Lewis-backed bill would automatically register most to vote

Democrats who spent the 2012 election cycle on defense against voting restrictions are now urging near-universal voter registration.

Atlanta U.S. Rep. John Lewis and several colleagues are pushing a bill that would automatically register people to vote whose names are on existing records held by departments of motor vehicles, public assistance programs and other databases, unless people opt out of being registered. It also would require states to allow registration up to Election Day.

The bill faces significant Republican roadblocks to passage, including in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp doesn’t like the idea. Kemp said it would have only exacerbated Fulton County’s difficulties in November’s election, which included long lines and an enormous pile of provisional ballots.

After a presidential election in which fights over ballot access were as charged as those over policy, the politics of voting remains divisive. Last week the National Association of Secretaries of State met in Washington, and the liberal Brennan Center for Justice and conservative Heritage Foundation staged rival seminars with secretaries of state delivering their views on voting proposals.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center called the voter registration system “currently the biggest barrier to free and fair elections in the United States.”

Heritage’s Hans von Spakovsky, a former Fulton County Republican Party chairman and George W. Bush administration official who has aggressively pursued voter ID laws, asked: “Do we have a registration problem to begin with?”

The Republican secretaries of state at Heritage, including Kemp, said the Democrats’ proposal constituted federal overreach. They raised questions about people who want to remain anonymous, since outside groups often buy voter-registration data, and about the accuracy of databases like change-of-address forms with the Postal Service, which would be incorporated into the mandatory registration system.

In an interview Kemp said, “Georgia has been as progressive, if you will, as any state in the country” in pushing voter registration with online forms and in other ways. He said he will push voter registration on social media in the future.

But Kemp added, “I also think that this is a choice that Americans have, and that’s what makes America great. Some people don’t want to be registered to vote.”

The George Mason University United States Election Project, which compiled data from the census bureau and other sources, found that Georgia had about 6.7 million voting-eligible citizens. According to the secretary of state’s office, Georgia has 5.4 million registered voters, 3.9 million of whom cast ballots in November.

Nationally, according to George Mason’s data, 130 million people voted out of 219 million eligible.

Along with Lewis, second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York are leading the charge for the Voter Empowerment Act, which would do more than automatically register more voters. It would mandate that felons have their voting rights restored when they get out of prison — and that they be informed of their voting rights — and make it harder to challenge a person’s eligibility to vote. Penalties for voter intimidation would be increased to a maximum of five years in prison.

Lewis said voting reforms should attract bipartisan support, but added: “We will not back away from these issues if others do not have the foresight to stand behind them.”

Liberal election-reform groups were heartened by President Barack Obama saying in his second inaugural address, “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”

Long lines to vote were a considerable problem in swing states such as Florida, where data compiled by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper suggested that 201,000 people did not vote because of the lines.

Election Day in Fulton County was beset with problems.

A consultant’s report this month said departed elections director Samuel Westmoreland was the principal cause of the dysfunction. The office was swamped with new registrations it was unable to process before the election deadline because of staffing problems, leading to inaccurate lists and forcing thousands to cast provisional ballots.

Kemp said this was a problem isolated within the county, which would have been made worse with the Democratic bill’s Election Day registration.

“Even with the 30-day deadline (before the election) they had some problems and couldn’t get everyone on the statewide list,” Kemp said.

Lewis said the bill would have aided Fulton’s predicament by developing better standards for local elections officials, while more training and early voting — also in the bill — would help alleviate long lines.

Kemp said he is working to improve Georgia’s voter rolls by joining with a compact of about 20 states to cross-check their rolls and investigate duplications.

Cleaning up voter rolls is one area in which both parties can find agreement, said Beverly Hudnut of the Campaign Legal Center. Hudnut, who has worked on bipartisan ways to improve election administration, said at the Brennan Center event that while Republicans are more focused on attacking voter fraud and Democrats want to encourage more people to vote, there is common ground.

“I don’t think Republicans and Democrats are as far apart on fixing some of these (problems) in a reasonable manner than the hard rhetoric on the extremes in both parties present it to be,” Hudnut said.