Updated: Nov 23
By GRR Editorial Committee
The ability to vote for our government representatives is one of the most important rights we have as U.S. citizens. Voting gives us the ability to choose officials who represent our values and who will work to help us achieve our goals as a society. It also gives us the powerful tool of influencing those already in power, since being re-elected is always on their minds.
A number of laws have been passed with the stated goal of ensuring election security and integrity. It’s important to the health of our Republic that votes are legitimately and securely cast. But have you ever wondered why some of these laws are controversial, or why detractors argue that they’re discriminatory? We invite you to take a closer look at the central issues.
Early Voting 11/8/22 update – Connecticut’s referendum to allow early voting passed by a roughly 60% to 40% majority. An amendment to the state’s Constitution to detail how, when and where early in-person voting can take place now moves to the state legislature for drafting.
Early in-person voting time periods range from 3-46 days, and 23 states allow in-person votes to be cast on weekends.
Early in-person voting allows more citizens to participate in elections. When polls are only open for 14 hours, once every two to four years, a large number of eligible voters can be excluded from casting a vote. Work and travel conflicts, illness, a lack of child or eldercare, transportation troubles or other logistical hurdles can force someone to forfeit the right to vote. When voting is restricted to one day, there may not be time for a Registrar and voter to correct a registration problem before the polls close, potentially preventing that vote from being cast. Early in-person voting allows time for any registration issues to be discovered and fixed, allowing everyone who’s entitled to a ballot to have his or her vote count.
Restricting voting to one weekday impacts more people of color than White people since minorities are more likely to face the logistical hurdles mentioned above. Early-in person voting can increase voter turnout, especially among minorities.
Voter ID Requirements
Currently, 34 states have voter identification requirements in place, with 18 of those states requiring photo identification. When identification requires a valid driver’s license, military ID or state identification card, these laws disenfranchise poor, urban, elderly and minority voters who are less likely to hold government-issued forms of identification. It’s estimated as many as 11% of eligible voters in the United States don’t have a form of identification that meets voter identification requirements.
Connecticut offers voters wider leeway than some states. A utility bill, Social Security card or almost anything that has the voter’s name and signature on it is acceptable if the voter doesn’t have a photo ID. If the voter doesn’t have adequate ID at the time of voting, the person can sign a sworn affidavit and vote, or cast a provisional ballot.
But Connecticut law also allows local officials to demand ID from voters before their ballot is cast, a practice proven to disproportionately prevent people of color and the poor from voting. Proof of ID isn’t enforced uniformly across all towns.
In addition to identification requirements, studies show minorities experience widespread intimidation tactics at the polls. Nationally, nearly 10% of Black and Hispanic voters reported they were falsely told they did not have proper identification at the polls compared to less than 5% of White voters.
Polling Place Closures
Closing polling places forces a greater number of people to travel further from home, share one space that becomes more crowded, and wait longer to cast a vote. All of these factors can suppress voter turnout. Since the Voting Rights Act was undermined by the Supreme Court in 2013, more than a thousand polling locations, many in Black southern communities, have been closed.
Roll Purges are another way to disenfranchise voters. The National Voter Registration Act requires states to conduct general voter list maintenance and remove ineligible voters from the rolls. Federal law deems voters ineligible and subject to removal from the voter rolls when a voter moves, dies, asks to be removed, or is disqualified because of a criminal conviction or mental illness.
The idea of removing names from the rolls due to outdated, incomplete, duplicate or ineligible information is a sound idea. Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NRVA), states must offer a simplified voter registration process for anyone who applies for or renews a driver’s license or applies for public assistance. The intent is to make voter registration more accessible. The law also outlines steps that must be taken before a voter can be purged from a voter roll. This is where good intent can lead to discriminatory outcomes.
Before a voter becomes ineligible, they’re marked as inactive. States maintain lists of inactive voters — those who fail to answer a residency-confirming mailing or are flagged as having moved by the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address database. Voters then become ineligible if they don’t respond to mailings and then don’t vote in the following two federal elections. At that point, they’re subject to removal. But if the residency-confirming mailing is sent to the wrong address, or if a person exercises the right to not vote, a voter’s eligibility can be taken away without his consent or knowledge.
Discrimination and disenfranchisement occur when election officials use poor practices to identify ineligible voters and then remove them from the rolls. Poor database matching and using outdated information from DMV or social security records — both of which have been proven to be ineffective in voter roll maintenance — can lead to the unjust removal of eligible voters.
