Georgia voter registration rules called too difficult

Georgia voter registration rules called too difficult

August 7th, 2010 by Andy Johns in Politics Regional

Staff File Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Dan Brown votes at Rossville Civic Center.

Some political science professors in Georgia say the state has a "Neanderthal" approach to voter registration and streamlining the process could increase voter participation.

"Nobody makes it more difficult to register to vote than we do," said Ken Ellinger, a professor of political science at Dalton State College. "We say we want (voters) to participate, but I'm not sure we really do because, if we did, we'd make it easier."

Georgia's laws require new voters to register 30 days before elections, but Ellinger and others point to other states that allow voters to register to vote on the day of the election.

Thirty days is the maximum window allowed by the U.S. Constitution, Ellinger explained, meaning there are no states with a longer gap between registration and election day.

"There are other factors, but registration definitely has an effect (on turnout) because it makes you think of the elections before most people are starting to think about it," said Carl Cavalli, a political science professor at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega.

The professors list Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota as leaders in a push to make voter registration easier. Minnesota allows election day registration and other states allow voters to cast ballots at any state precinct rather than assigning one precinct to each person.

Ellinger called Georgia's system "horse and buggy, thinking of the worst kind."

"In today's technology, there's simply no reason for it," he explained.

But Tom Hunter, a professor of political science at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, said he's not holding his breath waiting for change.

"I think same-day voting registration could work, but I don't foresee any changes in Georgia or any other states," he said.

Ellinger and Cavalli said an influx of new voters could add a level of unpredictability that neither Republicans nor Democrats want.

"Despite what anybody says, both parties want to preserve themselves while they're in power," Cavalli said.

Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for the Georgia Secretary of State's Office, said the percentage of voting-age residents who cast ballots in 2008 is only 0.2 percent below the national average. Citing statistics from a national study by George Mason University, he said 61.5 percent of Georgians over 18 cast a ballot.

Carrothers said Georgia has the "greatest level of ballot access in the nation," mentioning Georgia's early voting period and absentee ballots. He said the 30-day window "provides the necessary time for Georgia's county registrars to process voter registration applications."

He said the time period is also needed to verify that applicants meet all the eligibility requirements.

Georgians may vote by mail via an absentee ballot, they may cast their ballot in-person during the 45-day early voting period at one of their county's early voting centers or they may go to their polling place on election day, he said.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who coordinated a voter participation drive in Whitfield County earlier this year, said changing registration rules wouldn't solve the problem.

"Our problem is not that we don't have enough registered voters; it's that registered voters don't vote," said the mayor, who described voter participation rates as "horrendous" in Northwest Georgia.

About 17 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Northwest Georgia in the July 20 primary, he said.

"Northwest Georgia has always been shorted and it's because we don't vote enough," Pennington added.

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