Voting in 2020: Issues of Equity and Accessibility

October 28, 2020

The upcoming election and challenges of COVID-19 have highlighted persistent issues and controversies in the U.S. voting system and infrastructure, including the policies, regulations, and administrative practices that impact how people vote. Pi Alpha Alpha chapters from the Bloustein School and Kean University recently partnered to organize a moderated discussion about voting in 2020, exploring such topics such as policies that govern voter registration and ID requirements; access to voting; the advantages and challenges of mail-in voting; and disenfranchisement through the criminal justice system.

Matt Camarda, co-president of the Bloustein PAA chapter, moderated the discussion, noting that with Election Day coming quickly, conversations about ensuring safe, equitable access to the ballot have never been more important. He posed a broad first question as a starting point, asking how expanding access to the ballot and voting can further the cause of anti-racism.

Dr. Elizabeth Matto, director of Eagleton’s Center for Youth Political Participation, responded on this critically important topic. “Access to the ballot and equity, when it comes to elections, is always important. I would say in this election it is more important than ever.”

The ultimate question, she continued, is why does voting matter? “As we begin this discussion, it’s really worth amplifying that the legitimacy of American democracy is rooted in the people,” she said. “And in the people expressing either their pleasure or their displeasure with people serving in office. Something I’m frequently telling my students is, politics matters to you and you matter to politics.”

Dr. Matto emphasized that the way to hold elected officials accountable is to vote them out of office when they are not responsive to constituent needs. She said that being anti-racist is also being pro-democratic.

“If we want anti-racist policies implemented, if we want to live in a society that is anti-racist, then we need to elect leaders who have those values and who will implement those policies,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “One way to move policy in this country is to change who is in charge at every level of government. So it who is sitting on the state courts, who is sitting in your state legislature, who is sitting in the presidency, who is sitting in Congress. Those people make appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, they make appointments to the state supreme courts.” 

Local officials are extremely important in how elections are run; however, she said, Americans don’t typically pay a lot of attention to local elections. She continued, “So if we want anti-racist policies in our schools, in our election administration, in our courts and our criminal justice system, then we need to elect leaders who share those values.”

How do voter laws and policies affect the ability to vote?

U.S. elections are decentralized and each state is responsible for the structures and practices that affect voter turnout. “People are not automatically registered and states vary in their registration practices. Same-day voter registration equals higher voter turnout,” she said.

In what ways, Mr. Camarda followed up, do America’s voter registration laws, policies and regulations facilitate or hinder citizens’ ability to vote, particularly young people and people of color?

Dr. Matto responded, “Most importantly, the fact is that the burden in almost every state is on the individual to get themselves registered. They are not automatically registered. And then again, thanks to federalism, there’s a lot of variety between states.” She provided examples of different states and their regulations. “We’ve had a few states that have already had their voter registration deadline pass. Or you have a state like New Jersey, where it’s coming up soon. Or you have some states where you can register to vote on election day. We know that these processes and practices have an impact on voter turnout.”

She noted that states that have same-day voter registration have the highest voter turnout rates. “So, certainly there is a relationship between the two. And in many ways, the differences between states is what often causes a lot of confusion.”

New Jersey and 17 other states and Washington, DC now have automatic voter registration. Ms. Sweren-Becker elaborated on that point. “Automatic voter registration is trying to solve a problem in the U.S. that is actually quite unique among democracies. And that is, the burden of registration is on the voter.” Automatic voter registration shifts the burden to state agencies that ordinarily interact with citizens, such as state motor vehicle agencies. This means people have to opt-out of registration rather than to opt-in because it plays on our natural inertia to just go with the flow. “And unless people have the desire not to register to vote, this is perfectly fine. They can opt-out at the time or at some later time. So automatic voter registration is a key pivot point to move the burden of registration from the voters to the states.”

Dr. Matto added that the U.S. makes voting harder by having Election Day on a Tuesday, and not making it a national holiday so more people can participate. People don’t have the resources to take time from work. She further stated that voting systems should be operational so that they are uniform and equitable to make our democracy what it should be.

