Study Finds Voter-Registration Problems

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As many as 5 million Americans who were registered to vote tried to cast ballots in the 2008 elections, but were either discouraged or unable to do so, says a new study by an academic consortium. Experts say one of the biggest problems is the voter-registration system.


Millions of Americans tried to vote in the 2008 elections - emphasis there on tried. Some failed to get an absentee ballot on time, while others faced registration problems. That's according to a new academy study, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: The biggest reason that votes were lost in the disastrous 2000 elections wasn't punch-card machines, but problems with voter registration. And that hasn't really gotten any better, says Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University. He says between four and five million Americans tried to vote in last year's elections, but were prevented or discouraged from doing so.

Professor STEPHEN ANSOLABEHERE (Harvard University): Two to three million of those people, that four to five million, said that they couldn't vote because of lack of registration because they had requested an absentee ballot but didn't receive one or because they were asked for voter identification, and they didn't have it.

FESSLER: He says millions more didn't even register because they were discouraged by deadlines and other requirements. The findings are the result of a survey of voters conducted last year by a group of academic researchers and released today at a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee. And the findings are similar to what people actually saw at the polls.

Voters showed up thinking they were registered, but didn't find their names on the list. Others were purged from the rolls because their personal information didn't match what was in other state databases. Kristen Clarke of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund says some states also had exceptionally strict registration requirements.

Ms. KRISTEN CLARKE (Legal Defense and Educational Fund, NAACP): In Indiana, for example, election officials were directed to reject registration applications if an applicant failed to mark the check box confirming their citizenship or their voting age.

This was done despite the fact that voters sign an affirmation under penalty of perjury at the bottom of the form confirming that they are citizens and confirming that they are of voting age.

FESSLER: The rule was eventually reversed, but other states also had confusing forms. Curtis Gans, who heads the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, says another difficulty is that the nation's voter registration lists are a mess.

Mr. CURTIS GANS (Director, Center for the Study of the American Electorate): There are at least 20 million names on the registration lists who should not be there, who have died, or moved or who are not legitimate voters.

FESSLER: In part, that's because of laws designed to protect voters by making it difficult to remove their names. States have been trying to clean up the lists, but it's some of those clean-up efforts that have led to all the confusion. Add to that the large turnout last year and the registration of millions of new voters. Utah Republican Senator Robert Bennett says it's often a trade-off.

Senator ROBERT BENNETT (Republican, Utah): In an effort to get everyone to vote, we relax registration requirements, and thereby, open the door to vote fraud. Or, conversely, in an effort to prevent vote fraud, we tighten registration requirements and thereby run the risk of keeping people away who belong there.

FESSLER: Voting rights advocates say that election day registration would avoid many of the problems. Others think that Americans should be automatically registered by the government when they reach voting age, but with most states strapped for cash right now, big changes are unlikely for a while.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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