Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Bumps in the Road Between the Wedding Chapel and the Voting Booth

Ah, your wedding day. You and your significant other put a lot of thought into ensuring that every part of the big event represents You: the invitations, the vows, the cake.

Yesterday, the New York Times highlighted another thing that couples-to-be are customizing for the big day: their names. Women have long taken on their husbands' surnames when they married; now, husbands may take on their wives' surnames, or couples may combine their surnames or adopt a surname completely unrelated to either of their families. The name-changing options are endless: add a hyphen, drop a hyphen, add a second middle name, add a third surname -- couples can literally redefine themselves.

The name change represents a new identity for a new life -- all good and exciting until such couples try to register to vote. The convention of women taking their husbands' surnames has long created problems in government lists where they may be listed in one place with their maiden names and in another with their married names. Election officials often use other government lists as one way to try to verify voter registration applications by "matching" identifying information. Some states (like Florida and Louisiana) have taken this too far and have said -- contrary to federal law -- if you don't match, you can't vote. Unsurprisingly, a large proportion of those who cannot be matched are eligible married women, and increasingly, eligible married men. To election officials, they simply do not exist.

Instead of building a new life together with their new identities (on paper), newly-named newlyweds may instead face a bureaucratic obstacle course to the franchise. In our increasingly customizable world, election officials should ensure that couples' name-changing decisions do not unnecessarily disenfranchise them.

--Margaret Chen, Democracy Program

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