Democracy Decoded: Season 3, Episode 2 Transcript
Julie Hilberg: I married my husband in 1999. He was serving in the US Navy and I knew that I would be here forever.
Simone Leeper: This is Julie Hilberg. She's originally from England and now lives in Poteet, Texas in a small rural community outside of San Antonio.
Hilberg: It wasn't a question of if I became a US citizen, it was more a question of when.
Leeper: Prior to their move to Texas in 2011, Julie and her husband moved around too frequently to be eligible for citizenship.
Hilberg: And even though I was very involved within the military community, it felt very odd that I wasn't a US citizen, but I would just get really emotional when we did the US flag and The Star-Spangled Banner. For many years I couldn't vote and it was just very strange that I was living in this almost like a twilight world.
Leeper: That all finally changed when Julie became a naturalized US citizen in 2015 and she jumped into her new role right away in the 2016 primary election.
Hilberg: I voted for the very first time in 2016. To be able to actually speak and vote and participate in the political process just meant the world to me.
Leeper: But then in 2019, Julie's civic participation was questioned. Here's a clip from Dallas news outlet, WFAA.
WFAA : A groundbreaking release from the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. His office found nearly 95,000 people registered to vote, but not US citizens.
Hilberg: Then I was suddenly on a list of people to be investigated for voting illegally. I knew that I had voted as a US citizen and to suddenly have this big finger being pointed at me was absolutely terrifying. I didn't know if somebody was going to come and knock my gate down and drag me off to jail that day on what was going to happen, and that terrified me.
Leeper: I'm Simone Leeper and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. In this episode, we speak with experts and voting advocates about why voter registration is the number one barrier that prevents eligible voters from participating in our democracy. As a US citizen, Julie did not do anything illegal by voting. In fact, almost all of the nearly 100,000 individuals targeted by the Texas Attorney General's office were US citizens. They were just recent citizens. They had gotten their driver's license from the DMV while they were legal residents in the US. And when they became American citizens later, registered to vote without updating that license.
Hilberg: I was so terrified. I felt that there were things going on that were outside my control. I was horrified that there was even the thought that I had broken the law, which I hadn't.
Leeper: Many states rely on outdated data to determine who is eligible to vote. When Texas challenged Julie and other voters' registration in 2019, the state looked at driver's license applications that were submitted as far back as the year 2000, 19 years earlier. Even though Julie and most of the other individuals who were identified as potential non-citizens had become naturalized citizens since obtaining their driver's licenses, the data was too outdated to reflect that. Voter registration laws differ from state to state. And as Julie experienced, this variation allowed Texas to craft rules that could prevent eligible American citizens from voting. So what are states doing to make voter registration easier or more difficult? And how can we modernize this process to ensure every eligible voter can register?
Danielle Lang: So when we think about a voter registration list, it's a living thing, right? New people register to vote every day, hopefully. People turn 18 and people naturalize and become new citizens.
Leeper: Danielle Lang is Senior Director of voting rights at Campaign Legal Center. Voter registration lists track who can vote in a particular state, who has moved to a different state and who has lost their right to vote. Like if a person gets convicted of a felony, which leads to disenfranchisement in some states. States have a responsibility to keep their voter registration lists updated. But even in the 21st century, the different systems and technical disparities between states leave a lot of room for error.
Lang: And so there's nothing necessarily nefarious about what we might call voter registration list maintenance, trying to keep up to date with voters and where they are. But unfortunately, the devil is in the details and states can become incredibly overzealous and engage in these purging practices where they remove masses of voters based on unreliable evidence.
Leeper: This can have a devastating impact on voters' rights and their ability to vote.
Lang: So the flimsiest of evidence that somebody has moved away and they're removing you from the rolls. And in 2019, we saw Texas engage in a particularly flawed attempt to purge their voter rolls.
Leeper: These techniques of aggressive purging are used to prevent voters from casting their ballots and to shape the electorate in a way that is advantageous for politicians.
