[Image courtesy of bbb]

Yesterday in Richmond, there was a standing-room-only crowd at a meeting of the Virginia State Board of Elections. The topic wasn’t new voting machines or rules for reinstating disenfranchised felons, two hot topics in Virginia recently. It was something far simpler – a check box; specifically, a series of boxes on the voter registration form affirming that the applicant meets various eligibility criteria including citizenship. The Richmond Times Dispatch has more:

The State Board of Elections is weighing changes to Virginia’s voter registration form that would not automatically disqualify a prospective voter who fails to check boxes on questions asking whether they are a U.S. citizen, mentally ill or a felon.

Prospective voters would still be required to sign an affirmation at the bottom of the voting form that they are eligible to cast a ballot. But failing to answer the citizenship, felon and mental health questions — which the form specifies must be answered — would no longer be considered what officials call a “material omission” that would automatically cause a registrar to reject an application.

The registration changes are part of a series of content and design modifications proposed to the form by the Department of Elections, the bureaucratic and administrative arm of the State Board of Elections, which held a hearing on the proposed changes Tuesday in Chesterfield County. The deadline for public comment on the changes is Aug. 3.

Quite simply, the fight is about whether leaving the check boxes on the form – and rejecting signed applications without checked boxes – is preferable to removing the boxes and allowing applicants to affirm their eligibility via their signature. That fight (like most fights in the election policy space) has emotions running high:

Supporters of the changes say they are designed to streamline and simplify the registration process, with a view toward reducing the number of applications filed by otherwise eligible voters that are rejected because of incomplete forms.

But judging by the response from some registrars, conservative politicians and the dozens of local residents who filled a hotel ballroom, the changes have become the latest front in the ongoing political battle over the state’s voting laws and whether regulations discourage election participation or encourage potential fraud.

“I think what we have here is a solution in search of a problem,” said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., R-Buckingham, a member of the Virginia Senate Privileges and Elections Committee who opposes the changes. “I don’t think, nor have I heard, that we have an epidemic of individuals who are befuddled by the prospect of checking a block yes or no as to whether they are a felon not restored, mentally incompetent or a citizen.

“The question then becomes, Do these steps help ensure the sanctity of the vote? Do these changes make it more or less likely that there might be illegal and fraudulent voting?” he asked, before issuing a warning to the board: “You are inviting legislative action.”

Just as significant, election officials who would be responsible for implementing the change are concerned:

Most registrars or election officials who spoke at the meeting expressed concern that the changes would create conflicts with existing law and make it harder for them to verify eligibility.

“I think to have a check box with an asterisk next to it that says it’s mandatory, then to have a regulation that says it’s not mandatory, doesn’t make sense,” said Steve Hunt of the Fairfax County Electoral Board. “It give a false message — if you don’t have to fill it out, why is it there?”

Chesterfield registrar Lawrence C. Haake III said the changes cause conflicts.

“When you look at the law regarding whether they are a citizen, as registrar of voters we need to know that — we need an affirmative statement from the voter,” he said.

Haake added that the registrar of voters has a duty to determine the circumstances under which rights are restored. “Take away that question and you block me from doing my duty,” he said, generating applause from the audience of about 250 people.

Simply signing the form doesn’t work, said Haake, who said he has had “inches-thick stacks” of applications from prospective voters who signed forms after checking boxes that said they were felons, or not citizens. “The signature at the oath doesn’t work,” he said. “The reality is people don’t read it.” [NOTE: Falls Church’s Dave Bjerke – a friend of the blog – asked the Board at the meeting about the results of a workgroup looking at the issue. He – and we – are still waiting for an answer.]

Part of the heat comes from the Commonwealth’s recent legislative moves toward stronger anti-fraud laws, including photo ID, which has led some advocates (apparent with the support of the Governor) to look for ways to ensure that otherwise eligible voters aren’t shut out of the process:

The stakes are high in the coming election cycles, in which Virginians will elect the members of the General Assembly this November, vote for president in 2016, and elect a governor, attorney general and lieutenant governor in 2017.

Democrats are seeking to drive turnout and increase participation, given their success among minorities and young voters, who fueled victories in the past two presidential elections and the 2013 races for statewide office. Republicans are concerned a regulatory loosening of the voter registration requirements would flood the polls with new voters who are not eligible to cast votes but would do so for their opponents.

“We all want our elections to be free, fair, and accessible,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of the liberal advocacy group ProgressVA.

“The real threat to the integrity of our elections is politicians who throw up more barriers to voting. It’s disgusting any politician would throw around wild and unfounded accusations to hide their true motivation: opposition to any proposal to make it easier for every eligible Virginia voter to cast a ballot.”

Brian Coy, spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said the suggestions to modify the form were made by the Department of Elections staff — as opposed to the Board of Elections, which is appointed by the governor. Still, he signaled the support of the administration in the effort, noting that signing a false registration document “is and will always be a crime.

“There is no harm in having a public discussion about ways to simplify the process for those who are lawfully eligible,” Coy said.

There are ongoing efforts to find a middle ground, but it’s challenging given the emotions – and the complexity – involved :

City of Richmond registrar J. Kirk Showalter suggested that a number of changes could be made to the form to make it easier to understand and complete, but she acknowledged afterward that voters generally don’t read the statement that precedes their signature on the registration. She said there is a need to balance the ease of voter registration with “the integrity of the process.”

Given the intensity of the opposition – including many election officials and a member of the Senate committee with jurisdiction – it seems unlikely that the proposal will move forward as written. In some ways, it’s curious to see a fight over a paper form given the availability of online registration, which does have its own online checkboxes but which also “bakes in” an eligibility check as part of the cross-check with the Department of Motor Vehicles database. [Virginia is a “legal presence” state, which means that citizenship information is verified at the time of licensing – a pain for new drivers (and their parents!) but a key feature that helped ensure bipartisan support for OVR.] As more and more people register online, this problem likely recedes somewhat.

Even if the paper form remains, that excited murmuring you hear is my colleagues in the design world saying that the solution to forms that people *DON’T* read is to redesign them so that people *DO* read them. While such changes may not be simple, I’d be willing to bet they’d be easier to enact than the current proposal, which appears to be a tough sled (procedurally and politically) for the State Board.

It’s already hot in Richmond – and likely to get even hotter if this issue persists, especially with two huge elections in the next two years bearing down on the Old Dominion.

Stay tuned.