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Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Saturday, October 1
 
UDC Election Reform Symposium
Yesterday, the University of District Columbia Law School hosted a symposium entitled Election Reform: Voting Rights in the New Millenium. The symposium brought together voting rights advocates, public officials, and academics. Some of the highlights included:

- A morning panel of voting rights advocates on the future of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Much of the conversation focused on the prospects for renewal of the provisions that are set to expire in 2007, most notably the language assistance provisions and the requirements that certain jurisdictions "preclear" changes with the Department of Justice. One of the big open questions is whether preclearance is an effective remedy for practices that disproportionately disadvantage minorities. A case in point is Georgia's recently enacted photo ID requirement, a law that even James Baker acknowledges to be "discriminatory," as noted here. Yet Georgia's ID requirement was still precleared by the Bush II Justice Department. Notwithstanding such actions, the general consensus of the voting rights advocates seemed to be that improvement on the existing preclearance process is unlikely.

- I appeared on another panel in the morning, which focused on challenges to existing mechanisms of voting, including not only machines but our system of administering elections generally. That panel included Jonah Greenbaum of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which has a lawsuit currently pending in an Ohio federal court that challenges systemic disparities in the state's voting system in such areas as registration, disability access, and provisional voting. I spoke in support of a research-driven approach to election reform, one that rests on empirical evidence and rigorous analysis, as opposed to the seat-of-the-pants approach that has characterized the debate over both voter ID and electronic voting -- and is exemplified by the widely criticized Carter-Baker Commisison report. More on this to come soon ...

- Representatives Tom Davis (R-VA) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) spoke at lunch in support of equal voting rights for citizens of Washington, D.C., who presently have no voting representation in the House. (Ms. Holmes is a nonvoting delegate.) Representative Davis is advancing a bill that would create a congressional seat in D.C. (which would almost certainly elect a Democrat) in exchange for the mid-district creation of another seat in Utah (which would almost certainly elect a Republican) based on that state's significant population growth since the post-2000 decennial redistricting.

- The afternoon featured an intriguing panel on election reform. That panel included Tova Wang of The Century Foundation, which released a report on election reform entitled Balancing Access and Integrity in the summer. That report focused on changes that states should make to improve the administration of elections, working within HAVA's mandates. The panel also included Bob Pastor, the Executive Director of the Carter-Baker Commission. Much of the discussion focused on voter identification requirements, including the Carter-Baker Commission's controversial recommendation that all voters be required to show a state-issued "REAL ID" card in order to have their votes counted. Ms. Wang discussed the evidence that this requirement would disproportionately disadvantage minority, poor, elderly, and disabled voters -- and the lack of evidence that it's needed to combat fraud.

- Professor Spencer Overton of George Washington University's Law School delivered the closing address. As noted yesterday, Professor Overton was a dissenting member of the Carter-Baker Commission -- but, in contrast to the Commission, has backed up his position with evidence. He also focused on the harmful effects of voter identification laws on people of color.

If yesterday's conference was any guide, there appears to be little enthusiasm for moving forward with changes to federal election law in the near future. While the Democrats have put forward several bills, none of them are likely to go anywhere. There's been some talk of passing a stricter photo identification requirement, but voting rights groups are resolutely opposed to any such requriement. If anything, the overwhelmingly negative response to the Carter-Baker Commission's report appears to have set back the movement to require that all voters show photo identification -- though perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part. In any event, it seems likely that when it comes to election reform, the most significant changes between now and 2008 are likely to take place at the state level.

Thanks to UDC and its law review for a thought-provoking conference.

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