On Tuesday, millions of Americans voted in local and state elections across the country. This being an off-year election, turnout in many areas was relatively poor. New York City may have set a new record low for voter turnout, with early tallies reflecting that only 24 percent of the city’s 4.3 million registered voters went to the polls.
Even in this small-turnout year, however, voters confronted many of the same problems and frustrations they face in busier elections. On Election Day, I answered calls from New York voters at a hotline call center operated by Election Protection, the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection coalition. Election Protection’s 1–866-OUR-VOTE hotline fields calls from voters nationwide seeking voting assistance or reporting voting problems. Based on the types of calls I received, it is clear that local and state officials must prioritize increasing voter education and information, implementing voter registration modernization, and training poll workers.
Ensure that Voters Can Access Basic Information
Many voters called to ask where they needed to go to vote and at what time the polls closed. Such run-of-the-mill inquiries are by far the most common, and highlight the importance of making accurate information easily available to voters. Localities should expend greater effort to get needed information in the hands of the public. This can be accomplished through more effective mailing, increasing the availability of staff to answer questions, and including as much information online as possible. In many states, including New York, voters can find their polling places online, but the sites are sometimes hard to navigate or crash. These websites should also provide information helpful to voters with disabilities, such as the locations of accessible polling place entrances. In places like New York City, where voters have long complained that the ballot font is too small to read, it may be helpful to have sample ballots online, so that voters can take a look at their ballot before heading to the polls.
Modernize the Voter Registration Process
We also received numerous calls from voters who had recently moved to or within New York state, and wanted to know whether they could vote at their new address. Voters’ confusion over the registration process highlights the need for voter registration modernization. In New York — as in every other state in the country except for North Dakota — eligible citizens must register before they are allowed to vote. Many voters do not realize that their voter registration does not move when they do, even though the state operates a computerized statewide voter registration database. Voters in New York who moved across county lines but failed to re-register at their new addresses before the registration deadline were disenfranchised in this year’s election. If New York were one of the states with portable voter registration, these voters would have been able to cast a ballot that counted on Election Day, because their registration would have moved with them. Legislation introduced last year in New York would implement portable registration as part of a larger proposal to modernize our registration system in ways that will save money and increase voter turnout. The bill has not yet passed, but interest in voter registration modernization remains high.
Enhance Poll Worker Training
Some of the most troubling calls came from voters frustrated with the actions of poll workers. Poll workers face a stressful and demanding task, particularly in states such as New York that do not offer any form of early in-person voting. (As the Brennan Center detailed in its recent early voting report, one of the many benefits of early voting is reducing the strain that a single day of voting places on election officials.) States and municipalities must undertake seriously their responsibility to train poll workers thoroughly, so that these workers do not inadvertently disenfranchise voters. One caller reported that poll workers had not allowed her to enter the voting booth with an older friend who needed assistance in reading and marking her ballot notwithstanding protections provided by state and federal law for voters needing assistance. Another voter complained of a poll worker voicing support, inside the polling place, for a ballot measure, conduct seemingly in violation of a New York law prohibiting “electioneering”, which is expressing support for or opposition to a candidate or ballot measure in or near a polling place. These and other laws are necessary so that voters are able to participate in the political process free of coercion or intimidation.
As was clear at the call center, voters face many obstacles in exercising their right to vote in every election. State legislators and local election officials should take advantage of this relative downtime in between elections to reexamine ways in which they can make it easier for voters to cast a ballot that counts.
Photo credit: Flickr/Columbia City Blog