Roadmap for Reform - 2007


In 2007, legislatures across the nation introduced bills that expand access to the polls, improve voter education and increase political participation. Many innovative proposals, from online voter registration to youth poll worker programs, show great promise to transform the way our democracy works. The bills featured in this document are not “best practices” or proven successes, but they are a guide for legislators who pride themselves on thinking “outside the box” and developing creative solutions to our most challenging public policy issues. FairVote hopes legislators, activists and citizens across the country find a use for this review of some of the most promising proposals to come out of the states during the 2007 legislative session.

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Voter’s Bill of Rights

  • Pennsylvania
A growing trend in the states is the adoption of a Voter’s Bill of Rights, which legislatures mandate local officials post at all polling places on Election Day. The information provided in the Bill of Rights usually includes a broad array of rights and responsibilities for the voter, along with information about how to report a violation of one’s rights. Some states and municipalities set up their own toll-free numbers at a nominal cost, but states could also encourage voters to call national election hotlines like 800-MY-VOTE1 and 800-OUR-VOTE, sponsored by Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. Without this reporting mechanism, the Bill of Rights in and of itself is much less effective.

In Arizona, the authors of HB 2061 enumerated very specific rights in an attempt to ensure the posted information covers all potential situations that may arise on Election Day. The Bill of Rights explains the process of voting, including the time and date for early voting, rules for voting by mail and instructions for how to use the voting machine. It also lists the rights voters have under state and federal law, including time off from work for voting, bilingual ballots, assistance for the disabled and the right not to be intimidated or discriminated against. Most states with a Bill of Rights include these sections.

One of the most important elements to include in a Voter’s Bill of Rights is to make sure voters understand that they should not leave the polling place without casting a ballot. The Arizona bill does a good job of explaining this by including a section on replacement ballots (when a voter makes a mistake) and provisional ballots, which have been widely used since the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. On a similar note, bills should also include provisions that ensure the people standing in line when the polls close have a chance to cast their ballot.

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Advance Voter Registration

  • Maryland – Sets uniform advance registration age at 16
    • SB 31 – Held in committee
  • Oregon – Sets uniform advance registration age at 17
  • Rhode Island – Sets uniform advance registration age at 16
  • South Carolina – Sets uniform advance registration age at 17, mandates schools provide opportunity to register accompanied by a lesson on the importance of voting in a “classroom environment”
  • Florida – Sets uniform advance registration age at 17, or upon receipt of valid driver’s license
    • H 537 – Signed by governor
A new approach to voter registration that is gaining momentum in the states is the adoption of advance registration (sometimes referred to as pre-registration) policies. Currently, a national uniform voter registration age does not exist. In some states, all 17-year-olds and some 16-year-olds can register. In other states, some 17-year-olds and no 16-year-olds can register. In many states it changes year to year based on the date of the next election. This lack of uniformity creates confusion and makes it more difficult to run effective voter registration and education programs in schools and at government agencies.

The state legislatures of Florida (HB 537) and Rhode Island (H 6215) both passed advance registration bills with strong bipartisan support in 2007. The Florida bill, which the governor signed, sets the registration age at 17-years-old or with receipt of a Florida Driver’s License, whichever occurs earlier. The wording of the law allows 16-year-olds receiving their learner’s permit to register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles. In Rhode Island, the legislature passed a bill setting a uniform registration age of 16, but the governor vetoed the bill for the second straight year citing inadequacies in Rhode Island’s voter registration database. The Maryland Legislature (SB 31) introduced a bill similar to the one in Rhode Island, but that did not make it to the floor for a vote.

The governor of Oregon (HB 2910) signed a bill into law setting the uniform advance registration age at 17-years-old. This bill includes language that requires the Department of Motor Vehicles personnel to inform people applying for driver’s licenses that they can register at the same time. Although departments of motor vehicles should already inform the public about the opportunity to register to vote because of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (“Motor Voter Law”), recent studies suggest states have increasingly fallen out of compliance with the law. Including language in state legislation that reaffirms the government’s commitment to voter registration in public agencies certainly serves as a reminder to follow the federal regulation that is already in place.