Lang: One of their most common complaints on election day are problems with registration because folks are finding themselves removed.
Leeper: In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, that states are permitted to keep their voter roll up to date by implementing a practice widely known as use it or lose it. Here's what that practice looks like. The state notifies voters who have not voted in two years that they need to confirm their registration via a notice in the mail. If a voter doesn't send back the notice and chooses not to participate in elections for the next four years, they can be removed from the voter registration list.
Lang: This kind of use it or lose it policy makes very little sense. We don't have any evidence that these folks are ineligible, they've just opted out, and that's folks' prerogative to choose to participate in some elections and choose not to participate in others.
Leeper: Voting and elections is a basic American right and no one should be denied the freedom to vote simply because they chose not to engage in a few elections. Yet, according to the Voting Rights Lab, at least 11 states have introduced legislation since 2021 that could remove voters from the rolls for no reason other than not participating in consecutive elections. This use it or lose it approach and other similar techniques like Texas's faulty purges based on outdated information have resulted in the removal of hundreds of thousands of voters from voter roles in states all over the country.
Lang: And so what Texas did was take its voter registration roles and compare it against its driver's license database, and anyone who at the time that they got their driver's license was not a citizen, they flagged those individuals and plan to remove them all. There are tens of thousands of people naturalizing in a state like Texas every year. Of course, there are going to be many people who got their driver's license when they were on a green card and have since become citizens and registered to vote. And we were contacted by Julie Hilberg who was exactly such a person.
ABC12 News: The state of Texas being sued today by a longtime Latino civil rights organization, which alleges the state is discouraging Latinos to vote.
Leeper: That's a clip from ABC12 News in San Antonio. Campaign Legal Center joined a lawsuit challenging Texas's voter purge program representing Julie and the League of United Latin American Citizens, also known as LULAC. The lawsuit alleged that the use of these databases to purge voters from the rolls was a voter suppression tactic designed to unlawfully prevent Latino voters and other recently naturalized citizens like Julie from casting ballots.
Lang: And pretty quickly a district court entered a preliminary injunction, a kind of initial ruling to say, "You have to stop what you're doing because it's not lawful and it's going to harm all these people." And shortly thereafter, the state of Texas settled and agreed to no longer engage in that process because they knew that the old stale DMV data wasn't any evidence that these were ineligible voters.
Leeper: To truly understand why politicians would want to deter voters from exercising their right to vote, you have to dive into America's history of voting rights. Since the founding of the United States, federal and state governments have established deliberate barriers to voting for Black and brown people. This includes tactics like felony disenfranchisement, which we explored in season two.
Nimrod Chapel Jr.: It was well known that the changes to voting and voter registration were going to have negative impacts on African-Americans and brown people.
Leeper: That's Nimrod Chapel Jr. The president of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP.
Chapel: As late as 1852, there was still an effort to exclude Black people per se, that you just can't be here. Missouri is still trying to get over that. One way that it does that is by enacting these ridiculous voters' rights measures.
Leeper: States across the country are continuing to implement laws that make it more challenging for members of marginalized communities to register to vote. Laws have passed that shortened the registration deadline, force voters to produce proof of citizenship or residency or exclude certain types of IDs like tribal IDs or student IDs from qualifying as voter IDs. These practices don't make our elections any safer or more secure. They simply make them less accessible. The NAACP works directly with communities to register people to vote.
Chapel: The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in the United States that has dedicated itself to equality and justice. We believe that in order for citizens, just any citizen to have a meaningful voice, they have to be able to access the ballot and for too long, African-Americans have been disenfranchised, not allowed to participate in electoral politics, excluded in so many ways. People who work every day, who have families, who have other obligations don't need an additional hurdle, and so the NAACP has long sought to reduce those barriers.
