Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Marissa Jimenez, 22, registers to vote on National Voter Registration Day at the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk's office in Los Angeles, Sept. 27, 2016. Two US senators say mail-in voter registration deadlines in 9 states will disenfranchise thousands of voters.

Columbus Day could disenfranchise thousands of voters, senators warn

US Sens. Charles Schumer and Patrick Leahy say nine states haven't pushed their voter-registration deadlines back because of the federal holiday. Some states said they would, while others have stood firm against any changes. 

Two Democratic senators have a new voting rights nemesis: Columbus Day.

US Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Patrick Leahy of Vermont say the federal holiday could disenfranchise “hundreds of thousands” of Americans whose voter-registration applications wouldn’t be postmarked until after nine states’ deadlines to register by mail. In a letter addressed to the US Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) Sept. 30, the senators asked the agency to work with election officials in the nine states to extend their deadlines past the October 10 Columbus Day holiday.

The senators’ letter shows how voting rights advocates are “aggressively calling attention to any potential for disenfranchisement,” as the Associated Press’s Christina Cassidy writes, in the first presidential election since the Supreme Court watered down the Voting Rights Act in 2013. While courts have been asked to rule on controversial voter ID laws since then, the senators are also concerned about other ways Americans might not be able to vote.

“The right to vote is too precious to have something so simple to fix potentially prevent so many Americans from participating in the upcoming Election,” wrote Mr. Schumer and Mr. Leahy in the letter.

The National Voting Rights Act sets the deadline to register by mail 30 days before the election. This year, it falls on a Sunday. The next day is Columbus Day, when there will be no postal service. Any voter registration placed in the mail won’t be postmarked until after the deadline.

Most states have pushed their voter registration deadlines to Tuesday, Oct. 11, the day after the holiday.

The nine states the letter says haven’t are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington. 

Leahy and Schumer say the states’ failure to adjust to the holiday are a violation of the Voting Rights Act because the nine states are blocking applications three days earlier than other states.

These early deadlines could affect "hundreds of thousands” of potential voters, according to a statement Schumer’s office issued with the letter. In New York, at least 55,000 people were registered to vote after applying on the last possible day, according to data collected by the state Board of Elections that Schumer’s staff provided the Associated Press. In Washington state, 39,000 people were registered to vote after applying on the last possible day.

Some of the states listed in the letter said they would adjust their deadlines or have already done so. Utah told the Associated Press it had already moved its deadline forward, since state law requires all registration deadlines be pushed up if the deadline falls on a Sunday or holiday. In Washington, local election officials agreed Friday to honor an Oct. 11 postmark for applications. In Arkansas, election officials said they would accept applications postmarked Oct. 11.

Other states said they wouldn’t. In Arizona, secretary of state Michele Reagan, a Republican, had no plans to adjust the deadline, according to spokesman Matt Roberts. He said pushing back the deadline would cut into the time counties have between processing registrations and early ballots. He said Ms. Reagan planned to ask lawmakers next year to pass legislation that would call for the early voting deadline to be postponed if it fell on a Sunday or holiday.

Alaska also said it would not adjust the deadline, but that its offices would be open Oct. 8 and 9. Columbus Day is not a state holiday in Alaska, and local offices will be open, said Carol Thompson of Alaska’s Division of Elections.

Rhode Island officials said they were surprised to hear about the senators’ letter. They thought they were meeting the 30-day requirement by requiring postmarks no later than Sunday the 9th, and would not accept applications later.

This issue has arisen in the first presidential election since the Supreme Court struck out the requirement in the Voting Rights Act that Washington approve any changes to voter registration laws in nine states and smaller jurisdictions in six additional states. All of these states and regions had histories of voting discrimination abuses. Four of the nine states cited in Schumer and Leahy’s letter required approval from Washington.

Since then, state and federal courts have been asked to rule on controversial voter ID laws. In late July, three courts struck down parts of controversial voter ID requirements put in place by Republicans, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson reported then.

In one case, a federal appeals court in North Carolina found that a 2013 voter ID law "targeted Democrat-leaning black and younger voters with 'almost surgical precision,' in part by taking away an early voting day, Sunday, used by black churches to shuttle parishioners to the polls."

Republicans planned to appeal the decision because they’re attempts by Democratic-appointed judges to sway the presidential election, “in which Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is banking on the overwhelmingly Democratic black vote to deliver her the White House over Republican candidate Donald Trump. Voter ID laws are intended to stop election fraud, say Republicans.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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