Mr. Camarda then asked about the impact of voter identification on turnout, as well as what makes voter ID laws in the U.S. harmful and discriminatory.

Ms. Sweren-Becker responded that she believes it is more common in other countries to have a national identification card. “As a practice, we don’t have that [in the U.S.] And I think that is, in large part, because of our federal system, because states are independent sovereigns within the sovereignty of the United States. They have their own DMV systems, they have their own rules for whether IDs are needed at the polls or not, or whether IDs are needed for other bureaucratic activities. So I think part of this arises because of the sort of diffuse nature of election administration in the country.”

Dr. Matto added to this by noting that citizens of other countries are given ID cards that can be used to prove identity at the polls. “The U.S. doesn’t have this type of system, when people move they need to update their voter registration. Students who move from one residence hall to another need to update their voter registration. The burden is put on the voter to prove eligibility.”

Voters may have other issues that keep them from getting an ID such as lack of a permanent address or an address that doesn’t comply with state ID requirements, fears of immigration enforcement. Also, states allow and disallow certain IDs that are discriminatory, such as Texas allowing gun licenses but not student IDs. Requiring voter ID to prevent voter fraud is a red herring, she said. We do occasionally see election interference by officials or politicians who are trying to manipulate outcomes, but the idea that we need voter IDs to begin with is based on a false assumption that is designed to enable the enactment of restrictive suppressive laws.

Dr. Matto continued the discussion of voter ID laws by noting that restrictive voter ID laws came into effect after the election of 2008. That election brought in a large number of young adults and new pockets of the electorate in the populace that hadn’t been voting.

The benefits of voting by mail were discussed.  Participants noted that it increased turnout, allowed people to vote when it was convenient for them, and didn’t force people to choose between work or other obligations and voting. They suggested that citizens who want to vote by mail request a ballot early and complete the process early, paying particular attention to signatures and privacy envelopes, and either mail or drop off the ballot early. It’s also a good idea to use an official ballot drop box when available.

There was a high rejection rate in the primaries for mail-in ballots, mostly due to citizen’s unfamiliarity with the process. As more people become familiar with mail-in voting, the panelists believe that we will see those rates decline. Better ballot design could also help lower the rejection rate.

They went on to say that voting by mail and automatic registration such as motor-voter laws do not favor one party over another.

Ms. Sweren-Becker next addressed the issue of purging voter rolls. She pointed out that inactive voters are frequently purged, which is not a good way to clean up voter rolls. States are supposed to notify voters that they’ve been purged; however, states use different systems to purge voters and those systems are not always reliable. The end result is that many people find out on Election Day that they have been purged and must file a provisional ballot.

Dr. Matto added that modernization of the system and allowing same-day registration would greatly alleviate the problem. “The most important thing that a voter can do is to check to make sure that your voter registration is valid.  Automatic Voter Registration would allow a voter’s registration to follow them as they move in-state or around the country.” But, she explained, our voting systems need to be modernized for this to happen.

Ms. Sweren-Becker discussed Crosscheck, a database that aggregated voter registration records from multiple states to identify voters who may have registered or voted in two or more states. Developed in 2005 by the Kansas Secretary of State office in conjunction with Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska, the system had a number of flaws. The comparisons they were doing were not big matches, and they were using weak match criteria. “If we’re going to remove a voter based merely on that information, mistakes were going to happen,” she said. Fortunately, she added, Crosscheck is now defunct.

She also mentioned the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit that facilitates the comparison of voter rolls and provides information to states. It includes more criteria than Crosscheck did so more accurate, although problems have also arisen with purges based on ERIC data. Auditing the data, she said, is when accuracy comes into play.

Can we restore the right to vote for all and eliminate voter intimidation?

The discussion moved onto the disenfranchisement of convicted felons and all agreed it was a stain on American history.  “The origins of that policy come from the Reconstruction Era where black men were first enfranchised and states were looking for other ways to suppress the vote of black men at that time. This is a Jim Crow-era policy that persists in many states to this day, in some form or another,” said Ms. Sweren-Becker. She continued by saying that in New Jersey as of March 19, In New Jersey, everyone living in the community can vote, even those who are still under supervision. “If you’re incarcerated for a felony, you cannot vote. But any New Jersey resident who is otherwise eligible to vote, even if they’re on probation, or parole, can register and can vote, which was a huge victory.” 

