase voter participation by advocating for extended voting hours and/or days, scheduling elections on weekends, or by declaring Election Day a holiday

While I agree that would be great, the current perspective of the CDP Platform is to seek increases in the percentage of participation among registered voters. Yet there is even greater potential to increase voter participation by reforming barriers to voter registration. This is the premise behind recent national legislation by Democrats in Congress and a bill by Assemblyman Curren Price for California.

These are two pieces of legislation that deserve to be followed closely, which means you'll probably need to follow on the blogs as so far both reforms have been largely ignored by traditional media.

Federal Election Day Registration Legislation

If you want to increase participation in democracy and provide a crucial check on GOP efforts to disenfranchise voters, the most common sense reform available has already been proven effective:

Election Day Registration (EDR), also known as "Same Day Registration," permits eligible citizens to register and vote on Election Day. Currently, eight states have EDR. A ninth, North Carolina, allows for Same Day Registration at early voting sites. EDR states typically boast voter turnout rates that are generally 10-12 percent higher than states without EDR, and report few problems with fraud, costs or administrative complexity. EDR significantly increases the opportunity to cast a vote and participate in American democracy.

This really is common sense. In the 2006 midterms, 40% of election news stories were aired in the final week -- after the registration deadline in 42 states. Not only does EDR help new voters, but prevents disenfranchisement by allowing an easy remedy for voters who arrive at the polls only to find out there was a problem with their registration (the solution to Katherine Harris purges). Furthermore, this reform is more secure than mailed registration as the registrant is there in person and significantly reduces the volume of staff intensive provisional ballots.

Our friends at Progressive States (disclosure: I helped incubate the organization a few years ago) have been promoting EDR at the state level, but as much as I appreciate lateral redeployment of progress from state-to-state, we need to move forward nationally as all Americans deserve the benefits of such reform. That is why I was delighted to see that the day after the Bush Supreme Court ruled in favor of GOP disenfranchising voter identification laws, Democrats in Washington introduced federal Election Day Registration legislation:

U.S. Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) are introducing legislation to help more Americans register to vote by allowing Election Day registration at polling places for all federal elections. The Election Day Registration Act addresses chronic problems with the American electoral process – low voter turnout and archaic voter registration laws. Election Day registration is also seen as preferable to advance registration since voters are actually present when they register, reducing opportunities for fraud. The bill’s introduction comes days after the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana voter ID law that seriously impedes the ability of elderly and low-income Americans to vote. Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jon Tester (D-MT), who represent states that recently enacted Election Day registration, are also cosponsors of the bill.

“The right to vote is at the heart of our democracy, and we should constantly be looking for ways to make it easier for Americans to exercise that right,” Feingold said. “Election Day registration has worked well in Wisconsin for more than 30 years and is a major reason why Wisconsin is a national leader in voter turnout. By allowing people to register in person on Election Day, we can bring more people into the process, which only strengthens our democracy.”

“For over 33 years, Minnesota’s same day registration law has helped produce the highest voter turnout of any state,” said Klobuchar. “Same day registration works, it encourages people to be engaged and interested in the issues facing our country – this bill gives a voice to every American who wants to vote.”

Indeed, Senator Klobuchar is correct in the results and the comparison between states' differing approaches to unnecessary voter registration deadlines is stark.

From Future Majority PAC's EDR page

This is important federal legislation and is well worth spending a few minutes to contact your representative and our Senators to politely ask that they co-sponsor this legislation. Please leave a comment with any progress on this front as I'll be keeping a list to mark progress in getting the entire California delegation to join up. This is a "no brainer" in the words of Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

California Assembly Bill 1819 to Expand Pre-Registration

In California, Assemblyman Curren Price is lowering barriers to participation at the other end of the registration window. His AB 1819 is an extremely forward thinking bill that could bring the youth organizing energy we've seen the last few cycles on college campuses into our high schools.

Progressive legislation, authored by Assemblymember Curren Price (D- Inglewood), that will allow young Californians to “pre-register” to vote at the age of 16 passed through the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee.

“Research shows that early involvement in politics leads to lifelong involvement,” said Assemblymember Price. “Facilitating participation by younger voters empowers and engages our youth and ultimately strengthens our entire political process.”

According to the Secretary of State, more than 7.2 million eligible voters in California are not registered to vote – nearly one-third of California's eligible voters. Among young voters, participation is even lower – according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census, more than 45 percent of eligible voters in California between 18 and 24 years of age were not registered to vote in 2004. Furthermore, while participation by younger voters has increased in the last few elections, California ranks 36th in the nation for turnout among young voters.

As currently written, the bill would go into effect on January 1, 2010 and while I anticipate it would increase interest in that year's midterm elections, the long-term effects of facilitating an expectation of participation in our high schools would be a boom for democracy. It is great to see AB 1819 co-sponsored by incoming Democratic Party leaders Karen Bass and Darrell Steinberg as I believe it is safe to assume California Republicans will throw a tantrum at the thought of expanding the pre-registration period from current law which allows pre-registration for those turning 18 prior to the next election. In fact, the bill was passed out of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee on a party-line vote, with Republicans apparently having a problem with this:

Research shows that people who get involved in the political process at a young age are much more likely to become lifelong voters, so facilitating participation by younger voters can have positive long term effects on overall voter participation.
AB 1819 does not change the voting age, but by allowing 16 and 17 year olds to register to vote when they go to the DMV to get their first driver's licenses, or when they are taking civics and government classes in high school, it will help those individuals take the first steps towards a lifetime of participation in our democracy.

I applaud Assemblyman Price's focus on facilitating participatory democracy. With the Millennial generation the largest in our country's history, such a focus will be felt decades down the road.

While we are lucky this cycle to have Barack Obama's National Voter Registration Drive (beginning next Saturday with events in California from San Diego to Ukiah), it is legislation like this that will institutionalize increased participation regardless of the dynamics of a particular election.

And as long as Republican remains a slur, having more people vote will decrease the voice of yacht owners voting for tax loopholes. Which is why the GOP is fighting the idea of more people (who despise them) voting instead of reversing the actions that created the loathing. Until such an unlikely coming to terms with reality, removing barriers to voter registration will disproportionately benefit Democrats.

A near-term game changer for Democrats and a long-term game changer for democracy.

-By Bob Brigham

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