State chided for dip in voter registration fraud

Leftists prep voter-fraud states for November

Florida is failing to help low-income residents register to vote when they sign up for public assistance, say voting rights advocates who may sue over the issue. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act requires states to offer voter registration forms - and help with filling out those forms - through various agencies, including those that provide Medicaid, food stamps and related forms of income-based assistance.

In January, lawyers for three national advocacy groups - Project Vote, ACORN and Demos - complained to Secretary of State Kurt Browning that the number of voter registrations received through Florida's public assistance agencies has plummeted since 1995.

"The fact is that the state is not following the law," said Brian Kettenring, Florida organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which advocates on behalf of low-income people.

"Hispanic and African-American communities are being deprived of the opportunity to register to vote at a higher rate than anybody else," Kettenring said. "So this is a fairness issue, but it's also a civil rights issue."

Both of Florida's main public assistance agencies argue that they are following the federal law. But the advocacy groups remain unconvinced, and are mulling whether to file a lawsuit.

Representative Democracy?

The 1993 federal law requires a variety of state offices to provide voting registration assistance - most notably, departments of motor vehicles. Congress included public assistance agencies in the mix to ensure that low-income people who don't drive are also included, said Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and expert on voting rights.

"This is the group where we need the most work, because it is the group least likely to participate in elections," Tokaji said. "The biggest problem with our democracy is that we don't have a representative electorate; people who are elected are not representative of the citizenry as a whole."

According to Florida Division of Elections data, public assistance agencies turned in 9 percent of voter registrations received in 1995. By 2007, they were contributing 1.8 percent. By 2007, agency registrations had dropped from 120,886 to 10,470.

Meanwhile, enrollment in Florida's assistance programs has remained relatively steady.

According to the Department of Children & Families, the average number of poor Floridians receiving cash assistance fell from 569,158 in 1995-96 to just 76,986 in 2007-08, reflecting the tightened welfare requirements that Congress passed in 1996. Average monthly participation in the food stamps program declined by about 45,000 over the same period to just under 1.4 million.

But those declines are nearly offset by Florida's Medicaid enrollment increase alone. The average monthly number of Medicaid beneficiaries grew from 1.2 million in 1995-96 to more than 1.7 million in 2007-08, DCF data indicate. Participation in WIC, a subsidized nutrition program for low-income women, infants and children, rose from 332,135 in 1995-96 to 420,514 in 2006-07.

Registrations Dropping Nationwide

Declining agency registrations are not exclusively a Florida phenomenon. Critics complain that agency registrations have dropped nationwide, as has the registration rate among the low-income.

ACORN, Project Vote and Demos targeted Florida with a complaint letter because the state's agency registrations are emblematic of national trends, because it is populous and because it has a high proportion of residents on some form of public assistance, said Doug Hess, a consultant with Project Vote, which focuses on voting rights for low-income and minority groups. The advocacy groups sent a similar complaint to Arizona officials, and already are suing Missouri and Ohio.

As in Florida, the number of welfare check recipients plunged nationwide after the 1996 welfare changes, though other assistance programs grew.

Food stamp participation rose from 25.5 million in 1996 to 26.5 million in 2007, and enrollment in the WIC subsidized nutrition program grew from less than 7.2 million in 1996 to nearly 8.3 million in 2007. Medicaid enrollment increased from 41.3 million in 1996 to 42.1 million in 2006, according to The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured.

Nationwide, public assistance agencies turned in 2.9 million, or 8.2 percent of all voter registrations in 1997-1998, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. But by 2006, those numbers had dropped to 527,752, or 2.7 percent.

That probably hurts Democrats more than Republicans, Hess said, but it's less of a partisan issue than one might expect. Public assistance recipients tend to be of low incomes and limited educations. They also tend to be among the young, minorities, women, the elderly and the disabled.

"People hear 'minority,' and they assume Democrat," Hess said. "But partisan allegiance among younger and less-educated residents is weak. People would probably be surprised at how often they check Independent."

Tokaji, who is not affiliated with any of the advocacy groups, agreed.

"There's not a lot of evidence that enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act has a partisan effect," he said. "Keep in mind that, after it was enacted, we saw a Republican Party come into power - the Gingrich revolution."

Applications Versus Registrations

The decision to register to vote lies with the applicant, said John Copelan, legal counsel for the Florida Department of Children & Families.

The voting law requires agencies only to offer registration assistance and record whether the applicant accepts it, he said. "We can't force people to fill these forms out."

DCF counts 3 million total voter registration "actions" in 2007, ranging from "registered or updated voter registration" to "declined registration" to "mailed." That's up from 2.6 million "actions" in 2006 and 2.4 million in 2005.

Copelan argued that counting "agency registrations" does not reflect the hundreds of thousands of voter registration forms that DCF mails every year to online applicants for Medicaid and food stamps. There is no way, he said, of tracking how many of those applicants complete and mail in the forms.

In 2004, DCF began shifting from paper-based applications for Medicaid and food stamps to online forms, accessible from home and other remote locations. The online forms, Copelan said, ask applicants whether they want a voter registration form.

Applicants who apply at agency offices may receive paper registration forms on-site, he said, but otherwise the department will mail the voter registration forms to applicants who request them. DCF mailed out more than 600,000 voter applications in 2007, up from 562,000 in 2006.

"One of the benefits of using the computer access system, there's a lot more applications that are being provided - which we believe is the essence of what's required," Copelan said.

Hess said that's not good enough. "The law really says has to be presented to you."

Ion Sancho, Leon County's outspoken supervisor of elections who has long advocated for election reforms, agreed.

"We don't do that with any other registration agency," said Sancho, who receives far fewer registrations from DCF than through the WIC program. "A voter registration agency is supposed to provide the service on-site, right there."

The federal law mandates that the agencies "provide to each applicant who does not decline to register to vote the same degree of assistance with regard to the completion of the registration application form as is provided by the office with regard to the completion of its own forms, unless the applicant refuses such assistance."

It's hard to say whether DCF meets that requirement, Tokaji said. It's possible that counting only "agency registrations" belies untold numbers of mailed-in applications, he said, but Florida's falling agency registration numbers remain suspicious.

The state's count of mailed-in voter applications has not offset the drop in agency registrations. The number of applications received by mail fell from 280,459 in 1995 to 79,327 in 2007.

In February, the Department of Health began auditing the WIC program for compliance with the voting law. In April, the department identified "voter preference" forms for 80 percent of adult WIC applicants, confirming that they had accepted or declined voter registration assistance. The department is stepping up efforts to make sure staff collect - and keep - those forms for all adult WIC applicants, said Renee Alsobrook, counsel for the health department.

Secretary of State spokeswoman Jennifer Davis said the department has held conference calls with the agencies this year about their compliance with the voting law and retooled its training materials for them. The department holds training sessions for agencies in several locations across the state.

Asked whether Florida's agencies are meeting the federal requirement, Davis said that remains up to them. "There's only so much we can do," she said. "They're going to have to answer whether they're in compliance."


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