In South Carolina (HB3682/SB 254), the legislature considered a bill that would set the advance registration age at 17-years-old. The bill also includes a provision that requires that students receive a voter registration form and “be instructed in a classroom environment…to be apprised of the importance of voting.” This type of language could serve as a model for other states that are thinking about expanding and standardizing voter registration procedures in high schools. The bill has an opt-out provision, which ensures no student registers to vote against his or her will. It also includes a section requiring the state to inform people convicted of felonies of the restoration of their voting rights.

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Voter Education

  • California – Gubernatorial Debate Commission, fair campaigns
  • New Mexico – Voter Education for Native Americans
    • HB 70 – Held in committee
  • South Dakota – Allows voters to check their registration status
  • Texas – Notification of eligibility to people convicted of felonies

Many state legislators are making an effort to educate the public about the election process and the mechanics of participation. In what was once an area occupied by private organizations like the League of Women Voters, states are increasingly considering proposals that expand the information the state provides to voters before Election Day. These voter education laws ensure that everyone going to the polls receives non-partisan, accurate information.

The South Dakota bill (HB 1310) is a commonsense proposal that gives all registered voters a method for reviewing the accuracy of their voter registration file in a secure way. The bill mandates that this information—including name, address, polling location and hours of voting—is accessible at least six weeks prior to Election Day and is available either online at the Secretary of State’s website or by calling a toll-free phone number. After Election Day, the voter will have access to a detailed report that includes the process by which the voter cast his or her ballot (i.e. absentee, provisional) and whether or not the ballot was counted. The state also must provide the reason if the ballot was not counted.

In California (AB 970), legislators considered a bill creating a Gubernatorial Debate Commission, which would be responsible for organizing a minimum of three debates at statutorily mandated times and locations. For states with a history of candidates refusing to participate in public forums or disagreements on the format and location of debates, a legislative remedy is an innovative way to increase voter education and improve public discourse.

In addition to measures that benefit the general population, some state legislators have introduced bills that target specific, traditionally disenfranchised segments of the population. In Texas (HB 770), the legislature considered a bill that would mandate the Texas Department of Criminal Justice automatically inform people convicted of felonies of the restoration of their voting rights. As in many states, people convicted of felonies regain their right to vote upon completion of their sentence, but many do not realize they are entitled to vote. The Texas bill not only gives these individuals a written notice of restoration of voting rights, but also provides a voter registration application, which is a necessary step to give everyone who is eligible an equal opportunity to register to vote.

Similarly, states can also allocate funding for segments of the population that have traditionally experienced disenfranchisement or intimidation at the polls. New Mexico (HB 70) considered appropriating $150,000 from the state’s general fund to provide voter education for Native Americans. Other states can certainly implement this model for other groups who do not participate in the political process because of procedural barriers, like new citizens, students and people living in lower income neighborhoods.

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High Schools

  • Florida – Voter Education to high school seniors
    • S 302 – Held in committee
  • Hawaii – establishes voter registration and education program
  • Iowa – Allows minors to serve as precinct election board members
  • Maryland – Constitution Day, high school voter registration
  • California – High School Voter Registration Weeks (April and September)
  • Ohio Secretary of State’s Pilot Program-gives students registration form with diploma
The only way to ensure fairness in our opt-in system of voter registration is to demand that all students, regardless of their parents’ voting behavior or where they attend school, receive an opportunity to register to vote and learn the mechanics of participation before graduation. The current patchwork system of voter registration leaves many young people behind, simply because they do not attend schools where teachers make a concerted effort to register their students. Proposals in a number of state legislatures work to address the inconsistency and inadequacy of this system in several different ways.

Legislators in Florida (S 302) and Hawaii (HB 836) introduced bills that encourage high schools to work with their local board of elections to initiate voter registration programs for students in the nonpartisan atmosphere of a classroom. The bills list what information students should receive, including how to register (and advance-register) to vote, the operation of voting machines, the date of the next election and the importance of voting. The Hawaii bill also includes an evaluation process for the program, where local officials have an opportunity to make recommendations to the legislature about how to improve the voter registration program. Including this type of evaluation component encourages teachers and the local board of elections to take ownership in the program and not simply view the program as another state-level mandate.

