FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 11, 2009
SCHUMER REVEALS GROUNDBREAKING NEW STUDY FROM VOTING EXPERTS: UP TO 7 MILLION REGISTERED VOTERS WERE PREVENTED OR DISCOURAGED FROM CASTING BALLOTS IN '08 ELECTION
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, announced Wednesday that, according to a groundbreaking new study conducted by leading election experts, as many as seven million registered voters were prevented or discouraged from casting their ballots in the 2008 election, demonstrating major malfunctions in the country’s election process.
“This report is beyond troubling. Hidden in the excitement of this past election was the fact that millions of voters, through no fault of their own, were shut out of this process due to fixable problems,” Schumer said. “More people than ever wanted to vote last year in a Presidential election that ignited greater interest than any election in decades. But for far too many of these energized voters, the trip to the polls ended in frustration, disappointment and disenfranchisement because of our flawed system of voter registration.”
The report was released at a hearing of the Rules committee, which is the panel that oversees elections. The study--produced by the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--detailed that as many as 3 million registered voters were prevented from voting due to a range of administrative mishaps. According to Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University, the study's lead author, those factors include: a failure to provide photo identification; a failure to record the voter’s name on the rolls at the time of registration; an accidental purging of the voter from the rolls subsequent to registration; or an error in the initial recording of the voter’s information so that their actual information does not match the voter list. Schumer said these issues, while often made accidentally, can have a troubling cumulative effect.
“Each one alone may not seem like an egregious violation, but put together, you get massive disenfranchisement,” Schumer said. “This is unacceptable and undemocratic.”
The MIT study also found that an additional 2-4 million registered voters were “discouraged” from voting due to administrative hassles, such as long lines, voter identification and difficulty getting an absentee ballot. Combining the group of voters prevented from participating with those discouraged, the study concludes that up to 7 million voters did not have their preference recorded in the 2008 election.
This was “approximately the same magnitude as we saw in 2000,” Ansolabehere said in his testimony. “Improving registration and authentication systems ought to remain a high priority.”
“Whereas punch card ballots were the problem for the 2000 election and long lines were the problem for the 2004 election, the voter registration system appears to have been the problem for the 2008 election,” Columbia Professor Nathaniel Persily said in his testimony.
In addition to the seven million registered voters who failed to vote, an estimated nine million eligible people tried to register but failed because of barriers to voter registration such as missed deadlines and changes of residence.
“It’s clear that the high turnout on November 4 of last year simply masked persistent problems that still need to be fixed,” said Schumer. “To fully realize the promise of our democracy, we must make voting as easy as possible for every single eligible citizen.”
According to Persily, it is more difficult to vote in the U.S. than in any other industrialized democracy. The high mobility of the U.S. population, the requirement that voters re-register whenever they move, and the failure of the system to affirmatively register voters are all significant barriers.
In separate testimony, Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, released his group’s study of problems at the polls in 2008 as reported on Election Day to his organization’s “election protection” network. Its hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, handled over 240,000 calls from voters during the 2008 election cycle. The study found that over one-third of all the problems stemmed from voter registration issues, by far the largest single source of difficulty.
Goldman's report provides examples of registration hurdles effectively disenfranchising eligible voters. For instance, a Georgia airman and his wife, who were assigned to an Arizona Air Force base just two weeks before the election, were not able to register in their new state because they had missed the registration deadline. As a result, neither was able to vote. In New York, according to another example, about 100,000 registration forms collected by a third-party registration group were wrongly sent to the State Board of Elections office in Albany when they were supposed to go to the appropriate county offices. While the staff in Albany scrambled to forward along the forms to the proper locations, after Election Day, 3,500 unprocessed registration forms were found sitting in a box by a New York City Board of Elections employee.
Others hearing witnesses included Kristen Clarke, co-director of the Political Participation Group of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.; Curtis Gans, director, Center for the Study of the American Electorate; and The Honorable Chris Nelson, South Dakota Secretary of State.