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House Moves to Muzzle Low-Income Voter Drives

Local Matters


Published November 1, 2005 at 10:42 p.m.

During election season, the residents who run the 336-unit nonprofit Northgate apartment complex in Burlington's New North End hold voter registration drives. They also give homebound residents rides to the polls in the Northgate van. That practice will end if the U.S. House of Representatives has its way. The House last week approved H.R. 1461, a housing bill that carries an amendment forbidding nonprofit agencies from applying for or receiving money from an Affordable Housing Fund if they engage in voter participation drives.

The amendment, offered by Republican Mike Oxley of Ohio, passed last Thursday, 210 to 205. An effort to remove the provision, led by Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts, failed along party lines, with Bernie Sanders voting with the Democrats. Representative Oxley's office did not respond to a request for a comment.

If a similar provision passes in the Senate, the state's largest apartment complex could stand to lose its federal funds, or its voter services. Opponents of the provision -- like Kathy Luce from Maloney Properties, the firm that oversees Northgate -- say it's an effort to keep low- and moderate-income Americans from voting.

Luce says Northgate signed a letter opposing the provision that was circulated by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Representatives from 690 groups signed the missive that was distributed to House members last week. Amrita Dhillon, a spokesperson for the NLIHC, says there would have been more if the coalition had had more time to organize. The amendment, she notes, was tacked on "at the 11th hour." Still, the NLIHC was able to line up signatories as diverse as the U.S. Jesuit Conference, the African American Health Alliance and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

A number of Vermont groups oppose the restriction. Betty Edson, of Bethany Advocates in Randolph, signed the letter. Edson's group is a committee of the Bethany United Church of Christ. "It's absolutely ridiculous that an agency would not be able to do a nonpartisan thing like registering [residents] to vote," she says.

She heard about the measure from Peter Butterfield, director of the Family and Community Support Program at the Central Vermont Community Action Council. Butterfield says voter participation activities, like the ones at Northgate, are absolutely crucial because they "demystify" voting for people who are all too often unfamiliar with the democratic process. Butterfield notes that turnout among low-income citizens is lower than for any other socio-economic group.

If this provision passes the Senate, and is signed by the president, Butterfield predicts the prospect will be grim. "I think it will reduce our numbers even more."

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