Big Story, No Coverage: The Ideological Puzzle of Statewide Voter Registration

By Greg Moses

As the fifty states work toward a federally mandated deadline to centralize their voter registration databases by Jan. 1 we ask why has there been so little critical attention given to these historic projects? The answer begins with a quote from a 2002 report by electionline:

Political parties and campaigns are primary beneficiaries of statewide registration databases. Almost every state that produces a statewide list also sells that list.

If political managers are already lining up to purchase clean lists from the new databases, then we have a pretty good structural hypothesis to explain why these databases are really going up, and why there is so little evidence that usual political players have anything to say by way of criticism about these projects.

In Great Britain, political parties are building hi-tek databases after the example of Republican Party USA, merging private databanks to make voter lists with “credit history, consumer-lifestyle surveys and purchasing habits.”

The 2002 electionline review of statewide voter registration has an air of inevitability about it. Statewide registrations are justified in order to prevent some “qualified” voter from being turned away because of poorly kept records.

A sidebar in the electionline report indicates however that Civil Rights voices worry, because centralized voter rolls make questionable purges of “qualified” voters more likely. Greg Palast’s “story of the year” in 2000 reported on Florida’s contract cleansing of 173,000 names from that state’s voter rolls. In Ohio 28,000 voters were purged in Lucas County alone during the summer of 2004.

In the justification of centralized voter rolls, we have the classic ingredients of ideology, the explanation that inverts reality. Let’s centralize voter rolls to ensure that “qualified” voters are well kept says ideology. But centralized voter rolls actually increase the likelihood that “qualified” voters can be more powerfully purged.

The fear of losing your right to vote is played up by ideology in order to install a system that promises to allay that fear, while the actual results are more likely to see the fear fulfilled.

Behind every ideological inversion lies an interest, and as we see the interest in this case is widely held among parties and campaign consultants who as a class are masters of ideology in the first place. From a political management point of view, eliminating “deadwood” from voter rolls is equivalent to eliminating bad contacts from campaign expenses.

From this point of view, it is really too neat to note that a “retail man” with experience as a car dealer and power-fundraiser has become the “gonna get it done” guy for the Texas database. Although we should note in fairness to the whole man that all our research on the project has been facilitated by his office, at his office, and he never fails to shake a hand.

But returning to the main question, the logical path to a red-blooded American ideology always bypasses, sidelines, and side-bars Civil Rights experience.

Here is the complaint of a Civil Rights voice that appears in a sidebar of the electionline report:

Some experts argue that national efforts to create statewide voter registration databases would exacerbate problems like those that arose from
Florida’s 2000 purge. In particular, the purging process has raised concerns. “We, the voting public, must have some control over who can purge names from the statewide databases,” said Penda Hair of the Washington-based Advancement Project.

Failure to care very much about Civil Rights experience is one symptom of what Palast calls our “apartheid democracy, in which wealthy white votes almost always count, but minorities are often purged or challenged or simply not recorded.”

And this apartheid democracy is enabled by a special brand of racist ideology which conjures fear about “dirty” voter rolls the better to “clean” them for good. When the road to American suffrage is viewed from within Civil Rights experience, the ruts of these paths are clear and continuous. Where there are powerful ways for technology to be used in apartheid fashion, they will be.

One answer to the coming predicament is to enact safeguard provisions such as those contained in an election-reform bill sponsored by John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich) that would require states to produce federal reports of purged voters prior to elections. Purged voters should also receive notice by mail. And public notice should be required prior to any batch operation on a voter database. A process of public review should be put in place. If there is a federal mandate for centralized voter rolls, there should be federal safeguards.

Finally a note of pure philosophy: even the Conyers solution (which we support) falls short of Penda Hair’s call for voter control over voter lists. A self-managing electorate? Is that something Americans would dare to think about? In the presence of ideas like that, doesn’t ideology warn us to be very afraid?

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electionline report: pdf format: march 2002

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