A Big Vote Registration Push Reaches Millions — But Divides Elections Officials

12 hours ago
Originally published on February 13, 2020 6:29 pm

A nonprofit group wants to see more unmarried women, young people and people of color on the nation's voter rolls, so it recently sent 9 million letters urging those groups to register.

But the mailers have upset some election officials, who say they've left voters confused.

The mailers clearly state that they're from the Voter Participation Center or its sister organization, the Center for Voter Information. But the letter inside looks like it could come from the government.

It says a review of publicly available records shows that the recipient may not be registered, and if that's so, recipients should complete and send in the enclosed official registration form.

A postage-paid envelope addressed to the local election office is also included.

The problem is the mailers don't just go to unregistered voters. Sometimes, by mistake, they're sent to people who've died, are too young to vote, or are already on the rolls.

"I myself received one of the letters saying that I wasn't registered to vote," says Meagan Wolfe, the State of Wisconsin's chief election official.

Wolfe knows better than most that she is, in fact, registered — and has been for years — but she's concerned that many other voters aren't so sure.

"A lot of times we'll hear from our local election officials that they're hearing from their voters that their voters are confused," she says. "They don't know where to send those forms back. They don't know who's sending them. And one of the things that really confuses people is that they don't know why they're receiving it."

The mailings have attracted so much attention because of the sheer volume — it's probably the largest such registration drive in the country — and because it comes at a time when election officials are fighting a wave of disinformation and a decline in public confidence in elections.

"We've actually seen where it's been sent to pets," says Chris Chambliss, supervisor of elections for Clay County, Florida. He complains that this is especially troubling because some voters think the letters have come from his office, not an outside group.

"All of that snowballs because you then start getting into the conversation of 'Well if this isn't accurate, I wonder if my vote's accurate?'" Chambliss says.

One of millions of mailers sent this year to prospective voters by the Voter Participation Center. Some elections officials worry it causes more problems than it helps.

Activists defend their project

Page Gardner, president of the Voter Participation Center, defends the effort and insists that errors involve only a tiny fraction of letters.

She also says her group is doing important work, registering many eligible voters who aren't registered now, especially those who tend to be underrepresented.

Gardner's group calls these voters — women, young people and people of color — part of the "rising American electorate."

"We're trying to get more and more people participating and we're trying to make sure that people know how and have the access to participating in our democracy," she says.

The campaign has been highly successful so far, registering more than four million voters since the effort began in 2003. The group hopes to register another million voters before November.

Its target audience tends to vote Democratic and, while the Voter Participation Center is nonpartisan, the group has liberal and Democratic ties.

Gardner acknowledges that one problem is there's no reliable list of unregistered voters in the country. So her group compiles its lists from multiple commercial and government sources and tries to screen out inaccuracies.

They even have a list of more than three thousand names to avoid, such as "Darth Vader" and "Rip Van Winkle," and those commonly used for pets.

"Some people, when they sign up for a magazine or sign up for something, they'll use 'Fido, Fido Smith.' We don't mail to Fido," says Gardner. "What we do is use the best data available."

Despite confusion, registration

Indeed, many election officials say that the Voter Participation Center's effort is much better than similar registration drives.

It alerts election offices in advance about their mailings and works with some states to clean up their lists. Judd Choate, Colorado's election director, calls them "best in class" because if there are problems with mailings, they try to fix them.

David Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research, says the campaign --- and the frustrations about it — are a reflection of a sad reality in elections.

Even though many states have made registering to vote a lot easier in recent years, tens of millions of people still aren't on the rolls.

"So there's always going to be a need for some third-party registration to fill in the gaps," Becker says, adding that the challenge is doing it without turning too many people off.

Even so, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap thinks the mailings do more harm than good.

"The effort itself is laudable. It's some of the mechanics I think that cause confusion," says Dunlap. "And that confusion then results in the exact opposition of what their goal is, which is to get people to participate in the process."

Dunlap wants the mailings to stop. Gardner says more are coming in April, June and September.

