Barriers to Voting

Date Filed: 02/16/2018

“Democracy thrives when it is practiced, not prevented.”     – LDF President and Director-Counsel, John Payton

LDF has a longstanding history of advocating for an inclusive democracy that represents all Americans. We believe voting is one of the most sacred means of political participation, and are dedicated to removing barriers between individuals and the polls. In order to ensure lawmakers are aware of obstacles preventing Americans from casting ballots, LDF attorneys frequently testify before Congress on a variety of issues. In recent years, LDF attorneys have provided expert testimony on specific barriers to voting and offered ways to remove them.

LDF believes increasing the time period in which individuals can register to vote would significantly increase political participation. In 2010, Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel of LDF’s Political Participation Group, testified before the Louisiana House of Representatives on the benefits of Same Day Registration for voters. In his testimony, Mr. Ho advocated for Same Day Registration, proposing the practice would encourage voter participation by making the process less daunting to voters while simplifying the registration process. Research suggests Same Day Registration would greatly increase voter turnout, which Mr. Ho notes is “crucial for a fair and representative electoral system.”

The timeframe individuals are allotted to register to vote is not the only obstacle preventing Americans from voting, it is one of many. Co-Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group, Kristen Clarke, has testified before both the House and Senate on a number of other issues plaguing voter registration in the United States. In 2009, Ms. Clarke provided examples of several barriers to voting, among them the implementation of mandatory identification and “purge” programs by states, the failure of designated registration entities to carry out their responsibilities, and the use of voter suppression tactics.

The implementation of mandatory identification regulations has a disparate impact on underprivileged and minority voters who lack access to the forms of identification required. States who have adopted or are attempting to adopt mandatory voter identification requirements allege to be combating voter fraud despite a severe lack of evidence that voter fraud exists or poses a threat. Instead of protecting the integrity of political participation, strict identification requirements harm it by disenfranchising eligible voters. 

Purge programs also aim to ensure the purity of the polls by cross-checking registered voters between states and removing individuals believed to be registered in multiple jurisdictions. More often than not, however, purges have the opposite affect and result in the disqualification of eligible voters. These attempts at list maintenance rely only on an individual’s first and last name and date of birth in determining whether or not someone is registered to vote in more than one place, as well as if an individual has lost his or her right to vote due to a conviction. These standards do not allow for overlapping information or coincidences. Many “purge and match” programs are error-prone and result in the removal of qualified voters from the registration rolls. Once removed from the roll, voters are responsible for re-registering, which is often a time consuming and confusing process.

In many jurisdictions, DMVs and other social service agencies are failing to carry out their responsibility to make voter registration opportunities available as required by The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).  As a result, tens of thousands of otherwise eligible individuals miss a critical opportunity to register to vote.

Further compounding the problem is the fact that many individuals with criminal convictions are frequently unaware of their eligibility to register to vote, as laws vary greatly by state. The confusion over the impact of felon disenfranchisement laws frustrates efforts to create an environment of robust political participation for all Americans.

Challenges to voter eligibility appear throughout the voting process. Individuals who make it to the polls often face voter intimidation and suppression tactices, and can have their right to vote challenged by people inside the polling place. Both occurrences can discourage voters from casting their ballots, barring them from freely participating in the political process. These examples of voter suppression damage the integrity of the polls and cannot be tolerated.

The use of provisional ballots often bars political participation as well – a staggering number of ballots are rejected during each election. Arbitrary guidelines for the dismissal of provisional ballots are a serious problem, as they often prevent eligible individuals from voting. LDF advocates for improvements aimed to reduce the rejection rates of provisional ballots, as well as a decrease in the number used over time.

In his testimony before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2008, LDF President and Director-Counsel, John Payton, lamented the U.S.’s low rates of participation in elections. After noting that barriers to voting disproportionately impact the underprivileged and the poor, he stressed the need for an increase in voter outreach programs, voter education, and registration publicity in order to create a more inclusive electoral environment. In order for our democracy to attain greater levels of political participation Mr. Payton states, “affirmative efforts must be made to ensure that more citizens register and vote in our elections.” LDF considers the removal of barriers to voting central to efforts aimed at achieving an inclusive democracy.