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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.

  • Tomas Lopez
November 8, 2013

“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