Rhode Island Latest State to Advance AVR

[Image via thenewswheel]

Rhode Island is one step closer to joining the list of states with automatic voter registration after its State House unanimously passed a bill yesterday authorizing AVR – despite concerns about the capability of some agencies to handle the data involved. The Providence Journal has more:

Legislation to automatically put anyone who applies for a Rhode Island driver’s license on the state’s voter rolls, unless they opt out, cleared the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, despite GOP efforts to block the same practice at other state agencies with troubled computer histories.

In the end, the vote was unanimous for the legislation championed by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, the governor and a long list of groups, including the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Rhode Island, Young Democrats of R.I., and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

But along the way, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, sought to strip the bill of language allowing any state agencies — other than the Division of Motor Vehicles — to automatically place applicants for unemployment, public assistance and other state benefits on the voter rolls. Her move failed on a 62-to-10 party-line vote.

While the bill creates an exception holding harmless any ineligible voter who is unknowingly registered to vote, recent reports about some state data is causing some legislators to urge caution even as the bill moves forward:

As written, the voter registration bill specifically exempts an ineligible voter who unwittingly finds himself or herself registered as a Rhode Island voter from criminal responsibility. The exception: “Anyone who knowingly and willfully provides false information pursuant to this section shall be subject to prosecution.″

Morgan cited as a warning a Journal report this winter that raised questions about the makeup of the state’s welfare population.

As of Feb. 8, 3,419 people without Social Security numbers were listed as receiving benefits by the new state computer system — UHIP — that tracks eligibility determinations and payments of publicly subsidized benefits in Rhode Island, from cash assistance to health care.

The list included “newborns, recent legal immigrants, asylees, refugees, foster or adopted children… [and] whoever else might not have a SSN at the time of application,” according to spokeswoman, Ashley G. O’Shea. She said the “whoever else″ category included “fewer than” 750 undocumented immigrants, but she was unable to pinpoint the cost or the services received by any of the people in this category.

Morgan says she has no objection to automatic voter registration through interactions with the DMV, but “this spreads the responsibility too far across state agencies… You no longer can guarantee that the people that are collecting the documents and entering them, understand the responsibilities of registering somebody to vote.”

But supporters say the benefits of AVR are worth the work – and cite other states’ experiences (and the Secretary of State’s support) as reason to move ahead:

But advocates of the bill said numerous state agencies — including the ones that issue fishing and hunting licences — register voters, and federal law has since 1993 required aggressive voter registration efforts by states.

“Six states already do this… and 26 other states have legislation pending very similar to this,″ said House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick.

Answering Morgan’s question — “Why now?” — he said: “Very simply the secretary of state has asked us… I trust her. I trust the impartiality and non-partisanship of her office… and her ability to get this done.″

The bill now moves to the Senate; it will be interesting to see how quickly this bill moves and, if enacted, how quickly it is implemented in Rhode Island. If nothing else, it’s yet another indication that AVR is growing as an option for states looking to make changes in their election systems. Stay tuned …

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