Senate Bill Bans States from Limiting Nonprofit Voter Registration Drives

By OMB Watch
Published August 13th 2007 in
On July 25, the Senate Rules Committee held a hearing on an election reform bill that includes a provision that would prevent states from placing undue restrictions on voter registration drives by nonprofits. During the last several years, there has been an increase in the number of voters registered through voter registration drives conducted by charities and other third parties, such as the League of Women Voters and ACORN. Discussion of the bill before the committee — the Ballot Integrity Act of 2007 (S. 1487) — largely focused, however, on provisions that mandate paper records for all electronic voting machines.

In recent years, lawmakers in several states have sought to limit the voter registration activities of nonprofit and other third-party groups. Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Ohio, Colorado, Maryland, Washington and Missouri have all passed laws intended to keep nonpartisan registrants on the sidelines, enforcing these new regulations with heavy fines and criminal penalties. These laws require voter registration groups to go through complicated procedures before conducting registration drives. Consequently, many nonprofits have been forced to discontinue their registration campaigns.

The Ballot Integrity Act of 2007 would prevent states from passing such laws, while at the same time allowing room for states to ensure their voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date. The bill also directs states to institute new safeguards to prevent errors and tampering at the polls, begin conducting public manual audits of all federal elections by the 2010 elections and improve poll worker training.

The bill is sponsored by Rules Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and 11 other senators, including Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Barack Obama (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Joseph Biden (D-DE).

Among the witnesses at the hearing was the president of the League of Women Voters, Mary Owens. She testified in support of the components of the bill that are designed to prevent excessive regulation of voter registration drives. The Florida chapter of the League suspended its voter registration efforts in 2005 in the wake of a new Florida law which instituted new requirements for nonprofit registration drives and stiff penalties for organizations unable to comply. In her testimony, Owens said "the League applauds Congress stepping up to the plate" on the voter registration drive issue.

People For the American Way's Director of Public Policy Tanya Clay House also testified at the Rules Committee hearing in support of the bill's provision to prevent states from placing undue restrictions on third-party registration. In her testimony , House said that this portion of the bill "is especially urgent in light of the many instances of voter suppression that have taken place in recent elections as a result of voter registration problems…. which led to widespread confusion about registration status and very likely led to the disenfranchisement of hundreds, if not thousands, of voters."

A similar election reform bill — the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007 (H.R. 811) is also making progress in the House. The bill, however, does not contain provisions related to voter registration drives. Instead, the bill focuses on requiring that states ensure all electronic voting machines produce paper verification of ballots cast by the upcoming 2008 presidential election. The bill would also require states to conduct manual audits of elections in randomly selected counties. On July 27, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) announced a compromise on some terms of the bill, which had been controversial. The compromise should allow the bill to move to a vote by the House soon.