Voter suppression, gerrymandering, absentee ballots: a look at voting rights
On February 28, 2019, members gathered to hear Newton resident Lisa Danetz discuss voter suppression issues. Lisa presented a comprehensive look at how voting rights have been affected nationally over the last 10 years or so, both negatively and positively.
Read the summery notes from the meeting below.
Notes from the February 28 Topic Meeting with Lisa Danetz
by Frieda Dweck
Voting rights have been negatively impacted over the last decade because many politicians have been focusing on voting legitimacy, rather than on ensuring fair play. This was accomplished in three different ways: (a) voter suppression, (b) gerrymandering, and (c) abuse of absentee ballots.
Voter Suppression – involves the effort to reduce the number of people who can vote. This can be accomplished by list purging, requiring voter IDs, and manipulating the locations of polling places (siting them far away from voters, or having too few polling places) so that it makes it more difficult for certain voters to vote. Because of time constraints, Lisa mostly reviewed recent list purging efforts.
List purging – from an administrative point of view, there is a legitimate concern about maintaining an accurate list of voters. Election administrators use the lists to determine the appropriate allocation of resources for an election; ie. how many polling locations should be available, how many poll workers should be assigned to each location, etc. For that reason, it is important to ensure that voter lists are kept current and accurate. However, there is a balance between maintaining an accurate list count and making sure that names are not removed from a voter list just for a failure to vote.
The National Voter Registration Act established a process for voter removal that protects the voter. One of the ways in which it does that is by creating a mechanism by which the US Postal Service works in coordination with election boards to notify them of address changes. However, several states have asserted that the mechanisms provided for by the NVRA do not do enough to purge their voter lists of inaccuracies, and have adopted policies that have resulted in the unnecessary removal of voters from voting lists.
Ohio – adopted a Supplemental Process for list purging that permitted election boards to remove a voter from its list if they failed to vote in two subsequent federal elections. This resulted in approximately 40,000 people being removed from the voter list, without first establishing that the voter no longer resided in the voting district. The purge of voters also disproportionately affected low- income citizens.
Georgia – adopted the Exact Match Bill. If the signature on a voter does not exactly match their signature from their voter registration application (even if the signature simply misses a hyphen), their vote is not counted unless they take steps to resolve the discrepancy. This caused over 50,000 votes to be uncounted, again disproportionately affecting low income voters and voters of color.
Texas – the Secretary of State in Texas demanded a review of voter’s list against a list of driver registrations. Since non-citizens obtain driver’s licenses, the objective was to identify non-citizens who had been listed on the voter rolls. This review resulted in 80,000 names being removed from the voter rolls. What the review failed to look at, though, was how many of the non-citizens became naturalized since obtaining their licenses, and when that review was done, there were only about 80 names left of non-citizens who were on the voter list. (There is no indication that these 80 non-citizens actually voted, only that their names were on voting lists.)
All these efforts at voter suppression have become more prevalent recently because of a Supreme Court decision in 2013 in the case of Holder v Shelby County. Prior to that decision, certain states were required to obtain approval of any legislation that would affect the rights of voters before those rules would go into effect, to insure that voters’ rights were protected. This affected primarily southern states, which have had a history of suppressing the votes of people of color. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that these protective provisions were no longer required.
Gerrymandering – is the manipulation of voting districts based on political affiliation and partisan makeup. Gerrymandering has been used to benefit both Republicans and Democrats. (Since the term ”gerrymandering” originated in Massachusetts, we, of course, had to briefly mention that history – – the word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.)
Partisan gerrymandering can be unconstitutional both under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection clause. Currently, there are several instances of gerrymandering being challenged in the courts. It is possible that in two instances – in North Carolina (where the districting map favors Republicans) and Maryland (where the districting map favors Democrats) – these cases will reach the Supreme Court.
Absentee Ballot Fraud – the collection of absentee ballots is the area where true fraud and cheating can occur. While we hear a great deal of concern about the need for photo IDs to prevent voter fraud at the polls, evidence has shown that this is less of a problem than absentee ballot collection.
Recently, in North Carolina, the Election Board refused to certify the outcome of the Congressional District 9 election due to a high number of questionable absentee ballots. For that district, Republicans make-up 19% of the voters, yet 80% of the absentee ballots were from Republicans.
Our discussion moved on to how voting rights have been positively impacted over the last decade.
Automatic Voter Registration. Last summer, Massachusetts joined about a dozen other states in adopting automatic voter registration regulations. AVR is expected to go into effect in Massachusetts in 2020. Whenever any Massachusetts resident interacts with either the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth, they will be automatically registered to vote unless they opt out. The RMV or MassHealth will transfer the registration data to the city clerks, and the city clerks then send out notifications to the individuals registered. Individuals are registered without any party affiliation but have an opportunity to register with a party after the initial notification.
Other initiatives being taken by states across the country to improve voter access:
- Same Day Voter Registration
- Restoration of Voting Rights to former felons
- Electronic Registration Information Center – a data base that uses up to date technology to share information about voters (age, citizenship, change of addresses). About 25 states belong to ERIC. There are some voting rights advocates who are skeptical of ERIC and believe that it can be used to prematurely remove voters from the registration lists.
All these issues are of interest to the LWV; helping citizens access the vote is one of our primary commitments.
Lisa Danetz is a public policy consultant for philanthropic foundations, has worked in the voting rights, money in politics, and democracy field as an expert, advocate, and lawyer for over 15 years. Her work has focused on improving election administration and increasing the political participation of disfranchised groups within our society through public policy research, litigation, executive and legislative advocacy, and public education. Ms. Danetz is the former legal director of Demos, a New York-based public policy center, and also worked at National Voting Rights Institute.