Leeper: In the 2020 election, 158 million voters showed up to the polls, nearly two thirds of eligible voters. Since this historic turnout, some state governments like Missouri began targeting the work of civic engagement groups that encouraged voters to turn out to the polls.
Chapel: There was a law that was passed by the Missouri legislature which eliminated or prevented an individual from registering more than 10 people. That law actually required that people register to become a person who registers other people and provided a criminal penalty if you fail to do so.
Leeper: In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law that severely restricts the ability of community organizations to register voters, including by imposing fines of up to $250,000 for organizations who submit applications past the state imposed deadline. Here's Danielle from CLC explaining why targeting organizations like this ultimately hurts voters.
Lang: We rely on the fuel of civic participation organizations to make sure everyone can get to the polls and cast their ballot. Unfortunately, what we've seen in recent years is some of the same states that are making it difficult to register to vote are also attacking the groups that try to help their community members participate.
Leeper: One law that Nimrod described would restrict how many people one person could register to vote in the state of Missouri. It would've also made it a felony to even suggest that a voter cast their ballot by mail.
Lang: The law was so extreme that it would ban anyone from encouraging someone to vote absentee, even just by words. Just saying, "Hey, I would really like to suggest that you apply to vote absentee," could be a crime in the state of Missouri.
Leeper: Laws like these could put an end to community-based voter registration groups, which would negatively affect all voters, but would have the harshest impacts on Black and Latino voters. CLC represents the NAACP Missouri State Conference in the League of Women Voters of Florida in fighting these laws and protecting the freedom to vote.
Chapel: It's ridiculous in a state where they keep trying to pass these restrictive voting laws and keep getting knocked down by the courts. The NAACP's efforts to try and make sure that we can register folks have kind of come full circle from in the beginning where we recognize that there are potential voters who are people who are eligible to vote, who are not voting, talking with those people wherever they are, community events, at church, just people you know. And so we've gone from that to having to fight in court, literally fight it in court for the ability of us as just concerned citizens, as people, to register other people to vote.
Leeper: Here's Danielle again.
Lang: One of the things that's most frustrating about laws like the one in Missouri are that we should be celebrating the organizations that help sign up voters and encourage them to vote in a safe and convenient way so that everyone can make their voice heard. We shouldn't punish them. Our laws should protect and expand the freedom to vote, not punish the do-gooders who help Missourians and other Americans access the right to vote.
Leeper: Why are there so many obstacles when registering to vote in the first place? And as voter advocacy groups who register millions of voters each election cycle face more and more obstacles to doing their work, how can we ensure the voter registration system remains reliable, accurate, and fair for all voters?
Lang: So in some states, your registration options are an abundance of riches. You can go online, you can send in a mail form, you can register on the day of if that's when you remember to get registered, and the process is easy and accessible. Unfortunately, in other states, it's quite the opposite.
Leeper: Many countries around the world automatically register eligible voters, and in some countries, self registering is required by law. But in the US it's largely up to the individual voter to ensure they're registered to vote. Because the rules around voter registration vary from state to state, it's easy for eligible voters to become disillusioned with the process altogether. Online registration is offered in 42 states, Washington, DC and Guam. In states like New Hampshire and Arizona, voters have to have proof of identity and citizenship when registering to vote, which is more than what is federally required.
Lang: We think of registering to vote to be something you should be able to do at a voter registration drive outside a supermarket. With these types of documentation requirements that simply won't be possible in a place like Arizona.
Leeper: In 2022, Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Secretary of State because of new documentation requirements that make registering to vote there more difficult.
Lang: Those documentation requirements are going to impose impossible barriers. So for example, the native communities in Arizona largely live on tribal land that doesn't have traditional street addresses. So providing documentation with a street address is going to be impossible for many of those voters, and that kind of documentation requirement seems designed to lock them out entirely.
Leeper: The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 is a transformational law that among other things aims to simplify the voter registration process and make it easier for voters to maintain their registration. The National Voter Registration Act requires that eligible voters can register with just one form. The law also ensures that states can't have a deadline to register to vote that is more than 30 days before election day, but that window could be even shorter.
