Elections 101

Voting Rights and Voter Suppression: Call your State Election Official


Created in partnership with Access Democracy

Your statewide election official often sets election standards for the entire state. This office can clarify confusing points of state election law, update standards to reflect modernization efforts, and provide additional resources at the state and local level to run elections. Let your statewide election office know you appreciate the importance of the office and ask them to use their power to make it easier for all eligible Americans to vote.

State and federal laws—like the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA)—set standards for how elections are run, and none of the questions you’ll be asking should be unfamiliar to the election officials you are meeting with.

These conversations will help you learn more about how elections are administered in your state–making you a better advocate. They will also let the state election official know that citizens, like you, are engaged and are supportive of policies that make voting easier.

Remember: The best way to use this guide is to read through all of it, and decide which parts raise the issues most important to ensuring equal access to voting in your state. You don’t have to ask your state election official about every issue below!

**Remember to Fill Out the Survey at AccessDemocracy.us/Indivisible with What You Learned**

WHO?

Each state has a government official or elections board that is charged with managing elections statewide. In most states, the Secretary of State fills this role. You can look up your state election official here.

Although the specifics vary by state, the state election official or board is typically charged with administering the statewide voter registration database, developing the process for testing voting equipment, and making sure local officials follow election laws.

WHAT ACTION ARE YOU TAKING?

Make a plan to call or meet with your statewide election official or a member of his or her staff to ask how he or she is working towards fair, equal, and easy access to the ballot. There may be instances where your statewide official or their staff is unwilling to arrange a time to talk with you. These statewide election officials tend to be elected to office, so they are open to the same tactics and requests your groups have been using on Congressional officials: calls, protests, and public pressure.

 

VOTER REGISTRATION

Why Is Easy Access to Voter Registration Important?

The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy. Before citizens can exercise this right, they must be registered to vote. When, how, and if a citizen may register to vote is controlled by the states, with a little bit of federal law on top. Some states have taken steps to make it easier for citizens to vote—like online registration and automatic registration. Other states have enacted laws designed to make it harder, or in the case of felon disenfranchisement laws, impossible for certain citizens to vote.

The 2016 election was the first presidential election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The VRA gave the federal government authority to review any changes to votings laws in certain states. The Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, gutted this provision of the VRA. A 2016 Demos report said:

“In Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, and many other states, this has led to what journalist Ari Berman describes as ‘the most sustained attack [on voting rights] since the passage of the VRA.’ Policymakers in these states are working to limit or repeal policies that encourage and enable participation, such as Early Voting and Same-Day Registration (SDR), while also erecting new policies that unnecessarily limit participation, such as strict photo ID laws.”

These troubling developments highlight the importance of making registration easier, of increasing outreach to voters by election officials, and of your own efforts to register people in your community!

Online Registration
Thirty-six states and D.C. currently allow citizens to register to vote, or update their registration information, online. Click here to see if your state offers online voter registration. To register online, a voter completes an online form, which is transmitted to state or local election officials. In most states, a voter must have a valid state driver’s license or other state-issued ID card to register online (voters without that ID can still register by other means). The election official reviews the information the voter provided and validates it by comparing it to state databases (like the DMV database). If the information does not match or there is another issue with the registration, the voter is notified.

Online registration has many benefits. Many citizens, especially students and younger voters, find it easier to register online. With paper forms, election staff must decipher handwriting and transcribe the information into their database. Since online registration is completed and transmitted electronically, this process significantly reduces errors. Online registration also saves states money. A 2010 report found that Maricopa County, Arizona saved 80 cents every time a voter registered online instead of on paper. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent bipartisan commission charged with developing voting and election guidelines, found that use of online registration has almost tripled over the last several years. In 2014, 6.5% of voters registered online, and by 2016 that number grew to 17.4%. Just like with any technology, it’s common sense to make sure that a state’s online voter registration system is secure and well-functioning. States should ensure that their online voter registration system has safeguards to protect voter data and privacy; can handle a large number of visitors to the website, particularly close to the registration deadline; is accessible to persons with disabilities; and that eligible voters across the state are made aware of the opportunity to register and update their information online.