One program, the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, compares voter registrations across participating states by using first and last names and date of birth to flag voters potentially registered in multiple states. But Crosscheck’s results are notoriously inaccurate. A 2017 study found that an estimated 99.6% of votes cast by voters in Crosscheck states that shared a name and date of birth were cast by different individuals. Election officials using Crosscheck data to purge rolls potentially risk removing more than 300 registrations used to cast a legitimate vote for every double vote it might prevent.
DMV records aren’t a surefire way to verify information, either. An attempt by a Texas Secretary of State to purge voter rolls of noncitizens failed drastically when it was discovered that tens of thousands of voters on the DMV list were, in fact, citizens.
The NVRA requires non-discriminatory purge procedure, but that doesn’t stop states from targeting populations — intentionally or not. Purges disproportionately impact communities of color, who tend to vote at lower rates due to a variety of systemic and institutionalized barriers they face leading up to and during voting. Poor people and students, who move around a lot and may lack permanent mailing addresses, are also targeted more frequently by voter purges.
Voter Restoration Restrictions for Convicted Felons
Voting rights for convicted felons vary substantially from state to state. According to Ballotpedia, as of August 2022, convicted felons in 48 states could not vote while incarcerated, but could regain the right to vote upon their release or at some point after completing prison time, parole and/or probation. In Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., felons retained the right to vote during incarceration.
In Connecticut, voting rights are restored after release from prison and completion of parole, but only if all fines are also paid. Connecticut is one of only 8 states that require the payment of fines, fees and restitution before voting rights are restored.
The requirement to pay debts in order to vote is essentially a poll tax. Passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964 prohibits both Congress and the states from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or other types of tax. Yet Connecticut prevents people who’ve completed their sentences from reclaiming their right to vote if they haven’t completed outstanding payments. Since inmates can only earn $0.75-$1.75 per day for assigned work, it’s no surprise that they often lack financial resources needed to pay any debt. It’s one thing to argue for the need to pay fines. But it’s wrong to connect that payment to the restoration of your constitutional right to vote.
There are massive inequities in the rates of incarceration for minorities. While making up only 12% of the population, Black inmates comprise 41% of the prison population in Connecticut. For every White prisoner, there are 9 who are Black. The U.S. statistics are nearly identical. When you strip away the voting rights of felons and create barriers that make it difficult for voting rights to be restored, it’s easy to see how this has an enormously lopsided impact on the rights of Black voters.
Gerrymandering is the manipulation of voting district boundaries in ways that give intentional advantage to one political party. Both parties are guilty of the tactic, using two strategies called “packing” and “cracking.” Packing forces more voters of the opposite party into one district, creating one super-majority district while freeing up other districts to be more competitive. Cracking does the opposite – it breaks up like-minded voters into multiple districts, diluting their influence and ability to muster a voting majority.
The Connecticut constitution requires that all congressional and state legislative districts be contiguous. State House districts must not divide towns except where necessary to comply with other legal requirements. But when redistricting was required as a result of the 2020 Census, state legislators could not reach bipartisan agreement on new boundaries. The State Supreme Court resorted to hiring an outside expert to draw the plans that were ultimately filed with the Secretary of the State in 2022.
In 2021, in response to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, Connecticut became one of only a dozen states to end the practice of prison gerrymandering. This practice counted inmates as residents of the towns where they were incarcerated, rather than the towns they called home. This gave prison towns - which are predominately White and rural - disproportionate power by inflating their populations despite the fact that inmates cannot vote. At the same time, “home towns” – which are predominately Black, Latino and urban – lost representation when district boundaries were drawn based on populations.
More Work to Be Done
Connecticut is not the worst state when it comes to voter discrimination. Its ID requirements are relatively lenient – though still subject to unequal application among our 169 local governments. We will hopefully join the majority of states that allow early voting if the initiative on this November’s ballot passes. The end of prison gerrymandering is a positive step. Yet major urban areas still struggle with long lines at polling centers and logistical bottlenecks that test the determination of minority voters. The requirement for an ex-convict to pay fines in order to reclaim voting rights is both unjust and discriminatory. Not being the worst state is hardly a lofty goal. It remains our responsibility to call upon our representatives to ensure that the ability to vote is protected for all eligible voters. Understanding how current laws can be improved and fairly applied is the first step.