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RTV: Money doesn't grow on trees

by Jo McKeegan, Right to Vote Blog // Published May 4, 2011
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Money isn't everything, except when you're talking about Democracy (in which case, apparently it is everything). Recently, several states have backed policies that likely will disenfranchise large numbers of their citizens in the name of reducing the deficit and becoming more efficient; policies involving filling vacancies, and maintaining  voter rolls.

Recently, legislators in Louisiana have proposed a law to end special elections. Such elections have occurred more than 30 times in the past five years and have cost Louisiana approximately one million dollars in total. Instead of holding elections, positions would remain vacant until the end of the term, or a person would be appointed to fill the position. In the event of an appointment under the bill, the outgoing representative would nominate three people, to whom the representative is not related, who are of the same political party as the outgoing representative. The governor can then appoint one of these three people to fill the position. While the power of the official is limited (the appointed politician cannot run for a full term after their appointment is complete), during their time as representative they would have all the responsibilities and duties of a regularly elected official. Alternative bills call for the appointed person to be from the same district as the outgoing representative, presumably in an effort to find a person as much like the outgoing official as possible.

This entire process would not involve the voter, who the representative would serve. Tellingly, there will be no voter referendum to determine if the public wants to stop holding special elections. While removing special elections would save the state money, it would also cost the voters in Louisiana the chance to elect representatives they feel best represent their needs. Who may hold a state-wide elected office should not be a decision for one person to make; and even if it was, the decision to move to a system of appointments over elections is one that certainly should be made by the people at the polls.

It's telling that one office cannot be affected by an act of Louisiana or any other state: that of the U.S. House of Representatives. Our founders had great respect for the powers of the "people's House" and did not want anyone to serve there who had not been elected (and no one ever has). Grounded in the Constitution, all U.S. House vacancies are subject to election rather than appointment.

Perhaps using the same goals of efficiency and fiscal responsibility, in 2008 a handful of states purged voters from the rolls within three months of the date of the next election. This was a violation of federal law; not because the voters were purged without being notified, but because they were purged too close to an election. Under the Help America Vote Act, within 90 days of an election voters are only to be removed in the event they die, are incarcerated, or move out of state. As NPR covered, many people who had been purged had no idea they were removed from voter rolls.  The NY Times reported various types of voter purging had occurred in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina.

For example, in the 90 days leading to the 2008 election, Michigan removed 33,000 people from the rolls in the name of efficiency. About 11,500 voters had moved out of state or died during that period. This means, unless Michigan incarcerated over 21,000 voters in 90 days, thousands of people may well have been unjustly and unlawfully removed from the voter registration polls. 

While public outcry in 2008 caused many states to allow those purged without cause back onto the voter rolls, this was not the end of one state's (Colorado) voter purging actions. Fast Forward until today, where the current Colorado law seeks to send ballots automatically to all active voters during election season. An active voter is someone who voted in the last general election, and is currently in good standing in the voter rolls.

Today in Colorado, after a person misses voting in one general election (such as governor in 2010 and president in 2008), the individual is sent apostcard which is intended to alert the resident they are about to be purged from the records. Voters can respond to this letter to stay active on the registrar. However, anyone who has recently moved, has their postcard delivered to the wrong address, or is unsure what to do with the postcard when it arrives, would be purged just as if they knowingly failed to respond. Since the purging is automatic, and not an affirmative action undertaken by the voter, thousands of voters have been purged and didn't realize it until the next election when they were not sent a ballot.

FairVote recently found that in Fort Collins, Colorado, for example, there were 80,250 active voters in March 2009 after a high turnout presidential election, but only  62,260 active voters in March 2011 after a lower turnout governor's race. What's more, Fort Collins only votes by mail. Since only active voters receive mail ballots, the number of voters receiving ballots dropped by almost 18,000 people during this time period.

While this might seem efficient, it actually means that everyone who misses one election is placed under a harsh burden when trying to vote, as they have been purged from the mailing list. Election officials have acknowledged that it is possible to send a ballot to every registered person, regardless of it they voted in the last election or not. However, officials claimed that the expense associated with an all-inclusive mailing does not justify doing so.

These are further examples of voting rights, or the lack thereof, being used as a bartering chip. It seems that, in states struggling to break even financially, the first thing to go is people's participation in their government. But how are people meant to care about their government when their government is taking actions to make it more difficult to hear their input? When did democracy get a price-tag? While fiscal responsibility is an admirable goal, saving money should never be at the expense of someone's rights. Avoiding running democracy on the cheap is yet another reason to establish a right to vote in the Constitution.