Automatic Registration
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, commonly known as the “motor voter” law, required states to allow citizens to register at DMVs. Most states initially implemented this law as an “opt in” system—meaning that voters could choose, or “opt in,” to register to vote when updating or renewing their driver’s license. In contrast, automatic voter registration means that when eligible citizens interact with the DMV or other government office that registers voters, they will automatically be registered to vote unless they “opt out” of registration. Automatic voter registration reduces the burden on citizens because when you register, your registration follows you better, without constantly having to submit extra paperwork. It also helps state and local election officials because voters’ addresses are routinely updated, resulting in cleaner voter rolls.

In March 2015, Oregon became the first state to pass legislation to automatically register eligible citizens to vote (unless they opt out). As of December 2017, eight additional states and D.C. have followed suit, and 32 states are considering automatic registration legislation. Click here to see if your state offers automatic voter registration.

Same Day Registration
As of October 2017, 15 states and D.C. allow citizens to register to vote and vote on the same day. Out of those, 13 states and D.C. allow registration and voting on Election Day. Click here to see if your state offers some form of same day registration (SDR). Regardless of the state’s voter ID laws, states that allow SDR require the voter to show proof of residency and identity in order to register on the same day you vote. In most cases, a valid driver’s license or government-issued ID card will suffice.

There is no question that SDR makes it easier for people to vote. This one-stop process results in a longer registration period and helps eligible voters manage last-minute problems or mistakes. According to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures, SDR policies on average increase overall turnout by 5%. And, studies indicate that permitting Election Day registration and voting could increase youth turnout by as much as 14% in presidential election years.

Can I register to vote online?

If yes → Great! What is the deadline for online registration?
How are you educating voters in the community about the option to register to vote online?
How have you ensured that the online registration system won’t crash, particularly when many people in our state are visiting the site close to the registration deadline?
Is information about online registration available in Spanish [or other commonly spoken languages in our state]?

If no → Why not? Thirty-six states and D.C. already have online voter registration. Allowing online voter registration makes it easier for citizens to register, is more secure than registering on paper, reduces transcription errors, and saves states money.
What would it take to get online voter registration in our state (a new law, a regulatory change)?
Can we count on you to support efforts to bring online registration to our state?

Do we have automatic voter registration?

If yes → Great!

If no → Why not? Nine states and D.C. already have this. It makes it much easier for citizens to register and reduces transcription errors, which makes for cleaner voting rolls. This is a key step in modernizing our election system.
Can we count on you to support automatic voter registration efforts in our state?

How can a voter confirm that she is registered and that her voter registration information is up-to-date?

Does our state offer same day registration?

If yes → Great! Thank you for making voting easier. Including information about same day registration in voter education materials and training all poll workers about same day registration can help ensure voters’ access to the ballot and make for an efficient Election Day!

If no → Why not? Many states have same day registration and studies show that it has a positive effect on turnout.
Can we count on you to support same day registration efforts in our state?

What other voter outreach and education do you do?

If yes → Do you have programs that reach out to students? Voters with disabilities? Non-English speaking members of our community? New citizens? Individuals with criminal convictions who are now eligible to have their voting rights restored?

Would you join me in taking a position to support expanded access to voter registration in our state?

 

PURGES AND VOTER ROLL MAINTENANCE

Why Is Fair and Accurate Voter Roll Maintenance Important?

Maintaining up-to-date voter rolls is an important way to ensure that all eligible Americans can participate in our democracy. State and local officials should ensure that citizens who register to vote remain on the rolls so long as they are eligible and living in the state, and that voter roll information, such as voters’ addresses, is accurate. This promotes fair and efficient election administration and helps to avoid problems at the polls.

The National Voter Registration Act, a federal law, regulates how to maintain voter registration lists, and under what circumstances voters can be removed or “purged” from the rolls. States, however, retain considerable flexibility and control over how to implement list maintenance requirements. There are a number of methods for keeping state voter rolls up-to-date in a manner that protects eligible Americans from being improperly removed. These include referring to Postal Service, DMV, Social Security and other similar databases to determine if a voter has moved, died, or is otherwise ineligible; direct outreach to voters to confirm their mailing address; and some reliable inter-state data sharing agreements that enable states to compare information about voters they think have moved.

