WASHINGTON (CNN) – Armed with anecdotal evidence from thousands of calls placed to voter hotlines last year, a group of voting rights advocates will lobby Congress Thursday for changes to the federal laws relating to the nation's election administration systems.
"So much of the process right now is set up with barriers for the voter that is more focused on going through so many hoops to actually exercise the franchise," John Bonifaz, the Legal Director of Voter Action told CNN.
A national coalition of voting rights groups including Voter Action, the NAACP National Voter Fund and the Advancement Project, will present a report Thursday to Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the House Administration Committee, that makes the case for a number of electoral reforms. The hearing is titled: "Engaging the Electorate-Strategies for Expanding Access to Democracy."
The report is based on a review of roughly 17,000 calls placed by voters in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia to two voter hotlines – one marketed by the NAACP National Voter Fund primarily to African-American audiences and another marketed primarily by CNN and its affiliated networks.
"The focus should be – as we try to highlight in this report – how do we enable the voter to exercise the franchise in an unencumbered way?" Bonifaz said.
Advocates will push Congress to make three fundamental changes to how elections are conducted.
First, the report suggests that the Help America Vote Act of 2002 should be amended to do away with the provisional ballots states are currently required to provide to voters whose names are not on registration rolls but who contend that they are validly registered to vote. Once a provisional ballot is cast, the voter and local election officials can resolve any questions about eligibility and then the ballot is counted.
In practice, say advocates, provisional ballots have been treated differently from regular ballots. They believe that voters in that situation should be allowed to vote on regular ballots if they also complete an affidavit about their eligibility to vote. The use of the affidavit – already in use in Michigan and Vermont – is meant to ensure that all voters get the same ballot and to provide greater assurance that all ballots will be counted.
Second, advocates want Congress to require states to have backup paper ballots on hand in polling places using electronic voting systems.
Bonifaz called the belief that electronic systems were better an "outdated" view that gained currency in the wake of the close election between former Vice President Al Gore and former President George W. Bush. Now, some states are moving back to paper-based ballot systems after using electronic systems.
Finally, advocates want Congress to establish a national standard for acceptable identification at polling places that prohibits states from imposing their own additional requirements.
"At a minimum," an advance copy of the report says, "Congress should clarify that . . . a current and valid photo identification and/or current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government that shows the name and address of the voter."
On the eve of the congressional hearing examining the nation's voting systems, Bonifaz warned against complacency in the effort to continue to improve the country's election system.
"In particular, we're dealing with an election where because there was such a decisive outcome at the presidential level [in 2008] ," said Bonifaz, "people somehow thought that we've now moved away from these problems. Part of what we're trying to do with here with this report is demonstrate that is entirely not the case."
As evidence of potential "hot spots" where voting rights problems could arise in the next federal election, Bonifaz pointed to the six states where the calls were drawn from in drafting the report.
He also pointed to the razor-thin 2008 Minnesota Senate race that was only recently resolved eight months after Election Day following a recount and a decision by that state's highest court as an example as a close race where a recount was possible because Minnesota uses voter-marked paper ballots as advocated in the report to be released Thursday.
Updated: 9:33 a.m.