ACROSS THE United States, there is a growing battle over new voter registration laws. In 36 states, laws are being changed or proposed that would increase identification requirements for voters. Voting rules have long been a political football, because the constituencies most closely associated with Republicans - such as suburbanites and upper-income voters - tend to move less and therefore have fewer registration problems. Democrats, however, often must scramble to make sure their less-rooted constituencies - including college students and racial minorities - get registered. Republican officials claim to be worried about fraud; Democrats who push for looser rules claim it’s all about promoting democracy.
These days, because of their gains in the mid-term elections, Republicans are in a better position to game the system by imposing unreasonably onerous requirements on those who seek to help voters get registered. Earlier this year, the perennial battleground state of Florida passed a sweeping law that restricts the ability of groups to conduct voter-registration drives. Any person or entity (even students and volunteers) that seeks to register voters must satisfy new procedural burdens, including providing the names of all individuals who will conduct the registration, their addresses, and a sworn and notarized statement by the organization that it will obey the laws. It requires that organizations deliver all completed applications to election officials within 48 hours of being completed, or they will be thrown out. This would apply to anyone who sits at a voter booth at a county fair, student center, or senior-citizen picnic. While these restrictions may sound reasonable, if unnecessarily burdensome, they are likely to provide endless new opportunities to challenge legitimate voters on the grounds that one or another of these rules wasn’t followed to the letter by the person who handed them the registration form.
A number of nonpartisan groups, including the League of Women Voters, asked the Justice Department to review these changes recently for their potential impact on minority voting opportunities, pointing to statistics showing that minorities are more likely than whites to rely on outreach groups to facilitate their voter registration. And the league, citing the risk that its employees would face strict fines and penalties, announced that it is dropping its voter registration program in Florida until the law is settled.
This is a disturbing outcome. There is little evidence of continuing voter fraud in the United States, and considerable evidence that these laws hassle legitimate voters. The Justice Department should move quickly with its review, before many other states follow Florida’s dangerous example.