Lang: That law was passed in 1993 at a time when it might've made more sense that election officials needed a longer kind of what we call books closed period to get the voter registration list together. In 2023, we know that states can do that on the same day and many states do. At minimum, we can move those deadlines closer to an election because as we all know, all of us have a procrastinating spirit and many average Americans just aren't thinking about elections until they're pretty close upon us.
Leeper: We undoubtedly have the technology to make the process of registering to vote faster, more secure and accessible. So how can we modernize voter registration? One place to start is having a good system to maintain the voter rolls. Julie Hilberg and almost a hundred thousand other voters were kicked off the voting rolls in Texas due to outdated data in their list maintenance systems.
Lang: So good list maintenance really depends on the data that states are using to determine when to remove someone from their rolls.
Leeper: 21 states in the District of Columbia currently offer automatic voter registration, but if we implemented it nationwide, Danielle says, we could easily simplify list maintenance efforts. This could happen at the DMV or other state agencies that serve large segments of the population.
Lang: When you go to get a driver's license, for example, you will be automatically registered to vote, and that system of automatic voter registration is responsible for millions and millions of Americans getting registered to vote every year.
Leeper: One of the most widely accepted and trusted tools that election officials can use is something called ERIC, which stands for the Electronic Registration Information Center. ERIC was designed by and for state election officials as a tool to securely share voter registration data across state lines, so that voter registration roles can stay up to date and accurate. Since its inception, ERIC has been widely used in both Republican and Democratic led states as an efficient tool to protect against voter fraud.
Lang: And just like its name suggests, it is kind of a pooling together of the resources of states to share electronic data, to keep list maintenance as up to date as possible. It gave states so much more clarity into who needs to be moved on and off of the rolls than they had before.
Leeper: At the start of 2023, ERIC had 30 states plus DC enlisted in its membership, but despite the program's success, recent disinformation campaigns have prompted eight states to pull out of the multi-state partnership.
Lang: But it's important to note that a lot of states, both red and blue alike, a lot of election officials, red and blue alike are standing by ERIC because it is this crucial tool. Someone like Brad Raffensperger, who's the Secretary of State of Georgia, has come out in strong support. And ERIC is run by the states themselves. It's not run by officials in Washington, but rather the board is made up of the election officials of the states, and they're going to continue doing the good work that they're doing.
Leeper: The truth is, we can and we are modernizing our voter registration process to meet the needs of the 21st century. Three of these reforms, online voter registration, automatic voter registration, and same day voter registration have been proven to increase participation, especially among younger low income voters and people of color. Many states are implementing these common sense solutions to dramatically expand and maintain accurate voter rolls. Here's Nimrod again of the Missouri NAACP.
Chapel: We want to eliminate restrictions that keep people away from the polls because we can see that the direction that Missouri is headed is not in some way positive. If you look at the health measures, if you look at educational quality, employment, the ability of people just to get along has been diminished. I think that the will of the people's got to be heard, and that only happens at the ballot box.
Leeper: And registering to vote is the first required step to get to the ballot box. And when so many issues are decided at the state and local level, it's more important than ever to make voter registration accessible to all. In the next episode, we'll cover the following step in the process. The election itself. We'll take you behind the scenes for a closer look at what's involved in running an election at the local level, from start to finish.
Special thanks to Julie Hilberg, Danielle Lang and Nimrod Chapel Jr. for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes, along with a full transcript of the show.
Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government, and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at campaignlegalcenter.org.
Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper, legal counsel for redistricting at CLC. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, multimedia manager and Mannal Haddad, Senior Communications Manager for Voting Rights and redistricting. This podcast episode was produced by Michelle Baker, edited by Paulina Velasco and mixed by Tren Lightburn. Democracy Decoded is a member of the Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at democracygroup.org.