Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Rhetoric of the Registration Form

Secretary of State Matt Schultz is rolling out new voter registration forms today, and cynical political observers will see an agenda behind the new layout.

I am, of course, a cynical political observer, but I’m also an auditor’s office staffer, so this form is one of the tools of my trade.  The revision is the first since January 2008, when the Greens and Libertarians were added.  That was a big win for the third parties, but a relatively minor edit.  This revision is a top to bottom rewrite.

Here’s a couple links to compare the old and new versions.

I’ve registered tens of thousands of voters over the last 20 years and I can tell you: people completing a form instinctively want to fill in their name first.  But the new form actually moves name lower, a third of the way into the form.

Instead, in what looks like the idea here, two checkbox questions are bumped up from the bottom to the top, and a third is added.  As of today, the first thing you’re asked when you register to vote in Iowa is if you are a US citizen.  The third box is the newly emphasized question: “If you have previously been convicted of a felony have your rights been restored?”

This new focus addresses twin bugaboos of Schultz and the right, as they make massive attempts to “prove” that voter fraud is rampant in Iowa in their push for photo ID.

The way Schultz sees it, the first thing about the job isn’t helping people vote – it’s stopping people from voting.
As a professional bureaucrat, I guess it makes sense to move boxes labelled “If you answered No to any of the questions, do not complete this form” from the bottom to the top.  But it’s not the warmest welcome to the democratic process.

(Tangent: The second checkbox question is just dumb: “Will you be 18 years of age on or before Election Day?”  Which Election Day?  My county has six this year.  And your birthdate allows us to determine your age by a complex mathematical formula called “subtraction.”  Unfortunately, this wording is required by federal law.)

After you’ve checked these boxes you’re asked for an ID number and your birthdate.  This was the point that led the ACLU to challenge an earlier draft of the form; this version is marginally more clear about which ID number to provide.  These items were at the very top of the January 2008 form.

The old form had spaces for both a phone number and email.  The new form has just one space for “either” and also more strongly emphasizes that these items are optional, which will likely discourage people from providing them.

That’s been an increasing trend. In my county 43% of voters have left the phone number field blank, up from 28% a decade ago.  Many of the remaining numbers are likely bad.  Voters don’t re-register just because they dropped their land line and went cell-only.  They re-register to change address or, occasionally, party (usually when it’s required at a primary or caucus, and only rarely as a Political Statement).

Even if you leave this space blank, you won’t keep campaigns from interrupting your dinner.  In the era of Big Data, both parties have nationalized their files, and they’ll find your contact information someplace else.  But you will make it harder for your auditor’s office to contact you if you make a “your vote won't count” kind of mistake, like forgetting to sign an absentee affidavit.

The address section is the lone improvement I see.  The new form makes it more clear that “alternate address” is meant for post office boxes.  And attention students: unless you want your voter card and ballot sent to Mom and Dad back home in Aurora, don’t put down their address.

The new form changes the layout of party affiliation from rows to columns, and lists No Party (Iowa's legal term for "independent") in front of, rather than below, the major parties.  I’m curious to see if the layout change impacts registration trends, though there are so many other variables that it would be next to impossible to isolate this one factor.

At the bottom of the form you’re asked to sign, swearing to an oath that includes all the same questions about citizenship, age and felony status that are so emphasized at the very top.

The new emphasis on felonies and rights restoration could have a chilling effect for some voters.  Under the last four secretaries of state, of both parties, the de facto penalty for the simple mistake of trying to register without knowing your rights weren’t restored was a simple Sorry But No.

But in the Schultz Administration, fear of prosecution for an honest mistake is real.  I’ve seen it.  During the presidential election I helped a man who had completed all terms of his sentence but wasn’t sure his rights had been restored.  He’d paid his debt to society and wanted to vote.  But faced with the risk of additional prosecution, he didn’t want to take the chance.

And yes, he was black.  Just saying.

Maybe I’m making a big deal out of a little thing.  It’s just a form, nothing like the serious Southern vote suppression efforts in the few weeks since the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act ruling.

But we’re just one state senator away from similar efforts in our state.  And the layout changes are a tangible reflection of Schultz’s attitude.  The way he sees it, the first thing about the job isn’t helping people vote – it’s stopping people from voting.

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