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Too many barriers to registration deter voting

Part 1 of 2

 

As I write in the midst of an upbeat Democratic convention, there are reasons to worry about the upcoming presidential election. Most worrisome are the flaws (both real and perceived) in the candidates, which may lower an already low voter turnout, and the flow of big money from Super Pacs.  But there is also the distortion caused by electoral colleges and the gerrymandering of districts, both of which will work against our assumption that each vote counts equally. 

Whether or not those voters who currently insist they can’t vote for either Trump or Hillary end up staying away from the polls, voter turnout in the 2016 election is likely to be among the lowest in the developed world.

Voter turnout is by definition a comparison of those who vote compared to eligible voters. But this inflates the proportion of those Americans who go to the polls. Most obvious, the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally are not eligible to vote. This large population of disenfranchised low-wage immigrants has helped sustain a conservative electoral dominance. Beyond not acquiescing to illegal behavior, conservatives’ refusal to consider a path to citizenship may be motivated by fears that should these immigrants become citizens, they would largely vote Democratic. 

There are also approximately 5.8 million felons who are not permitted to vote. In some states, disenfranchised felons are serving sentences, in others they are under probation or on parole, and in still others felons can remain disenfranchised for the rest of their lives. 

In five states (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee), more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised because of felony-level convictions. Moreover, according to the Sentencing Project, the percentage of those disenfranchised because of felony convictions is three to four times as high in the African American community. 

Because African Americans tend to vote Democratic, the restoration of voting rights has become a fraught political issue. This past April, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia issued an executive order restoring voting rights to every ex-offender who had completed his or her sentence and been released from supervised probation or parole — a total of 206,000 people, of whom almost 93,000 are African Americans. 

In July, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 that Gov. McAuliffe doesn’t have the authority for a blanket restoration of voting rights. In response, the governor vowed to individually sign the 206,000 restoration orders, including for 13,000 ex-felons who had registered since his April order.

  As of 2002, Connecticut allows felons who have completed their prison sentences or probation to register to vote. Although there are an estimated 36,000 people with felony records, many ex-felons are apparently unaware of their rights and experts estimate that a relatively low percentage has actually registered. 

Registration Hurdles

By contrast with other Western democracies, where the government automatically registers citizens once they become of age, or aggressively seeks out and registers eligible voters, registration to vote in the United States is an individual responsibility. Moreover, despite multiple studies showing significant voter fraud to be a myth, 30 states have passed voter ID legislation, and 15 states now insist on government-issued photo identification.  Not surprisingly, of the 21 million Americans whose identification has become inadequate, low-income, African American, Latino, and elderly Americans are most likely to say they don’t have the time, transportation or the money to acquire acceptable identification. 

While Connecticut and a number of other states have begun to allow prospective voters to apply for ID cards and register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles, this is unlikely to help the elderly and urban poor — those who don’t have cars or drive. If states really want to encourage low-income voters, voter registration should be available where people apply for unemployment, food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 Housing.

Three million voters were given provisional ballots in 2012, either because of problems with their registration or because poll workers couldn’t find the voters’ names on the rolls. Since provisional ballots are relatively new, there is little research on their effectiveness.  But an NPR report suggests that at least a quarter of these ballots are unlikely to count. Moreover, whether a provisional ballot counts or not can depend on the election official’s political affiliation.

Hurdles to Voting

Election Day — the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November — goes back to 1845, when most citizens were farmers. With Sundays spent in church, people often having to travel a day to vote, and a weekly Wednesday market day, lawmakers wisely chose Tuesday for Election Day. November was selected because farmers were not encumbered by either planting or harvesting, and harsh winter weather had not yet arrived. 

Though early November still makes sense, there is no longer any reason to hold elections on Tuesdays, when wage-workers need to take time off to vote. Consistent with the greater difficulty minorities experience in voting, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that, in Maryland, South Carolina and Florida, three states with among the longest lines in the country, voters in precincts with more minorities waited longer than those in predominantly white precincts. 

The problem created by Tuesday elections becomes clear when you consider that in 2014, 42 percent of American workers didn’t take a single vacation day off, 40 percent didn’t receive paid sick leave, 23 percent didn’t receive paid vacation and 24 percent didn’t receive paid holidays.  

Countries like Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and New Zealand — whose voter turnout surpasses that of the United States — either hold elections on weekends or declare Election Day a national holiday. President Obama has called for declaring this coming November’s Election Day a holiday — a temporary solution that would make it easier for working people to vote.

The 2016 presidential election has also renewed discussions about early voting, which would give voters greater flexibility without the use of absentee ballots. We should encourage Connecticut to join the many states that already allow early voting. 

 

Part 2 next time.

 

Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published six books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. What interests her these days are the complications of civil society in America.