And When Automatic Voter Registration Goes Wrong?

Trying to work my way through all of the legislation that received floor votes in the Rhode Island General Assembly, this year, I just got around to a careful read of the legislation creating automatic voter registration — H5702 and S0770.  The first thing to note is that it goes well beyond automatic registration at the time of one’s application for a driver’s license:

… other applicable state government agencies that the secretary verifies already collect documents that would provide proof of eligibility, including age, citizenship and residence address, may follow the procedures for automatic voter registration enumerated for the division of motor vehicles…

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Notable, here, is the lack of precision in the language.  Obviously, if the Secretary of State, or any other official in the state, observes points at which Rhode Islanders might reasonably be permitted to register to vote, she could bring it to the General Assembly to add new language.  But this language enables this explosion of registration opportunities without any significant public debate at all going forward.  Note, in particular, that the language doesn’t require that the person is registering for something.  An agency that “collects” this information for any reason would be authorized to automatically register people to vote.

Think of UHIP.  As the state collects information to make people eligible for every social welfare program available, the system could automatically register them to vote.  Assuming government agencies and related advocates do not remain silent about legislation, the message begins to sound a lot like, “Here’s your free stuff, and here’s how you can vote for more of it.”

If that section of the new law is conspicuously broad, this one is conspicuously confusing:

If a person who is ineligible to vote becomes registered to vote pursuant to this section, that person’s registration shall be presumed to be deemed officially authorized and not be deemed attributable to or the fault of that person.

What in the world does “presumed to be deemed” mean?  Perhaps executives and judges will apply this language as we would all assume it is intended.  That is, a person may be “presumed to be deemed officially authorized” to vote, but that doesn’t mean he or she can actually vote and should therefore have his or her registration removed.  But if one has even slight skepticism about the rule of law in Rhode Island, somebody who is “incorrectly” registered to vote might slip through the legal cracks.

Here, for example, is the statutory language under Section 17-9.1-1, “Registration required to vote”:

No person shall be a qualified voter at any election unless that person is registered under the authority of this chapter or pursuant to any other provisions of this title.

True, to be a “qualified voter” imposes requirements beyond simply being registered, and true, the section of the law on “eligibility to vote” does affirm that “every citizen” meeting age, residence, and registration requirements will be “entitled to vote,” but these portions of the law leave ambiguity about whether one has to be “qualified” or “eligible” in order to vote, as long as one is “registered.”

Only in the statute defining “fraudulent voting” did I find language requiring somebody to be a “qualified voter” in order to vote:

Every person who, in any election, fraudulently votes or attempts to vote, not being qualified, notwithstanding that person’s name may be on the voting list at the polling place where the person votes or attempts to vote… shall be guilty of a felony

In the absence of sentencing mandates, a person who is automatically registered to vote “incorrectly” and who votes might face no real penalty beyond the loss of ability to vote in the future.  Even if this isn’t the case, all of these statutes will bear very, very close scrutiny when it comes to future legislation.  All it would take is for a tweak to the language about “not being qualified” or the definition of “qualified voter” to eliminate citizenship requirements.

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