“Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax … Wealth, like race, creed, or color is not germane to one’s ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process,” the Supreme Court wrote in 1966. More than 50 years later, we have still not lived up to those words.
As a poll observer in Houston, Texas on November 6th, 2018, I saw that poll taxes – fees levied on the right to vote – are still alive and well in America in 2018, albeit by another name. That day, I watched as our fellow citizens restructured their day and dutifully showed up to vote, only to be met too many times with a closed polling location or hours-long lines. In Harris County, where I was observing, 18 locations failed to open up on time due to technical issues, some so well-past their 7 am opening mandate that a state district judge had to extend voting hours into the evening. The news of the extension, coming late in the afternoon, was too little too late: of the hundreds that departed without voting in the morning, only a handful returned in the evening. As one resident summed up: “You all knew this was Election Day and you’re not prepared.”
These delays weren’t the exception – they were the norm across many of the most competitive districts in the country. Elsewhere in Texas, an entire precinct failed to produce enough paper ballots for its voters. In parts of Georgia, voters waited for up to four hours, as poll workers informed them of problems with voting machines. Arizona’s most populous country, Maricopa County, saw major delays at several sites due to problems printing ballots. These developments led former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves to quip: “Were this to happen in my or any other East European country, the U.S. would label this a ‘voting irregularity.’”
These long waits amount to a modern-day poll tax, if we think of voters’ time as a valuable commodity where they could be working and earning money instead. Poll taxes have a history of being used to suppress the vote throughout American history. Although the 24th Amendment outlawed the formal use of the poll tax in 1964, and the Supreme Court upheld the matter in Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections in 1966, we have never truly turned the page on that shameful chapter of our history. Until we find a way to make our elections more efficient, and stop eating up the hours of our fellow Americans – at a time when studies show American workers are working longer hours than ever recorded, and longer than anyone else in the industrialized world – we are essentially turning away eligible Americans who want to vote, but also need to work and provide for their families.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There are bills in Congress right now that the new Congress can initiate that will modernize our elections practices, reduce confusion at the polls, and support working people in exercising their democratic right to vote. Even though these bills would be unlikely to be signed into law by the current Administration, their successful passage can lay down a marker for a future Administration that values voting rights.
Improving our Elections Infrastructure
Our voting machines are becoming outdated, and they are making us vulnerable to bad actors.
The last comprehensive update to our elections infrastructure was through the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provided federal support for updating the machines for the next 10-15 years. In the 16 years since that bill, machines have predictably begun to break down, as they were never meant to be used this long. That is the reason why we see problems like touch-screen machines flipping ballot selections in Texas, failing to check voters in in Georgia, or simply not turning on in Kansas.
Some of these machines run on Windows 2000, which was used before the agency that now investigates cybersecurity issues – the Department of Homeland Security – was even created. We’re now living in an age when a hostile foreign power has successfully hacked into the electronic infrastructure of a major American political party, and may have attempted to target the actual elections infrastructure of certain counties. A recent Brennan Center for Justice survey determined that 229 elections officials in 33 states believe that their machines must be replaced by 2020, but that they lack the funds to do so.
The bipartisan Secure Elections Act addresses this need. It builds on the $380 million that Congress allocated last year for election cybersecurity by supporting states and localities with federal funds to modernize machines and mandates a voter-verified paper record to pair with any electronic one, thereby allowing for the type of effective and secure machines that voters deserve.
Expanding Early Voting Nationwide
Another way to reduce the burden on our elections infrastructure on Election Day while allowing more opportunities for workers to participate in the process is to expand early voting nationwide.
In 2012, over 5 million voters experienced wait times exceeding one hour on Election Day while an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 votes were lost from those that felt discouraged by the long lines and left. This doesn’t just have drastic consequences during one election: MIT political science professor Charles Stewart III discovered that long lines one year can have a spillover effect into the next election, because some voters remember long waits from previous years and rationalize voting as too much trouble during the next election.
Early voting is gaining in popularity nationwide because it reduces congestion on Election Day and allows those who may only be available on weekends to vote. Currently, 37 states allow for some form of early voting, although there is no established federal baseline in the amount of time that must be offered for voting before Election Day, or whether any time should be offered at all.
We can continue to expand early voting nationwide through passing the Voter Empowerment Act. This legislation would set minimum early voting requirements for 15 days nationwide before Election Day, thereby giving those with tight Election Day schedules at least two weekends to cast a ballot.
Instituting Automatic Voter Registration
Finally, we can minimize registration errors, which cause delays in the polls on Election Day, by instituting automatic voter registration.
Poll delays frequently occur due to confusion over inaccurate voter rolls on Election Day. At a time when one in nine Americans moves every year, and their voter registration does not move with them, it’s perhaps unsurprising that 3 million Americans were turned away at the polls in 2008 because of registration problems. The lack of automatic voter registration also keeps rolls inaccurate because it doesn’t automatically rid the system of those who can no longer vote – namely, the 1.8 million deceased individuals who remain on the polls.
The system proposed in the Automatic Voter Registration Act would switch voter registration to an opt-out system, so that an individual would be automatically registered to vote, usually through her interaction to obtain a driver’s license, unless she chooses to opt out. This would securely and electronically send the information to the state or county’s governing elections body, which they would use to update the voter rolls. Future government interactions – such as when one signs up to serve in uniform or to receive Social Security benefits – would update the system electronically. This would save money on paper forms and reduce the types of manual errors that frequently lead to delays on Election Day.
Coupled together, these three pieces of legislation would put forward an affirmative plan to expand voting rights in the country, at a time when we see anti-democratic legislators in Wisconsin and across other states attempting to limit early voting periods for the citizens that just voted them out. Instead of expanding the opportunities for working people to get involved with the process, there are those seeking to limit their power.
It’s critical that they don’t succeed. America remains the top destination for those seeking freedom around the world, and rightfully so: the longer arc of our history shows global respect for our promotion of democratic ideals. Promoting democracy abroad can’t happen until we fix our own system at home. By addressing the weaknesses in our electoral system, and eliminating the indirect poll tax that we continue to place on working people, we can strengthen our democracy and ensure that the voting process remains accessible to working people.