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Making Sense Of The Patchwork System Known As Voter Registration


In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson went to Congress to propose the Voting Rights Act, he outlined some of the bill's provisions.


LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.

INSKEEP: But even now when it comes to voter registration laws, there's a good deal of confusion and, in some cases, controversy. Here's Noel King with commentator Cokie Roberts, who answers your questions about how politics and the government work.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Ahead of this year's election, some states have already closed voter registration, while other states allow people to register at their polling places on Election Day. What is the deal with this patchwork system?

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: What is the deal? (Laughter).

KING: What is the deal? All right. Here's our first listener question.

KORI RENEE HART: This is Kori Renee Hart (ph) from San Francisco, Calif. I'd like to ask Cokie whether voter registration laws were controversial before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. How have the laws changed since the Supreme Court granted black citizens the right to vote? Have white citizens ever faced barriers to voter registration?

ROBERTS: The basic answer is yes, voter registration laws were controversial. At first, people staffing the polls were just expected to know everybody in their neighborhood. But then in 1800, Massachusetts instituted the first voter registration. And as the century moved on, it became more widespread, partly in a move to make sure that noncitizen immigrants didn't vote. By the late 19th, early 20th centuries, rural-dominated state legislatures imposed registration on city voters. Again, it was aimed at immigrants and at fraud by big city political machines.

KING: What about the rest of her question there? What about the effects on black citizens versus white citizens?

ROBERTS: Well, of course, black men were given the right to vote in the 15th Amendment in 1870. But the Jim Crow laws in the South effectively stripped African-Americans of their voting rights. In terms of whites, of course, white women and black women couldn't vote nationally until the 19th Amendment in 1920. But, you know, before the '65 bill, a lot of whites in the South couldn't vote either just because the registrars had frozen the rolls. They didn't want anybody new voting.

KING: All right. We have a couple of questions about current controversies.

RACHEL GERSHMAN: My name is Rachel Gershman (ph) from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Why is a candidate for governor allowed to purge voter rolls? Shouldn't he recuse himself as secretary of state while he's a candidate?

ROBERTS: Well, I assume this is in reference to the Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who is the current secretary of state and isn't thinking about recusing himself. He's provoked a lawsuit by putting more than 50,000 new voter applications on hold for minor inconsistencies. The lawsuit charges discrimination, saying 80 percent of those applicants are members of racial minority groups. Though they can't vote early or by mail, they can still vote if they show up at the right polling place with the proper ID.

KING: OK. That idea of proper ID - that gets right to our next question.

AMY PIGNATORE: Hi. My name is Amy Pignatore (ph), and I live in Omaha, Neb. When I heard about the Supreme Court ruling that IDs for voting would need to have a street address, it didn't faze me. Then I heard that a lot of Native Americans on reservations only have a post office address. How is that going to affect their ability to vote?

ROBERTS: Well, they are complaining about it. This has to do with the recent Supreme Court decision upholding a North Dakota voter ID law, which does require a current residential street address. Native American groups say that often on reservations, they don't have those - and pointing out the irony that the nation's original residents are being questioned about their residency.

KING: Very dark irony. Thanks so much, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.


INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts with Noel King. You can ask Cokie your questions about politics and the government by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org or by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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