All too often, state efforts to “clean” the rolls actually end up purging eligible voters. For example, some states use the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program (Crosscheck)—championed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach of the shameful Trump voter fraud commission—to remove voters from the voter rolls. A Rolling Stone investigation revealed that Crosscheck’s flawed methodology (such as not matching middle names) resulted in “an astonishing one in six [Latinos], one in seven Asian-Americans and one in nine African-Americans in Crosscheck states” being flagged as potential double registrants. Indivisible Chicago has been crucial in highlighting additional security threats posed by Crosscheck – read more here.

How is a voter notified that she has been removed from the rolls? How can a voter who has been incorrectly removed correct the problem?

No eligible voter should be removed from the rolls. It’s so important for a voter to be able to correct any mistakes if she is improperly removed.

Do you use the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program?

If yes → You may be aware that Crosscheck’s flawed methodology has been found to incorrectly flag potential double registrants. According to a Rolling Stone study, 1 in 6 Latino voters, 1 in 7 Asian-Americans, and 1 in 9 African-Americans in Crosscheck states were flagged as potential double registrants. There are many other ways of ensuring that voter rolls remain up-to-date. Please take steps to end the use of Crosscheck in our state.

If no → Great! As you know, there are many ways of keeping our state’s voter rolls remain up-to-date, which helps ensure efficient election administration and avoid polling place problems.

Would you join me in taking a position to support fair and accurate maintenance of voter rolls?

 

EARLY VOTING AND VOTE BY MAIL

Why Is Easy Access to the Ballot Important??

Once a citizen is registered to vote, she still must overcome one final hurdle before being able to exercise her right to vote: she actually has to cast her ballot! For many Americans, the option to vote only on a weekday during business hours doesn’t make sense: work and family responsibilities make getting to the polls very difficult. In fact, according to a report published by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in 2016, 41% of all the votes cast nationally were cast before Election Day. In its 2014 report, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration applauded the trend towards offering more opportunities for pre-Election Day voting and recommended that more states offer such opportunities. Despite this, 13 states still require a specific excuse to vote absentee and do not have any form of early voting. These states can expand the right to vote by offering early voting and making available to all citizens the option to vote by mail. See what your state offers here.

In addition, election officials should be certain that the locations and times they offer for voting are equally available to communities across the state. This includes flexible voting hours, and polling places that can be easily accessed (including by public transit). Polling place closures and limited voting hours disproportionately affect communities of color. A study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that, in the 2016 election, “in states with histories of voting discrimination there were 868 fewer polling places operating on Election Day.”

Administrative decisions on polling locations, hours and staffing have an enormous impact on access to the ballot—particularly for voters of color. Targeted choices to under-resource polling locations in communities of color can prevent communities of color from exercising their right to vote. As the NALEO Education Fund wrote in their report Latino Voters at Risk: Assessing the Impact of Restrictive Voting Changes In Election 2016:

“Election administrators’ discretion to set aggressive registration list maintenance policies, to close or consolidate polling locations, to provide insufficient resources for polling places in underrepresented communities, and to neglect the provision of language assistance throughout the election process has already made it more difficult for many Latinos and underrepresented voters to participate in elections.”

While the NALEO report was focused on Latino communities, similar patterns of habitual under-resourcing of polling places and other voter access issues can also be seen in neighborhoods with large African AmericanNative American, and Asian American and Pacific Islander populations.

Early Vote

Early vote expands access to voting for working Americans, and for those with childcare or elder-care responsibilities. Early voting is when the state offers in-person voting for a period in advance of Election Day. Thirty-seven states and D.C. offer some form of early voting. While that is an encouraging number, in recent years, states have started to reverse the trend by cutting back on early voting. The Brennan Center reported in February 2016:

“[S]tarting in 2011, several states started restricting early voting. In North Carolina, the legislature slashed seven early voting days, removing times that were especially popular among African Americans. Among these: the Sunday before the election, used by churchgoers for a ‘Souls to the Polls’ drive. In the prior election, more than one-quarter of all African-American voters in the state had voted on those days. In 2012, Florida dramatically reduced early voting. After exceptionally long lines—which disproportionately impacted African Americans and Hispanics—prevented 200,000 from voting and caused a national outcry, the legislature backtracked and reinstated most of the days it had eliminated. Overall, eight states have new laws cutting back on early voting days and hours.”

