Elections 101

Voting Rights and Voter Suppression: Navigating State & Local Laws and Barriers to the Ballot


Created in partnership with Access Democracy

The right to vote is the foundational principle of our democracy. American heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the suffragists fought for every American to have this right. Protecting the vote is more important now than ever, as the Trump administration ramps up efforts to make it harder to vote.

You can fight back by working to improve access to voting in your community. The Voting Rights and Voter Suppression resource series covers actions you can take right now to change how elections are run, and make voting more accessible for every eligible person in your community. These are steps you can take today—they don’t require your state’s legislature to change any laws, or a court to issue a new ruling.

The way that elections are run matters. A study by Charles Stewart, a political scientist at MIT, found that in 2016 more than 1 million Americans weren’t able to vote because of problems like long lines at the polls, mail ballots not arriving on time, and registration problems. That’s 1 million people who wanted to vote and couldn’t—in an election decided by fewer than 80,000 voters across 3 states.

The way elections are run is a mix of federal and state law. From Alaska to Florida, officials at the state and local level are charged with implementing voting laws and rules. These officials work year-round to set up and manage elections, not just on Election Day. You don’t often hear about these officials, and that’s because most of them just want to make sure elections run right. But state and local officials don’t always have access to the resources they need to drive the result we all want: fair, equal, and easy access to the ballot.

The challenges that voters face are often a result of decisions made by these election officials. Just like with any public official, it’s critical that the officials who implement your state’s voting laws and rules hear from their communities. By letting your state and local election officials know that you care about the right to vote, you can have an impact on the decisions they make to ensure fair, equal, and easy access to the ballot—for every voter in your state.

Your election officials need to know that we demand fair, equal, and easy access to the ballot. The Voting Rights and Voter Suppression resource series covers 4 simple steps you can take today to change how elections are run in your community and protect the right to vote for every eligible American:

  1. Call your Statewide Election Official—so that you can better understand how elections are run in your state—and ask the official to use his or her power to make it easier for all eligible Americans to vote
  2. Call your Local Election Official—so that you can better understand how elections are run in your community—and ask the official to use his or her power to make it easier for all eligible Americans to vote
  3. Become a Poll Worker—a friendly knowledgeable poll worker can be the difference between a citizen successfully voting and a voter being inadvertently turned away from the polls
  4. Register, Register, Register—the first step towards participating in our democracy is to register; so register everyone you know, everywhere you go!

How to Use Resource Series

The Voting Rights and Voter Suppression resource series is intended to be a voting access toolbox. It provides information about the critical challenges voters across the country face when they try to cast a ballot—and what you can do to change that right now, without waiting on your state’s legislature to make new laws. Depending on the laws and rules in your state, and the challenges voters are facing in it, some tools may be more relevant than others. Please grab what you need, and help us build a society that values fair, equal, and easy access to polls.

Based on the voting issues your state is facing, you can develop next steps that include advocating with election officials to make voting more accessible, as well as actions you can take directly like registering voters (check out Indivisible435 for more information and tools on voter registration). You may already be in touch with other organizations that work on voting rights issues in your community, and many of them build relationships with state and local election officials. We encourage you to reach out to these organizations, which can be a resource to you and a partner in advocacy. And remember—you are encouraged to engage in respectful, open and honest conversations with election officials about these important topics, using the questions as a guide.

Understanding what’s happening locally, and identifying trends across and between states, will play an important role in voting rights advocacy around the country. As part of the conversations you undertake with election officials, you can record your answers in this survey. We would like to collect this information to identify systemic voting rights issues, as well as election officials who want to be more active protecting the right to vote and can provide important expertise.


For more background, check out these useful resources

Access Democracy → Access Democracy fixes local election administration problems to ensure all eligible Americans can vote. Issues like long lines, broken voting machines, and poorly maintained voter rolls block access to the ballot for millions of Americans—and they're solvable.

Access Democracy uses data to pinpoint a county or city's specific voting problems, and identifies solutions that fit that community's needs and its budget. We work with local officials who want to improve how they're running elections—and shine a spotlight on those who don't.


Being a strong advocate for the right to vote starts with getting educated! It will be helpful to read through this information about election administration and voting before speaking with election officials in your state. There are a number of references to recommendations made by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA). Established by Executive Order by President Obama in 2013, the PCEA—comprised of a distinguished and bipartisan membership that included election officials, attorneys, and academics—made a series of recommendations for better-run elections that will improve the voter experience, and increase voter participation. We have incorporated the Commission’s key recommendations in this document.

Presidential Commission on Election Administration, The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (2014).

Liz Kennedy, Lew Daly, and Brenda Wright, Automatic Voter Registration: Finding America's Missing Voters, Demos (2016).

National Conference of State Legislatures, Web Resources on Campaigns and Elections.

Washington Institute of the Study of Ethnicity and Race at the University of Washington, Seattle and the Election Administration Research Center (EARC) University of California, Berkeley, Online Voter Registration (OLVR) Systems In Arizona And Washington: Evaluating Usage, Public Confidence And Implementation Processes (2010).

U.S. Election Assistance Commission, The Election Administration and Voting Survey, A Report To The 115th Congress (2016).

Demos and Project Vote, What Is Same Day Registration? Where Is It Available? (2014).

John Wagner, Trump voter commission leader comes under fire as panel meets in New Hampshire, Washington Post (Sept. 12, 2017).

Christopher Famighetti, Amanda Melillo, Myrna Pérez, Election Day Long Lines: Resource Allocation, Brennan Center (Sept. 15, 2014).

NALEO Educational Fund, Latino Voters at Risk: Assessing the Impact of Restrictive Voting Changes In Election 2016 (May 2016).

Avery Davis-Roberts, Native American Voters Face Unique Obstacles, The Carter Center (July 6, 2017).

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, The Asian American Vote 2016 (April 18, 2017).

Greg Palast, The GOP’s Stealth War Against Voters, Rolling Stone (Aug. 24, 2016).

Liz Kennedy, Voter Suppression Laws Cost Americans Their Voices at the Polls, Center for American Progress (Nov. 11, 2016).

Brennan Center for Justice, Expand Early Voting (Fed. 4, 2016).

Justin Levitt, A Comprehensive Investigation Of Voter Impersonation Finds 31 Credible Incidents Out Of One Billion Ballots Cast, Washington Post (Aug. 6, 2014).

ACLU, Oppose Voter ID Legislation - Fact Sheet (May 2017).

Verified Voting, The Verifier - Polling Place Equipment (Nov. 2016).

Lawrence Norden and Christopher Famighetti, America’s Voting Machines at Risk, Brennan Center for Justice (Sept. 15, 2015).

Center for American Progress, Election Infrastructure: Vulnerabilities and Solutions (Sept. 11, 2017).

Christopher Famighetti, Long Voting Lines Explained, Brennan Center for Justice (Nov. 4, 2016).

Scott Powers and David Damron, Analysis: 201,000 in Florida Didn't Vote Because of Long Lines, Orlando Sentinel (Jan. 29, 2013).

CalTech-MIT Voting Technology Project, Election Management Toolkit.

Acknowledgements

Renée Athay, Indivisible, Santa Fe, NM

Nani Coloretti, Advisory Board, Access Democracy

Dan Desai Martin

Christine Hanna, Indivisible Action, Tampa, FL

Justin Levitt, Advisory Board, Access Democracy

Jaime Mulligan, Indivisible, Berkeley, CA

Jen O’Malley Dillon, Advisory Board, Access Democracy

Estelle Rogers, Advisory Board, Access Democracy

Heather Samuelson

David Smith, Rogue Indivisible, Oregon

Caroline Stern, Indivisible, Westchester, NY

This resource series could not have been produced without the contributions of Rachana Desai Martin