The California bill (AB 183) sets aside the last two full weeks of April and September as “high school voter weeks” and includes a provision that requires schools to report their voter registration efforts on their website or through their school’s newsletter. Similar to the Hawaii evaluation procedure, the California bill’s reporting mechanism encourages schools to share their best practices and also assures accountability and compliance with the law.

In Maryland (SB 128), the legislature successfully enacted a law that incorporates voter registration and education within the framework of the federally mandated Constitution Day and Citizenship Day on September 17. The Maryland law encourages school districts to teach the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Constitution and provide students with the chance to register to vote. Combining state-mandated voter registration programs in high schools with the already federally mandated September 17th celebration is a creative approach that encourages participation and eliminates duplication at the state and federal level.

Another program, adopted by Ohio’s Secretary of State, is to provide students with a voter registration application along with their high school diploma. In 2007, five counties participated in a pilot to gauge the interest and effectiveness of this method of voter registration. One pitfall of this project, however, is that it leaves out students who do not make it to graduation day because the age of compulsory education in Ohio is 16-years-old. In addition, students who take longer than four years to graduate may be eligible to vote before they receive a voter registration application from the state.

In addition to expanding opportunities for young people to register to vote, states are also looking at ways to increase civic involvement for students who are not old enough to vote. In Iowa (HF 618), the governor signed a bill that established a youth poll worker program in the state that allows 17-year-olds to serve as election precinct board members. With the average poll worker age in the United States at 72, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the need for younger, technology savvy poll workers could not be greater. The introduction of electronic voting machines and computerized voter rolls makes the presence of computer-literate poll workers that much more important on Election Day. Youth poll worker programs like this also prepares students for voting in the future and motivates them to talk about voting with their friends. While the Iowa bill is a step in the right direction, some counties and municipalities even encourage students as young as 14-years-old to volunteer at the polls for a few hours on Election Day.

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Colleges and Universities

  • Maryland – establishes permanent campus address for students, provides students with an opportunity to register to vote, voter registration via internet
  • Oregon – Voter Registration/Education at community colleges and public institutions
  • California Community Colleges-Automatic Voter Registration Project
The 1998 Amendments to the Higher Education Act require colleges and universities receiving federal funds to make a “good faith effort to distribute a mail voter registration form” to each student and to “make such forms widely available to students at the institution.” However, a 2004 study by the Harvard Institute of Politics and The Chronicle of Higher Education found that over a quarter of public institutions and over 40 percent of private institutions are out of compliance with the law. State legislatures can ensure compliance of this law by restricting funding to public institutions. They can also play an important role in this area by implementing policies at the state level that promote voter registration, education and accessibility.

Oregon (SB 951) enacted a law that requires all community colleges and state institutions to adopt a plan to increase student voter registration and participation in elections. The law makes the state responsible for providing students on campus with information about laws and deadlines, but also makes voter registration applications available throughout campus: in residence halls, campus bookstores, financial aid offices, student advisor offices and where students register for classes. State laws that specifically detail how public institutions should comply with the 1998 Amendments could dramatically increase compliance with the letter and spirit of the law.

In 2003, City College of San Francisco piloted the Automatic Voter Registration Project, which allows students to register to vote when they register for classes online, by telephone or in person. When students register for classes online, the application includes a question asking if they would like voter registration/education information. A student answering in the affirmative receives a voter registration form with his or her information already filled out. All the student needs to do is sign the form and return it to the board of elections. Since 2003, twenty-seven community colleges throughout California have implemented prototypes that have generated nearly 127,000 registration requests. A sample survey showed that 45.8% of students who requested registration information were on the voter rolls.
Maryland (SB 726) legislators introduced a comprehensive bill that could serve as a model for promoting student voting rights. The Maryland Student Voting Rights Act of 2007 goes beyond the requirements of the 1998 Amendments by addressing issues as diverse as student voter residency requirements, students casting provisional ballots and the amount of time students must wait in line on Election Day. The Maryland bill addresses access to registration forms by mandating that schools develop an “engagement plan” that includes campus-wide, nonpartisan voter registration and education drives along with the availability of registration forms when students register for classes or obtain their student identification cards.