In many states, the law gives some flexibility to local election officials about where to offer early vote, and the days and hours it will be available. These officials should be encouraged to offer early vote to the fullest extent they are able under the law, including—where the law permits it—early in the morning, later in the evening, and on Saturdays and Sundays. Click here to see if your state offers early vote.

No-Excuse Absentee / Vote by Mail

Making voting more flexible helps enfranchise people who cannot get time away from work, who have a disability or are mobility impaired, who have family obligations that prevent them from voting in-person, and countless others. Vote by mail is one way to create additional opportunities for voters to exercise their right to vote in the way that is most comfortable and convenient to them. In addition, vote by mail can save states money because they do not need to have as many polling locations and staff. More convenient voting options may also increase turnout.

Absentee voting by-mail was originally developed as an alternative way to vote for people who would be away from their polling place on Election Day. Initially, most states only allowed voters who had certain legally-defined reasons to vote absentee. Now, 27 states and D.C. have no-excuse absentee voting—which means all voters, regardless of reason, can vote absentee. These states generally require voters to apply for an absentee ballot.

Three states, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, conduct their elections by mail. In these states, every voter gets a ballot in the mail without having to apply. (However, voters may still vote in person if they wish.) Many other states allow voting by mail in certain limited circumstances. Click here to see what your state offers.

Note: Federal law does not guarantee time off work to vote, but many states have passed laws giving workers some protection when they take time off to vote. The AFL-CIO has a comprehensive list of state laws on time off to vote, available here.

Do we have early voting and/or vote by mail in our state?

If yes → Great! Have you provided guidance to localities on providing early voting to the fullest extent possible, including the full range of days and hours? Where is this guidance made available?

If no → Why not? Please advocate for early voting and vote by mail in our state. Early voting and vote by mail increase opportunities for a citizen to vote. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended in 2014 that states expand pre-Election Day voting.

Will you join me in taking a position to support expanded access to voting before Election Day, either in person or by mail?

 

VOTER ID LAWS

Why Are Restrictive Voter ID Laws Harmful?

All states have some way to make sure that you are who you say you are. But in recent years, more and more states have enacted restrictive voter ID laws purportedly to combat voter fraud, demanding documents that some people don’t have. Indivisible and partner organizations will be rolling out future resources on what you can do to combat voter ID laws intended to disenfranchise millions of voters – especially voters of color. Widespread in-person voter fraud—the only kind that ID requirements can prevent—is virtually non-existent. A 2014 review of “general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014” found only 31 incidents out of the “more than 1 billion ballots … cast in that period.”

While the benefit to election integrity is virtually non-existent, restrictive ID laws disenfranchise millions of Americans. According to information released by the ACLU, 11% of voting-age citizens, more than 21 million people, do not have a government-issued photo ID. Moreover, restrictive voter ID laws disproportionately affect minorities, the elderly, people with lower incomes, and those with disabilities – the very populations that often have the hardest time accessing the information and documents needed to get an ID. Our country has a long and ugly history of disenfranchisement – read more in our Electoral Politics 101 guide – and modern attempts to limit the vote through voter ID laws harken back to these shameful efforts to disenfranchise voters based on race, sex, or disability. Click here to see the ID requirements in your state.

What ID does our state require to vote?

If no photo ID → Great! Restrictive ID laws disenfranchise millions of Americans.

If photo ID required → Why is photo ID required?
What should voters who don’t have a photo ID do?
What photo ID does your office provide for voters?
Is that photo ID free?
What support is there for voters who cannot afford the fees associated with the ID or the underlying paperwork (like a birth certificate)?
How long does it take to acquire the photo ID issued by your office?
Can we count on you to support efforts to remove photo ID requirements?

 

VOTING MACHINES AND INFRASTRUCTURE

Why Are the Mechanics of Election Administration Important?

Voting Machines

States and localities use a variety of voting machines and may even use different machines within the jurisdiction for different types of voting. Most places use one of three types of machines: Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) Voting Machine, Optical Scan Machines, and Hybrid Machines.

  • DRE machines allow voters to directly record their vote on the machine, usually by touchscreen or pushbutton, and usually have a more flexible interface for voters with disabilities or language concerns. The voting data is stored in the computer’s memory. Some DRE machines also include a Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), which is a paper record of each vote that is stored in the machine.
  • Optical scan machines scan paper ballots that the voter fills in by hand.
  • Hybrid machines allow voters to record their votes on the machine, like DREs. But the machine then prints a paper ballot that is scanned by an optical scanner.

