Technology with attitude

Voter Suppression and the Major Parties

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Call it what you will — vote suppression, vote discouragement, vote manipulation — efforts to keep citizens from voting are nothing new. Despite a host of laws against tampering with elections, you can be sure that someone, somewhere is hard at work devising new schemes to prevent voters from casting their ballots.

This is hardly an issue of interest only to independents. During every election season either major party can come up with ample evidence that the other party is guilty of dirty tricks like vote caging and phone jamming. But vote suppression becomes a specifically independent issue when the two parties collude to discourage the vote by creating laws and regulations that make it difficult for citizens to cast their vote — or have any assurance that their vote was counted once it was cast. That’s not to say that many partisan voters aren’t affected or incensed by these tactics; it is to say that independent activists* have adopted the following issues related to vote discouragement as pet political reform projects:

Voter ID laws. This sounds like a no-brainer; of course we should produce ID at the polls. Some states, though, are trying to require voters who don’t have a license or other official identification — usually the poor, the disabled, and the elderly — to obtain state-issued photo IDs, which can be costly and available only at specific and inconvenient sites, especially in rural areas. NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice offers a wealth of information on this issue.

Voter registration. The lack of uniformity in voter registration deadlines creates unnecessary problems for voters when they move from one state to another; in fact, 84 percent of Americans don’t know their state’s deadline. One solution is same-day voter registration, which is popular among independent activists largely because voter turnout is generally much higher in states that allow it — Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. (North Dakota doesn’t require registration; Connecticut’s deadline is the day before an election.) I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: in an age when a credit card scanner can decide in roughly 3 seconds whether I can charge a purchase, surely the local election board can figure out in a few minutes if I’m qualified to vote — or provide me with a provisional ballot until they can figure it out.

Faulty voting machines. When electronic machines lose thousands of votes, count each vote multiple times, or break down on Election Day with no repair technician in sight, you have to wonder why state legislatures, with their overwhelmingly partisan memberships, find it so hard to pass laws requiring a paper trail, creating a system for auditing every vote, or allowing citizen access to the computer’s source code. Not only do we have to be concerned about blatant attempts to keep voters from the polls, we also have to be concerned about whether our votes will count once we cast our ballots. Groups pushing for greater ballot accountability include Voters Unite, Verified Voting, and National Voting Rights Institute.

Add to these three issues the myriad other election problems, like inadequate training for poll workers — who have mistakenly turned away voters without photo ID when no such ID is required, opened polling places late or closed them early, or found themselves at a complete loss when voting machines break down — you can see how these issues can discourage people from voting.

These are clearly issues that impact partisans and independents alike. But they are particularly important to politically active independents for this reason: when partisan officials make it harder for people to vote rather than easier, that’s a form of voter suppression. And ending voter suppression in every form is a high-priority independent activist issue.

* Note: I am not attempting to speak for all independent voters and never have claimed to do so. I’m referring to the many independent activists who focus on and work together for political reform. If you’re an independent and this isn’t a pet issue, so be it. Besides, I’m fond of footnotes and needed an excuse to insert one here.

Marcia Ford is the author of We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter.