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Disenfranchisement Deadlines

Long before the first ballot is cast on Election Day, government officials in forty-four states and the District of Columbia will have already taken away the right to vote in the upcoming congressional elections from more than 53 million Americans. No, they are not under the age of 18, illegal immigrants, or convicted felons.

Rather, they are bona fide U.S. citizens whose only crime is being too busy to accommodate (or even notice) the arbitrary cut-off date for voter registration. This estimate comes from 2004 Census data of those who openly admitted that they weren't registered to vote; due to citizens' reluctance to give a response that seems socially undesirable, the real number of disenfranchised Americans is almost certainly larger.

This year, the disenfranchisement deadline arrived on Oct. 10 in such large and political important states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida, thwarting democratic participation by more than eight million citizens who might otherwise wish to have their voices heard. One and a half million citizens of New Jersey can forget about voting unless they managed to meet the Oct. 4 registration deadline--the earliest in the nation. Nationwide, millions of otherwise-eligible citizens will be locked out of the voting booth on Election Day because they failed to meet legislatively mandated voter registration deadlines that arrived weeks before the election.

... they are bona fide U.S. citizens whose only crime is being too busy to accommodate (or even notice) the arbitrary cut-off date for voter registration.

Yes, it is true that citizens in a few of these states could still register to vote after the deadline had passed by showing up in person at their election office during a limited "grace period." But how realistic is it for citizens to have the time and wherewithal to navigate another set of registration procedures (during official government business hours) if they were too busy to fill out a mail-in voter registration application in the first place?

While state legislatures may claim that voter registration rules are enacted to reduce voter fraud, the real reason for the draconian deadlines is political self-interest. Every elected legislator has won his or her seat under the current partial-participation system. Any expansion of the electorate threatens to rock the boat on which they sailed into office.

And they have reason to be wary. Jessie Ventura's improbable victory in the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial election was made possible by a late-arriving upsurge in support among independent-minded young voters who would not have been able to vote if it weren't for Minnesota's Election Day registration law. While most states allow citizens to buy firearms after completing a computerized background check that takes mere minutes, the waiting period for getting a licensee to vote is usually measured in weeks. To the political careers of incumbents, enfranchising discontented citizens may, indeed, be more dangerous than buying a gun.

But it doesn't have to be like this. In the handful of states that allow citizens to register on Election Day, voter turnout is generally much higher. Of the six states with the highest turnout in the 2004 presidential election, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and New Hampshire allow day-of-election registration and North Dakota does not require any registration at all. (The sixth state, Oregon, has vote-by-mail.)

With the exception of citizens in these few states, Americans must make twice the effort in order to exercise such a fundamental right of citizenship as voting: once to register and once to cast a ballot. Democracies around the world--including the one newly established under U.S. direction in Iraq--do not require their citizens to register to vote before an election. Only in the U.S. are citizens required to jump through so many hoops in order to vote. It is no wonder, then, that voter turnout in the U.S. is abysmally low when compared with turnout in other democracies.

In the days of paper-and-pen voter registration records, these early closing dates might have made sense. But the world has since gone digital, and it's time for our election records to catch up. Rather than simplifying the process, state legislatures are moving in the opposite direction by beefing up voter identification requirements.

In this technologically-driven era, there is no excuse for archaic voter registration laws that require citizens to master a labyrinth of confusing voter registration laws fully one month before an election. While it's too late for this election, state legislators should drop their self-serving tomfoolery and enact Election Day registration laws to prevent millions of citizens from being automatically disenfranchised the next time around.

Dennis Plane is assistant professor of politics at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.