She continued, “I think we do see some serious momentum on rights restoration across the country because it’s an issue that really crosses the political divide. Americans from all walks of life believe in second chances. So when Amendment 4 was on the ballot in Florida—the state constitutional amendment to the restore to restore the right to vote—we saw nearly 65% of Floridians vote in favor of the amendment. That has to include people of all political parties just based on that number. And it was a million more votes for amendment than for any statewide candidate for office.”

More people supported that amendment than supported the governor, which is hugely reflective of how far the U.S. has come in moving towards restoring voting rights. Similar amendments have been passed in Nevada and Kentucky, and through executive order in Iowa, New York, and Virginia. “So there is a trend and momentum toward restoring the right to vote and there’s still work to be done.”

Mr. Camarda asked about a law in Tennessee that makes protesting a felony and therefore, disenfranchises people who are opposed to government policies. Ms. Sweren-Becker believes that there is going to be a first amendment challenge to this. “There’s something perverse about criminalizing protest, particularly when a criminal conviction then results in disenfranchisement. And for people who are disenfranchised by criminal convictions in Tennessee, including people who are still on supervision, that protesting might be the best forum for them to exercise their democratic rights because they can’t vote.

An attendee asked the question about lowering voting age. Dr. Matto responded that “I think there’s growing support for the idea and, you know, growing evidence that that the earlier you can establish a voting practice, the more likely it is to really stick with students, with young adults and to be a pervasive practice.” 

She went on to say that 16 and 17-year-olds are in school and living at home so they can be educated about the ballot which can reinforce voting habits. She pointed out that colleges don’t always embrace the notion of supporting and educating students to be politically engaged, but believes that there’s real value in establishing these practices early. “There is much evidence to suggest that when you establish voting practices early in your life when you’re younger, that they really are going to be a habit, and they’re going to persist throughout your life.”

The next question concerned poll watching, about how to deal with the problem of calling for voters at the polling stations to be observed and the resulting intimidation, which has the potential to become a free speech issue. Dr. Matto opined that almost every state has restrictions on who can be poll watchers and election officials in the polling place have the authority to throw out poll watchers who are being disruptive. There are also limits on what kinds of challenges may be permitted. “It is against the law to engage in voter intimidation or to try to interfere with another person’s exercise of their right to vote. Those are felonies, and we expect those laws are going to be enforced.”

Ms. Sweren-Becker agreed, going on to say that many of these conversations came up when there were discussions about whether there would be a peaceful transition of power if President Trump loses. “He doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. I think such talk gives it much more power than it deserves. I think that this election can be, and should be, as it has been for most of American history. Determined by voters on election day, through the election process, not in the courts, not by state legislatures.”

Mr. Camarda concluded the discussion with a question about voting rights laws and Shelby v Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court case that decimated a huge part of the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Camarda concluded the discussion with a question about voting rights laws and Shelby v Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court case that decimated a huge part of the Voting Rights Act. Ms. Sweren-Becker said that ddition to polling place closures, states with a history of discrimination were purging at much higher rates than other states and jurisdictions so reform is absolutely needed. The Voting Rights Advancement Act, part of a package that included HR One (“For the People Act”), would reinstitute preclearance, restore voting rights to people who are on probation and parole for federal elections, nationally institute automatic voter registration, same-day registration, early voting, campaign finance reform, and redistricting reform. There is an enormous amount on Congress’s plate that they could do.

She impressed that it is extremely important for constituents to call on their members of Congress and senators to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, and to do it fast. “It really matters for your members of Congress to hear from constituents. Even if you think they already support the policy, it still matters, because it’s good for them to know they have the wind at their back, that they’re going to get a political win by doing things that they obviously that they should do. There’s an opportunity to do some of the federal advocacy in the next year when who knows what will happen? It’s something to look forward to in this dark COVID time.”

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