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Thirty-five-year-old Matt Marshall runs a nonprofit. He serves on the school board. Through his group, the Washington 3%, he's challenging perceptions of the far-right militia movement; or he was, until a domestic terrorism scandal became a test of his political ambitions. NPR's Hannah Allam has more from Washington state.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, who's got the ranchero?

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Matt Marshall sits at a cafe in McKenna, a rural area outside of Seattle. It's the eve of a rally he's been planning for months. He writes last-minute notes in a book his daughter gave him for Christmas. In black marker on the cover, she's drawn the logo of the Washington 3%, her dad's militia - except he doesn't like it when you call it that.

MATT MARSHALL: We're absolutely not paramilitary. We're a nonprofit corporation.

ALLAM: A nonprofit corporation, one that happens to be aligned with the patriot movement. That's a loose network of militias and self-described constitutionalist conservatives. They share the goal of limiting federal powers. Typically, they all get lumped together under one label - anti-government extremists.

MARSHALL: The narrative is we're an all-white man, Christian, dominion type, crazy, out there, far-right militia.

ALLAM: Marshall has been on a mission to change that image. First, he registered the Washington 3% as an independent nonprofit corporation. Next, he ran for the local school board. Instantly, headlines focused on the militia angle. Marshall was frustrated.

MARSHALL: We're stuck in the middle. So the true neo-Nazis hate us, which they should because we hate them, too. And the far left, who we don't have any problem with, hate us because they believe that we're neo-Nazis.

ALLAM: But Marshall won that seat on the school board. The victory was bigger; it was a ticket into the mainstream. Maybe Matt Marshall could separate his group from the extremist fringe. Then came the other Matt, Matt Shea.


CHRIS HAYES: Inquiry finds state lawmaker engaged in domestic terrorism - that's a pretty memorable headline.

ALLAM: A report commissioned by Washington state lawmakers tied Representative Matt Shea to three armed standoffs with the government. He's also accused of advocating, quote, "biblical warfare." Shea became a pariah to his party, and he lost his committee post. But he refuses to resign. Here he is last month speaking to supporters.


MATT SHEA: Seattle Times said that calling Matt Shea a domestic terrorist has actually made him more popular.


SHEA: I love that. And the fact is, they're trying to label us all domestic terrorists.


ALLAM: Matt Shea might not have many friends left at the Capitol, but he's got a friend in Matt Marshall, along with many other supporters linked to militias throughout the region. Marshall says the claims against Shea are sensationalized. He knows he's gambling with his political future by standing up for Shea, and he thinks it's a safe bet.

MARSHALL: They can try to marginalize us as extremists all they want, but we're much more mainstream than they realize. And this is just proof that everybody is completely out of touch with the actual voters of the state.

DAVID NEIWERT: They never miss a trick (laughter). They're always finding new venues and always finding new ways to present themselves.

ALLAM: David Neiwert is a Seattle-based writer and researcher who's spent years tracking the mainstreaming of far-right groups in the Pacific Northwest. He says he's not buying the militia makeover.

NEIWERT: They can put the mask on for a while, but eventually it has to come off, and they always reveal who they are. I think that they often tell us who they are, and we just have to listen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Woo-hoo. It's rally time.

ALLAM: It's rally day. Busloads of supporters head into downtown Seattle to hear what Matt Marshall has to say. They know police and anti-fascist protesters are already at the site. A 3% member gives a quick safety briefing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No chit-chatting. Do not engage Antifa. Don't talk to them. Don't look at them. Watch your backs, and stay as close as you can in a group.

ALLAM: As soon as the buses arrive, the protesters start to chant.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, right wing, you better run. You better hide. We're all united on the other side.

ALLAM: Marshall steps up to the mic.

MARSHALL: People want to know what the Washington 3% stands for politically. It's very simple. We aren't right; we aren't left.

ALLAM: He holds up a copy of the Constitution.

MARSHALL: This is what we use. This is the Constitution of the United States.


ALLAM: Across the street, protesters try to drown him out.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho - the 3% have got to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho - the 3% have got to go.

ALLAM: But the only place Matt Marshall plans to go is to the Capitol. A few days after the rally, he announced his next big move - he's running to be a state lawmaker.

Hannah Allam, NPR News, Seattle.