On voting rights

Attorney General Eric Holder was in Austin last week to give a speech on voting rights and the things the Justice Department is doing to protect them. No, the location was not an accident.

Giving his most expansive speech on civil rights since taking office, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer declared that “we need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence — and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country.”

He urged the country to “call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success.”

“Instead, encourage and work with the parties to achieve this success by appealing to more voters,” Holder said during an appearance in Austin, Texas.

Currently, the Justice Department is reviewing new requirements in Texas and South Carolina requiring voters to produce a photo ID before casting ballots. The department also is examining changes that Florida has made to its electoral process — imposing financial penalties on third-party voter registration organizations like the League of Women Voters when they miss deadlines and shortening the number of days in the early voting period before elections.

The Justice Department has its work cut out for it. Holder’s remarks as prepared are here. One thing to highlight:

One final area for reform that merits our strongest support is the growing effort – which is already underway in several states – to modernize voter registration. Today, the single biggest barrier to voting in this country is our antiquated registration system. According to the Census Bureau, of the 75 million adult citizens who failed to vote in the last presidential election, 60 million of them were not registered and, therefore, not eligible to cast a ballot.

All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote. The ability to vote is a right – it is not a privilege. Under our current system, many voters must follow cumbersome and needlessly complex voter registration rules. And every election season, state and local officials have to manually process a crush of new applications – most of them handwritten – leaving the system riddled with errors, and, too often, creating chaos at the polls.

Fortunately, modern technology provides a straightforward fix for these problems – if we have the political will to bring our election systems into the 21st century. It should be the government’s responsibility to automatically register citizens to vote, by compiling – from databases that already exist – a list of all eligible residents in each jurisdiction. Of course, these lists would be used solely to administer elections – and would protect essential privacy rights.

We must also address the fact that although one in nine Americans move every year, their voter registration often does not move with them. Many would-be voters don’t realize this until they’ve missed the deadline for registering, which can fall a full month before Election Day. Election officials should work together to establish a program of permanent, portable registration – so that voters who move can vote at their new polling place on Election Day. Until that happens, we should implement fail-safe procedures to correct voter-roll errors and omissions, by allowing every voter to cast a regular, non-provisional ballot on Election Day. Several states have already taken this step, and it’s been shown to increase turnout by at least three to five percentage points.

These modernization efforts would not only improve the integrity of our elections, they would also save precious taxpayer dollars.

I’m not really sure that the ability to vote is considered a right in this country, because if it were it wouldn’t be so easy to deny people the ability to vote. Voter ID legislation, which is designed to make it harder to vote, is working as intended. Voter registration has declined in Harris County over the past decade even as the population has boomed thanks in large part to the tireless effort of the Tax Assessor to purge the rolls. Basically, you can’t vote unless you prove you’re eligible and you haven’t been knocked out by some bureaucratic paperwork requirement. In a country that viewed the ability to vote as a right and not a privilege, you’d think it would be the other way around. Innocent until proven guilty, as it were.

Note, by the way, that the technological solution Holder outlines is in its own way a form of voter ID. The difference is that it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure every voter is accounted for and has the required identification to be able to cast a vote. It’s putting the burden on the voter that makes these laws so incompatible with the notion that we have the right to be able to vote. If something can be taken away by the whim of a bureaucrat, it’s not a right.

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