Picture Perfect: A Critical Analysis of the Debate on the 2002 Help America Vote Act

Article excerpt

"And all the while, the rising power of my vote, helping build democracy" (1)

The notion that every citizen should have the unimpeded ability to cast a vote in the federal electoral process is an axiom embedded in America's collective subconscious. (2) The Presidential Election of 2000, however, provided a stark illustration of how easy it is to disprove the principle of Americans' inherent right to vote. Discrepancies and flaws in procedural policies for the administration of the election silenced thousands of voices in the State of Florida. (3) The wide-scale disenfranchisement of numerous citizens highlighted the need for federal intervention into this long-neglected area of election law. (4)

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (5) ("HAVA"), was designed to implement sweeping national election reform to remedy some of the ills that occurred in 2000. (6) One major cause of the breakdown of the electoral process in 2000 was the lack of uniform procedural guidelines for various aspects of the voting process. (7) Congress sought to provide such standards through the creation of HAVA, which was passed on October 16, 2002, by Congress and was signed into law by President Bush on October 29 of the same year. (8)

HAVA generally received a warm reception from the public because of the urgency of the need for legislative reform. (9) There are several provisions however, that have not received universal acceptance, including Section 303, (10) which deals with the identification requirements for voter registration, meant to reduce voter fraud. (11) Part of the Anti-Fraud provision requires that prospective voters provide valid photo identification, such as a driver's license, in order to register. (12) If potential voters do not possess a valid photo ID, they can use their Social Security number for identification instead. (13) If the registrant has neither a photo ID nor a Social Security number, the anti-fraud provision provides that she will be assigned a voter registration number based on a state-authored computerized voter list. (14) Further, first-time voters who register and cast a ballot by mail must submit with the ballot valid photo identification or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, of other government document that verifies the name and address of the voter. (15)

This Anti-Fraud provision is highly contentious and was hotly debated during the months of Congressional negotiations over HAVA. (16) The fallout of the debate took place on the floor of Congress along predominantly partisan lines. (17) The House and Senate Republicans argued that the Anti-Fraud provision was necessary, including Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO), who said it was needed to "combat problems of votes being cast on behalf of dead people and dogs." (18) Democrats vociferously opposed the provision because of the obstacles to voting that it creates for lower socioeconomic groups and racial/ethnic minorities. (19) Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) responded, "While its humorous to talk about dogs who voted, it's not funny to talk about people who showed up and didn't, and were denied to do so." (20) Despite the deep ideological divide that separates Democrats and Republicans on this issue, the bill passed overwhelmingly in both the House and the Senate, (21) illustrating the Congressional consensus on urgency of the need for immediate reform of the electoral process.

After passage of the bill, the torch of opposition to the Anti-Fraud provision was passed to Civil Rights and Civic Participation Organizations. These groups propose that the implementation of the provision holds the potential to paralyze the strides made in voting rights legislation throughout the twentieth century, such as the establishment of voter equality for gender and racial minorities, (22) and deprives racial and ethnic minority groups and lower socio-economic groups (two categories which often overlap) of having their voices heard in the political process because these groups are the most likely to be without the requisite forms of ID. …