Voters Need More Access to Ballot, Not Less

Voter turnout is already low in off-year elections. New laws making it harder for Americans to participate only make the problem worse. Instead, legislators should work to make elections free, fair, and accessible to all eligible citizens.

November 8, 2013
Voter Access Restriction

“Off-year” elections, like those in 2013, tend not to get a lot of attention, especially from voters. There are not a lot of big races around the country, and turnout is usually far lower than in presidential election years. This year’s low-turnout election shows why certain lawmakers’ recent push to make voting harder is badly misplaced. Strict photo identification requirements, an antiquated registration system, and felony disenfranchisement laws keep Americans from participating by complicating the voting and registration process or, as with felony disenfranchisement, barring it altogether. Each poses an actual problem for our voting system by keeping Americans out of the polls when, as some of this year’s numbers demonstrate, participation is already inconsistent and low.

State laws demanding strict photo identification to vote are problematic in part because they mandate all voters to have documentation a significant number of Americans do not have. That makes voting harder for at least two groups of people: 1) those who have to make the effort to get the accepted ID in the first place; and 2) those who take the time to vote and are turned away because their identification is deemed non-compliant. Evidence shows these would-be voters are largely minority, poor, elderly, or students.

Some citizens also must endure an antiquated registration system plagued with unnecessary bureaucracy and error because it relies on paper-based registration forms. Instead, states should leverage modern technology so that a voter already providing information to a government agency can consent to that information being electronically transferred to county election offices.  No filling out a separate form with repetitive information that needs to be collected, mailed, and data-entered. New Mexico recently adopted such a practice at their state DMV office, but these proposals fell flat in the last legislative session in other states like New York and Virginia.  

None of this applies, however, to the more than 4 million Americans living and working in our communities who cannot vote because of a criminal conviction in their past. That situation is especially stark in a state like Kentucky, where only the governor can restore an individual’s voting rights. There, 180,000 people have completed their sentences and still cannot vote — together, they would form Kentucky’s third-largest city. That’s a municipality’s worth of people who cannot even worry about all of the ways voting is more difficult than it has to be. There was a hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment to reform the Kentucky law, but there are still some legislators throwing up roadblocks.

Tuesday’s low-turnout elections show why lawmakers shouldn’t be putting unnecessary barriers in front of Americans who want to vote. Consider Texas, which held some municipal and constitutional amendment elections under its identification requirement this week. Initial reports suggest some voters faced issues at the polls. But consider the turnout: Early data indicates only around 1.1 million of 13.4 million registered Texas voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, as compared to 4.9 million in the state’s last gubernatorial election in 2010 and 7.9 million in the 2012 race. That’s a turnout rate of 8.1 percent. Those numbers speak to an underlying problem in election policy: Some lawmakers’ priorities are largely upside down. It doesn’t make sense to make voting more difficult when participation is already erratic and, in years like 2013, very low.

Tuesday’s election was relatively quiet but not trouble-free. The incidents and concerns on record should give us cause to be watchful over the next year, when every state will elect federal officials and many more people will try to have their voices heard. In the next legislative sessions, states should pass legislation to make our elections more free, fair, and accessible, not erect unnecessary hurdles. 

Photo credit: Flickr/El_Sol