Get your party pants on! As preparation for the 2020 Presidential election takes off in full swing, rules and regulations surrounding voter registration continue to blossom – or, fester, as the case may be.
Voter registration is an important step in exercising the fundamental right to cast a ballot and support the candidate of your choice. This step is, however, more of a state-level administrative function that, when overly-restrictive for applicants, can be a serious impediment to this right.
As next year’s election looms, states are beginning to impose new constraints on voters’ constitutional rights – and ballot box litigation will be an inevitable component to the upcoming political decision-making process, which includes not only the Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections, but a slew of Congressional seats state-level races as well.
The Right to Vote
The right to vote in the United States has a long, evolving history, which took many generations before all adults were considered eligible (subject to status-related restrictions). At the 1776 starting point, only white, male, landowners over age 21 were eligible. Over the next 100 years, things got incrementally better once wealth and racial barriers were lifted – however, sneaky state-level tactics existed to prevent many from exercising this right (e.g., literacy tests).
In 1920, adult women were finally vested with the right to cast a ballot, followed by Native Americans in 1924. Not until the Civil Rights Act came about in 1964, however, were these rights finally codified nationwide, banning all acts of race or sex-based discrimination. One year later, the Voting Rights Act was enacted to combat the remaining barriers, including poll taxes and the continuing practice of requiring literacy to vote.
Barriers Persist, However
Despite these measures, state voting regulators continue to advance restrictions that may impede the democratic process in ways that tend to harm the most vulnerable of populations. In Tennessee, for example, the Governor recently signed a bill into law that would impose fines and, in some cases, misdemeanor criminal charges against voter registration groups that submit too many incomplete applications or applications with data that contradict other state records. The measure was met swiftly (as in, the next day) with federal lawsuits alleging First Amendment violations and voter suppression – in part due to the fact that the Memphis Black Voter Project (which ultimately registered 86,000 new voters for the 2018 Mid-term elections) submitted an alleged 10,000 incorrect applications on the registration deadline – and opponents understandably suspect race-based motives.
In perhaps the most stunningly banal attempt at voter intimidation, the recently-introduced Texas Senate Bill 9 attempts to not only follow in Tennessee’s footsteps in criminalizing registration card errors or mismatches, but to also require anyone giving three or more people a ride to their polling location to explain themselves and satisfy authorities that the passengers cannot travel to the polling place unassisted. Opponents of this measure point out the obvious: this affects predominantly those who are low-income (do not have their own car), disabled or elderly (cannot physically drive), rural, and/or restricted from driving due to criminal history.
Some Positive Changes
Not all voter regulations are necessarily meant to limit voter turnout. For instance, Ohio is considering “automatic voter registration,” which is already a practice at work in about a dozen other states. Basically, if a citizen has any interaction with the state government (e.g., paying taxes or doing business with the DMV), that person would be automatically registered to vote unless they ask to opt out.
Another potentially helpful measure was recently enacted in New Mexico to allow same-day registrants the opportunity to cast a “provisional ballot” in an election, which eliminates the chaos that ensues for people who forget to register far enough ahead of time due to a recent relocation or otherwise face barriers. Like 17 other states with this practice, voters who present at their polling place with a government-issued ID may register to vote on the same day as the election. However, those choosing this route may not change their party affiliation on election day – a step that must be taken ahead of time using the traditional process.
The 2020 election seems on pace to set unprecedented records of voter turnout nationwide. While voter suppression measures are nothing new (and have surprising consistency over 300 years), the advocacy measures of those working to ensure all eligible citizens maintaining voting rights continue to grow. Be sure to check the rules and laws on your state’s Secretary of State website to be sure you are able to make your voice heard on Election Day.