To simplify the process of on-campus voter registration, the Maryland bill would mandate that each student receive an official address that would not change (as long as they live on campus) for the purpose of voter registration. This provision not only eases the process of voter registration for students, but it also creates more accurate voter rolls by lessening the chance of duplicate entries.

On Election Day, students wait in line longer and cast provisional ballots at a disproportionately higher rate than the rest of the population. SB 726 forces local boards of election to “develop a plan specifying how it will guarantee that no voter will wait more than 15 minutes to receive a ballot…” The local board is required to submit the plan before Election Day, post the plan online and hold public hearings asking for suggestions from the community. The bill also makes sure enough machines are available by allocating the number of machines at a precinct based on the number of registered voters. Finally, the State Board of Elections would be required to post the names of all individuals who voted provisionally within 24 hours of the election.   

Back to topAllowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 on or before the general election to vote in the primary election is a great way to set the table for youth participation in the democratic process. The lack of uniformity in the system and minimal youth outreach in the states often means young people do not realize when they can register to vote or when they are eligible to vote for the first time. In an effort to encourage the newest voters to vote in the first election for which they are eligible, a number of states have already implemented 17-year-old primary voting.

Since these 17-year-olds are old enough to vote in the general election, it makes sense that these voters have a say in who is on the general election ballot. 17-year-old primary voting gives these first-time voters a chance to use the machines and prepare themselves for a lifetime of political engagement. Studies suggest voting is habitual and implementing a law like Michigan’s House Joint Resolution-S would give their young people a distinct advantage in developing an ethos of participation. Currently, nine states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 on or before the general election.

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Automatic Voter Registration

  • Minnesota – Automatic voter registration (w/opt-out provision) when applying for a driver’s permit, automatic transfer of information when changing address at U.S. Post Office
In Minnesota (HF 1546), the legislature considered a bill that would have automatically registered anyone applying for a driver’s permit or a state-issued identification card, unless the person affirmatively declines. A law like this would create a system where the default position for a citizen would be participation, as opposed to our current system where non-participation is the standard. The Department of Motor vehicles would transfer the names of new voters to the Secretary of State’s office, which would check for eligibility or duplication. Citizens under 18 could advance register to vote and the Secretary of State’s Office would check those names once they reach voting age. This bill also includes a provision connecting the U.S. Postal Service to the Secretary of State’s office, which would receive names of individuals filling out change of address forms once a month. The Secretary of State is required to follow up with all change of address applicants, informing them of their change of address for voting purposes and asking if they wish to remain registered at their previous address.

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Online Voter Registration

  • Washington

As technology progresses, states are looking at ways to make the process of voter registration easier and more accessible for its citizens. While Americans increasingly use the Internet for shopping, banking and taking online courses, few states have proposed using the Internet for voter registration and election management. Private voter registration organizations, like Rock the Vote for example, allow people to fill out a registration form online, but users must print the form, sign and mail it in to their local board of elections. State governments should take a lead role in developing Internet-based voter registration systems that allow users to complete and send their forms electronically.

Washington (HB 1528) is moving into the digital age with a new law that requires the Secretary of State to establish a paper-free, online voter registration system. A person with a valid Washington state driver’s license or state identification card can electronically submit their voter registration form. The Secretary of State is responsible for obtaining a digital copy of the applicant’s signature from the department of licensing. This system streamlines the process of voter registration for citizens and cuts down on administrative printing costs.

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Recent Articles
October 19th 2009
Mandatory Voting? Automatic Registration? How Un-American!
Huffington Post

President of Air America Media, Mark Green, explains why Instant Runoff Voting, Automatic Registration and Mandatory Voting are not only important but could lead to a more democratic society.

September 30th 2009
Can a 17-year-old register to vote? It depends
Ventura County Star

"Most Californians register to vote not because a political cause has touched their heart, but rather because they checked a box on a form at the Department of Motor Vehicles when they received or renewed their driver´┐Żs license."

September 27th 2009
Giving teens a civic voice
The Fayetteville Observer

In January, North Carolina will become the third state to implement FairVote-endorsed youth preregistration.

September 8th 2009
Give voters final say on vacancies

The two legislators proposing a constitutional amendment mandating elections to fill Senate vacancies make their case in the pages of Politico.