EPPN Election Series: Voter Access

September 23, 2020

Challenges to Voter Access

The previous installment of the EPPN Election Series focused on all the ways citizens can access the ballot. Between mail-in voting, in-person early voting, and voting on election day, the states provide a variety of methods for folks to cast their vote. Yet obstacles still hinder some voters on their path to the ballot box. Many of these barriers are the result of either deliberate or non-deliberate policy decisions designed to limit certain voters’ ability to cast a ballot. Either way, these stubbornly persistent barriers deter tens of millions of Americans from the polls.

Strict Voter I.D. Laws

Most states require voters to provide some type of proof of identity when they present themselves at the polling place. Yet the types of I.D. permitted vary greatly from state to state. Some states will accept forms of non-photo I.D., such as a voter card or a billing statement. Others will only accept a form of government-issued I.D., such as a driver’s license or a passport. Many people question why a strict photo I.D. requirement could lead to voter suppression. They also question why some states permit forms of non-photo I.D. to verify a voter’s identity. Everyone has a photo I.D., right? What’s the big deal?

Well, as it happens, not everyone does have a government-issued photo I.D. People in marginalized communities, including low-income folks, ethnic minorities, and immigrants often lack government I.D. and have difficulty obtaining it. Those of us who have means may think this is unreasonable, but when you consider the cost, time, and complication of accessing I.D. services for low-income people, people with disabilities, and those who live in rural communities it becomes clear how a strict photo I.D. requirement could discourage some American citizens from voting.

Even when voters have a form of photo I.D. the way the rules are written can often favor I.D.’s disproportionately held by some groups and disqualify those held by others. For instance, Texas accepts concealed carry permits, but will turn away a college student with a photo I.D. from one of the Lone Star State’s very own public universities.

These laws also uniquely impact Indigenous Americans. North Dakota, for instance, is the only state that doesn’t require citizens to register before they vote. Yet in 2017 the state legislature passed a voter I.D. law requiring voters to have a physical address in order to vote. Many Indigenous people who live on reservations do not have a physical address, and the State of North Dakota failed to provide many of them with one. There were also failures in communication regarding exactly what some of the newly assigned addresses were, and some people were assigned multiple addresses.

Some may question how our elections can be secure without voter I.D. laws. As our piece last week on the integrity of the election process noted, impersonation voter fraud is practically nonexistent, which makes strict voter I.D. laws at the very least redundant to existing security measures and at the very worst an unnecessary deterrent keeping eligible U.S. citizens from exercising their right to cast a ballot.

Purging the Rolls and Closing the Polls

Updating voting rolls is a routine part of election administration, and the exact rules about what names get purged and why vary from state to state. People die, or move, on a regular basis, so it is entirely appropriate for election officials to purge the dead and former residents from their polls.

However, the way election officials go about roll purges and location changes can often disproportionately impact marginalized people. There are enough examples of eligible voters who turn up at the polls only to learn that they had been unfairly purged from the rolls to indicate that this practice is misused in a way that suppresses voter turnout. Since most states have registration deadlines weeks before election day, these purges can be devastating to voters who do not know they have been purged. This highlights how important it is that all potential voters verify their registration with their state election office each election cycle, even if they know they are already registered.

Changing polling locations is also a routine part of election administration. There are many legitimate reasons for polling venues to be changed. If the local elementary school is no longer available as a polling place, it is usually just fine for the polling place to switch to the parish hall of the neighborhood Episcopal church!

Yet polling location changes can also disproportionately impact marginalized communities. When polling places are closed or moved farther away in a particular precinct, this distance creates a barrier to people in that area casting their vote who may not have the means to travel that far or cannot afford to give up more time at work or with child care by traveling to a more distant location. It is also worth noting here that the reduction of early voting options and reduced voting hours also play a similar role in suppressing the vote.

Keeping Former Felons from Voting

Fortunately, most states immediately restore voting rights to former felons when their incarceration ends (Maine and Vermont are the only states that never disfranchise any of their citizens, including their incarcerated citizens). Nonetheless, several states continue to disfranchise former felons after they leave state custody. The most high-profile example of this is Florida, where until 2018 former felons were permanently disfranchised, unless former felons petitioned a panel of the four statewide constitutional officers (the governor, the attorney general, the chief financial officer, and the commissioner of agriculture) to restore their voting rights.

At the 2018 election, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment automatically restoring former felons’ voting rights once the terms of their sentences had been served. This move was undermined, however, when the state legislature then passed legislation that interpreted “terms of their sentences” to mean not just the time former felons had spent in prison and on parole, but also any fines or restitution associated with their sentences. This legislation effectively meant that an overwhelming majority of former felons who would otherwise be eligible to vote will continue to be disfranchised, owing to the fact that hardly any felons have large sums of money sitting around that they can pay in restitution to their victims. The State of Florida also often has no way of telling former felons exactly what it is they owe. It seems clear that this legislation was designed to circumvent the clear will of the Florida voters, who approved the constitutional amendment with more than 60 percent of the vote.

The bottom line is this: former felons should be allowed to vote as soon as they are no longer incarcerated and making the franchise conditional based upon payment of fines or fees amounts to a poll tax, which the Constitution explicitly prohibits.

What Can Be Done?

The problems of voter access can seem overwhelming and insurmountable, but that is not the case. Congress has proposed fixes to solve the problem of voter suppression and ensure every eligible American citizen can easily and conveniently cast their ballot. On December 6, 2019 the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act. This legislation would address the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, which invalidated the key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by creating a new formula that applies the provisions of the Act to all 50 states and updates the criteria by which the “preclearance” provision would apply to a jurisdiction. The John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act would restore federal oversight that could interrupt efforts to stifle the voting process for eligible citizens.

Prior to the Shelby decision all the states of the former Confederacy, which contain fully half of the U.S. African American population, were at least partially covered by the Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing that African American citizens were protected from voter suppression measures. The Act also covered Arizona, a state with a large population of both Hispanic and Indigenous Americans, and Alaska, a state with a substantial Indigenous population. Since the Shelby decision these states have had a free hand to limit access to the polls without federal oversight.

Many voters will look at the methods used to suppress the vote and see them as causes to despair. The good news is that there are many ways to push back against these trends. We can help voters navigate around these barriers to ensure that every Americans’ voice is heard. We can support legislation to address the problems raised by voter suppression We can look to The Episcopal Church’s Civic Engagement resources to find concrete ways to improve our democratic system. Democracy is much too precious to allow barriers to voting to throw us off.

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