Publication Announcement: New Book Sheds Light on Election Barriers in 21st Century America

Release Date: 
June 12, 2006

New York, NY — This week marks the publication of a groundbreaking and timely new book, STEALING DEMOCRACY: The New Politics of Voter Suppression (W.W. Norton; On-Sale June 5, 2006), by Spencer Overton, George Washington Law School Professor who served on the Jimmy Carter / James Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, and is a Board Member of Demos: A Network for Ideas & Action, a national public policy group focusing on democracy reform.

In STEALING DEMOCRACY, Overton uses real-life stories and field research to illuminate how systemic problems with our election systems, and partisan efforts to influence the electorate and fix political outcomes, have eroded American democracy. Overton outlines a sophisticated matrix of overt and latent challenges to fair elections, including:

Arcane Voter Registration Procedures: Despite the ease and effectiveness of allowing voters to register in the days leading up to, and on, Election Day, in most states registration is closed weeks before an election — just as debates and news coverage are motivating people to think and take action.

Contorted Congressional District Boundaries: In 36 states, state legislators draw their own election districts and the districts for U.S. House members. Following the 2000 Census, 49 competitive congressional districts were significantly redrawn. 92% of incumbents representing these areas obtained safer districts and only 8% received more competitive districts. Furthermore, in 33 states the secretary of state, or some other elections director, has a party affiliation, impacting how districts are drawn in rarely upholding neutrality but rather, ultimately, serving partisan interests and the partisan ticket.

Election Day Administrative Problems: The long lines and other problems witnessed at the polls in 2004 were not the result of higher turnout, but rather due to the vast and long standing underinvestment in our elections. Many polling stations, particularly within low-income areas and in communities of color, had vast shortages of voting machines and ballots, poorly trained and underpaid poll workers and antiquated voting machines. Funding and investment in elections is also vastly unequal. In 2004, the Franklin County board of elections in Columbus, Ohio, determined they needed 5,000 machines, but rather than purchase them, the board decided to move machines from urban to suburban areas and use only 2,866 machines in all. On Election Day, Columbus resident Tanya Thivener waited four hours in line to vote while her mother waited just 15 minutes to vote in a Columbus suburb.

Alarming Rollback in Voting Rights — Excessive Photo ID Requirements: While increasingly stringent photo identification requirements move their way from state to state, and have penetrated Congressional debate, research demonstrates that they will disenfranchise many citizens — especially those who have lower income, disabled, elderly, people of color and first-time voters. The 2001 Carter-Ford Commission estimated that six to 10 percent of voting-age Americans-up to 19 million potential voters-do not possess a driver's license or other state-issued photo ID, and that more than 3 million people with disabilities do not have identification issued by the government. A June 2005 study in Wisconsin found that the rate of driver's license possession among African Americans was roughly half that of whites.

Not Living Up To The Promise Of Time Served-Blocking Restoration of Voting Rights: Today, nearly 5 million Americans cannot vote due to a patchwork of state policies that regulate whether a prisoner, a person on probation or parole, or a former prisoner can exercise their right to vote even after they have completed their sentence. Nationwide, over 13 percent of black adult males are denied the right to vote, and black men make up 36 percent of the total disfranchised population. U.S. citizens account for only 4.6 percent of the world's population, but make up almost half of the people on the planet who cannot vote due to a criminal offense. Among modern democracies, the U.S. is the only democracy that bars former prisoners from the right to vote.

Ballot Language Barriers: The call for mandatory, English-only ballots runs counter to the spirit of American Democracy — one built by immigrants and multi-lingual peoples — and counter to the provisions of section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which require that a state or locality must provide language assistance if the area has more than 10,000, or 5 percent, of voting-age citizens who do not have English as a primary first language. This provision will expire in 2007 unless it is renewed by Congress.

With the 2006 midterm elections months away, STEALING DEMOCRACY comes at crucial time in American politics. Overton proposes clear steps to mend the patchwork system of policies and administrative practices that ultimately bars millions of Americans from full participation. He proposes:

* The federal government should provide more funding, more equitably, for elections to ensure that all counties provide an adequate voting process for citizens.
* Federal, state and local governments should serve as check on one another to protect individual voting rights.
* States should adopt independent commissions to draw election districts; independent chief election officials to administer elections; and independent citizens' commissions to propose election reforms.
* States should restore voting to former prisoners who have served their time, and the federal government should mandate, and provide funding for, election administrators to educate the public about their voting rights. State legislatures should listen to the public voice on this issue. In recent polls, 80 percent of Americans favor restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentences.
* Renew Section 5 preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) before they expire in 2007.
* Renew VRA's Section 203 language assistance provisions before they expire in 2007. States should provide bilingual ballots to citizens who need them, even when not required by federal law. A 2005 study of election officials in 31 states and 361 localities covered by the VRA's language assistance provisions revealed that 59 percent of jurisdictions reported no additional costs in providing oral language assistance, and 54.2 percent reported no additional costs for bilingual written materials.
* Reject voting barriers like photo ID requirements that are proven to be an unwarranted and costly solution to the very rare occurrence of individual voter fraud at the polls. Focus instead on real election reform, as outlined here, to ensure that every eligible voter can register to vote and cast a ballot that will be counted.
* Give us a 21st Century election system by implementing modern reforms, such as Election Day Registration, that work in concert with advanced voter roll databases and adequate administration at the polls.

As Congress debates the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, voter identification requirements and "English-only" legislation which will have lasting impact on voting rights in America, STEALING DEMOCRACY prompts an important dialogue about the health of our system of government-and offers important reforms to modernize and bring fairness to the world's oldest democracy.

Spencer Overton, a professor at George Washington University Law School, served on the Jimmy Carter / James Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform and is on the boards of Demos, Common Cause, and the Center for Responsive Politics. He is a frequent media commentator and has appeared on various shows and networks, including ABC Television, Air America, Canadian Broadcast Corporation, C-Span's Washington Journal, Independent Television News of London, National Public Radio, and Wall Street Journal Radio. Spencer's commentaries on election law have appeared on the opinion pages of several major newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times, New York Times Upfront Magazine, Roll Call, Newsday, and the Washington Post. Spencer graduated with honors from both Hampton University and Harvard Law School.

For more information about STEALING DEMOCRACY: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, visit