You can learn more about the types of equipment in use in polling places in your state from this resource made available by Verified Voting.

The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s 2014 report cautions of an impending crisis in voting technology. The Commission notes that many of the voting machines in use today were purchased with federal funds in the early 2000s and are past their prime. In fact, according to research by the Brennan Center, some 43 states are using machines that are more than a decade old. Additionally, according to research by the Center for American Progress, 13 states are using machines that do not use paper ballots or produce a VVPAT. The lack of a paper record makes it impossible to conduct a post-election audit to ensure that voting systems are accurately recording and counting votes.

Electronic Poll Books

When a voter arrives at the polling place, the first thing he does is go to the check-in table where a poll worker looks for his name in the poll book. Traditionally, these books were printed lists of all of the voters registered in the particular precinct. Now, more jurisdictions are switching to electronic lists on a tablet or laptop computer. Electronic poll books can enable poll workers to look up voters in the entire county or state, and direct them to the right polling place if they have come to the wrong one. Some even automatically update records on who has voted during an early vote period or at a different voting location. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s 2014 report recommended using electronic poll books.

There are some downsides, however. Electronic poll books can malfunction and are more susceptible to hacking and cyber threats. For these reasons, many jurisdictions that use electronic poll books still keep printed paper copies of the poll book at polling locations or nearby.

Resource Management: Polling Place Hours, Locations & Staffing

Some of the most important decisions elections officials make are about resource management. These decisions range from how many polling locations to open during early vote, to how many voting machines and poll workers to deploy, to whether there are staff members available to assist voters facing language barriers.

One of the most significant consequences of resource management decisions is their effect on wait times to vote. A review by the Brennan Center of three states with some of the longest lines to vote in 2012 revealed that “precincts with the longest lines had fewer machines, poll workers, or both.” Furthermore, the study showed that “[a]reas with higher percentages of minority voters tended to have fewer machines … and voters in precincts with more minorities experienced longer waits” to vote. Also, “those who waited the longest tended to live in urban areas and were disproportionately African American and Latino.” Long wait times to vote can depress voter turnout. In 2012, long lines at the polls caused more than 200,000 Floridians to leave without casting a ballot.

Where polling locations are placed also has an important impact on who is able to cast a ballot on Election Day and can disproportionately hurt communities of color. A panel convened by the Carter Center revealed that some Native American voters had to drive more than 100 miles to cast a ballot in the 2016 Presidential election. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, states closed 868 polling locations in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Carolinas – a decision that directly hurt the ability of those states’ African American and Latino communities to vote.

The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommends that jurisdictions use models and tools to assist in resource allocation, such as the calculators developed by the CalTech-MIT Voting Technology Project. These calculators show different line lengths depending on various factors at a polling place, including ballot length and number of poll workers. The use of such calculators may help guard against allocating too few resources to communities of color and urban areas.

Cybersecurity

Nothing highlights the importance and urgency of better protecting our election infrastructure from cyber threats more than the recent revelations about the extent of Russian hacking during the 2016 election. Russian operatives targeted election systems in 39 states, as well as an election equipment vendor. Outdated voting machines must be updated and their security strengthened by requiring a paper audit trail. Election officials should have plans to protect voter registration databases and electronic poll books from cyberattacks. A poll from the summer of 2017 found that 1 out of 4 voters will consider not voting in the future because of cybersecurity concerns. As jurisdictions take steps to improve their technology, they must keep the safety and security of voter information at the forefront. Failure to do so will only further erode public confidence in our elections.

What kind of voting machines do we use in our state? Are there are any planned changes?

Do you make electronic poll books available in our state? Are there plans to introduce electronic poll books?

What steps are you taking to safeguard our elections from cyberattacks?

Thank you. The recent revelations about Russian interference in the 2016 election make clear that we must take this threat seriously.

Do you have the resources you need to protect our election infrastructure from cyberattacks?

Would you join me in taking a position to support strong protections for voter privacy and security?

Remember to Fill Out the Survey at AccessDemocracy.us/Indivisible with What You Learned