As volunteers and organizations hit the streets nationwide to register voters on college campuses, churches and shopping centers on National Voter Registration Day, we need to make sure that our elections systems are ready for 2016.
Making registering to vote easier and more accessible is an obvious first step election administrators can take to encourage civic participation. And when Election Day comes around, election officials can go further by locating polling sites in convenient areas, providing language or other types of assistance at the polls when needed, staffing sites with enough well-trained workers, and having voting machines and technology working properly. Not to mention, being prepared with a backup plan for when things go wrong.
Improving how elections are administered in the US was a dominant theme at the National Commission on Voting Rights public hearings held last year in 25 cities across the country. Organized by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and other national civil rights organizations after the 2013 Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v Holder stripped vital protections from the Voting Rights Act, the Commission heard from hundreds of voters, advocates and activists. And as a newly released NCVR report about the hearings, Improving Elections in the United State: Voices from the Field, concludes, as far as many states and jurisdictions have come in modernizing and creating more points of access to voting, many voters still continue to face administrative roadblocks when registering and casting a ballot.
Today, 46 states and the District of Columbia implement some form of voter registration modernization- from allowing voters to register when they vote -same-day registration- to giving voters the ability to register and update their information online. In addition, many states are encouraging early civic participation by permitting 16- and 17-year-olds to “pre-register”.
Yet despite these efforts, approximately 51 million eligible citizens are not registered to vote, many, because of restrictive state laws and or states’ adherence to practices that limit access.
The Commission heard from voters in North Carolina and Ohio exasperated by their states’ sweeping and restrictive voting changes that not only curtailed early voting but also cut same-day registration- popular among African American voters- and pre-registration- moves that one witness in North Carolina called, “crimes against democracy.” Restrictive registration laws also alienate Latino voters. At the Arizona hearing, witnesses raised concerns about the confusion and administrative burdens created by the state’s dual registration system which demands proof of citizenship for new registrants on state registration forms, even though the federal government form does not have the same requirement. One concerned elections official echoed these concerns calling the registration system, “one of the most complex, confusing and burdensome in the county.”
And in numerous states across the country, including Oklahoma, New Jersey, Arkansas, Arizona, North Carolina, and South Carolina, poor and working class voters are regularly denied the opportunity to register to vote at state public assistance agencies, in violation of federal law.
The Election Day experience for many voters is also mixed. On the positive side, as highlighted at the Commission hearings, many states and counties are using creative strategies and technology to minimize long lines and simplify the voting process. Electronic poll books, used in at least 30 states, allow poll workers to verify a voter’s eligibility, update addresses, and process Election Day registrations, streamlining that first and critical step to in-person voting. Other examples include Denver’s success with IPads to help elderly and disabled voters, and Wisconsin’s system of allowing the use smart phones and tablets to verify a voter’s residency. Many states and counties, however, still struggle to maintain an aging election infrastructure that has not been funded since 2002, when the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) appropriated $3.4 billion to states to buy new voting machines. Reports of machine failures on Election Day are becoming a common refrain.
The Commission also heard from voters with disabilities who arrived at polling locations to find that accessible voting equipment was not functioning properly or that poll workers did not know how to operate the accessible machines. A South Carolina witness spoke about both a 72-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease denied curbside voting because he did not have a special parking placard and another voter with disabilities who was told, “You don’t look handicapped to me.”
Hearing witnesses also included out-of-state college students denied regular ballots because their college addresses did not match their driver’s licenses, and individuals convicted of felonies who have been either denied the right to vote for life or face a maze of confusing rules and regulations around restoring their voting rights. The process of re-enfranchisement in some states is so convoluted that even many election administrators are misinformed about the rules.
A vibrant democracy demands the equal participation of all its citizens in the electoral process. Only by instituting election laws and practices that remove barriers to civic participation will the nation meet its obligation to allow each citizen to register and exercise the right to vote. Full participation in the 2016 elections depends on it.
Note- The NCVR’s first report, Protecting Minority Voters: Our Work is Not Done, released in August 2014, concluded that voting discrimination is an ongoing and prevalent problem in the United States, particularly in states in the South; the first report also provided an in-depth analysis of the various barriers to voting that African American, Latino, Asian American and Native American voters continue to face.