State Policy on Voter Access and Utah

02 August 2016 Written by  

Of the factors determining the strength of America’s democracy, few are more fundamentally important than voter access. While our nation’s founding documents declare all people are equal, in the case of the ballot box, this has not always been, and still may not be the case in many places.

But first, where does the “right to vote” come from?

Two years after the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, granting full citizenship to emancipated slaves, Congress ratified the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 15th Amendment granted voting rights for African-American men, stating, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It took Congress another fifty years to amend the Constitution to ban voting discrimination by gender. The 19th Amendment, a landmark victory for women’s suffrage, says, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

But the last real watershed moment for voting rights in Congress came with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For over fifty years, the VRA has helped increase registration for all Americans by eliminating the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means to effectively disenfranchise minority voters, despite consistent and blatant attempts to undermine it at the local, state and federal levels ever since. This Saturday will mark the 51st anniversary of the VRA.

With all these legal protections, it seems like voting rights ought to be secure and universal. What does it mean, then, when someone says, “the right to vote is under attack?”

There are many different types of voter suppression, but we’ll focus on a few of the most egregious mechanisms used to undermine the “one person, one vote” principle:

1. Voter ID Laws: These are laws requiring some form of identification in order to vote or receive a ballot for an election. This is a tactic that often impacts voters who don't have a driver's license, or who don't have the money or ability to obtain one. Voter ID laws might also affect urban areas more, where many people don't own cars, as opposed to rural areas.

             Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Voting (HBO) - YouTube

Which states have the most strict voter ID laws? Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Utah’s voter ID requirements are considerably less restrictive, though they still need work. For example, seniors may or may not need a valid driver’s license. Whatever ID they have, whether it’s a Medicare card or an expired driver’s license ought to suffice for voter ID purposes.

2. Changing polling hours or eliminating early voting days: This is an issue in urban areas where polling lines tend to be longer. Limiting the window of time where people can access their right to vote puts an unnecessary burden on people who work long, inflexible hours, multiple jobs and on parents who can’t afford or do not have help watching their children.

3. Reducing the number of polling locations: Like changing available voting hours, reducing the amount of polling locations can impact voter turnout. This is because less locations means more lines, further travel, and less access.

4. Lack of multi-lingual voter resources: Limiting the amount voter registration resources and polling location assistance for non-English language speakers is one way to place a burden on the ability to vote of non-English speakers. It might even intimidate eligible voters.

Only Salt Lake County is required by federal law (the 5% threshold law) to have voter registration forms and ballots in Spanish—and since this was implemented, Spanish speakers’ participation in the electorate has improved. Though it’s optional for the rest of the state or other counties, there is no reason not to make voting more accessible for Spanish speakers statewide.

5. Gerrymandering and redistricting: Manipulating election maps is one way that states have historically been able to dilute a group’s voting power. This is the practice of packing all of a community's minorities into one district or dividing them into a handful of districts to limit their collective voting power. Utah’s electoral map reflects extensive gerrymandering, particularly since the 2010 Census (see details and map).

Utah’s legislative and congressional are heavily gerrymandered, even though a significant majority of Utahns would like districts to be drawn up more fairly, by an independent commission. This issue is likely to heat up in the coming years.

So what are some practical fixes?

1. Automatic Voter Registration – In March 2015, Oregon made history in the United States as the first state to pass automatic voter registrations for all citizens who have driver’s licenses. This legislation, which created an opt-out registration system, would create a seamless registration, which according to the Brennan Center for Justice could, “boost registration rates, clean up the rolls, save money, make voting more convenient, and reduce the potential for voter fraud.”

2. Federal Election Holiday – In the 113th Congress, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed that Election Day become “Democracy Day”, a federal holiday, and President Obama has since voiced his own support of a such a measure. Says Sanders' official Senate website, “In America, we should be celebrating our democracy and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process. Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy.” In the meantime, a state could make election day a state holiday. 

3. Online voting – The idea of online voting causes hope and headache alike. In the Baltic state of Estonia, citizens have been able to vote in election online since 2007. As of 2011, 1 in 4 Estonians voted online, and America’s northern neighbor Canada has over eighty towns that rely on online voting. Critics of online registration point to fraud and hacking as the two major concerns of allowing online voting. Many would argue that the internet is becoming less secure, as security and data breaches across the United States have resulted in an increasing lack of trust in in internet safety. Still, if we can file our taxes online without a hiccup, we should be able to develop a safe and secure system for voting online. For millennials in particular, who often lack printers, this would be a huge benefit.

4. Early voting - Early voting is the process by which electors can vote prior to the scheduled Election Day. Early voting can take place remotely, such as voting by mail, or in person, typically at designated early voting locations. Early voting gives citizens more time to cast their votes and allows more democratic participation. Currently 37 states and the Washington DC allow early voting for any qualified voter prior to Election Day—including Utah.

Another version of this is mail-in voting. This is a system of voting whereby paper ballots are sent by mail to voters, and returned by post in a period before the election. Today only Oregon, Washington and Colorado conduct elections by mail. In these states ballots are automatically mailed to every registered voter in advance of Election Day, while in person voting is not available. This Fall Salt Lake County will be the first Utah county to experiment with mail in ballots.

5. Election Day Registration - Election Day registration, or same day registration, allows eligible voters from a particular state to register at a polling site on Election Day. While most states have a strict voter registration deadline, thirteen states allow for early registration. Election day registration could very well have a positive result for voter turnout, as evidenced by research from PBS. While overall turnout in the US during the 2014 midterm election hovered just over 36%, most states offering Election Day registration had higher turnout than the national average. In 2016, Utah has been testing election day registration in six counties, which was first launched during the 2014 election in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Kane counties. Watch for a push in the coming legislative session to make this statewide.

Best and Worst States for Voting

The Best – these states stand above the rest:

1. Oregon – Oregon automatically registers all eligible voters with a driver’s license and sends mail in ballots ahead of Election Day. The state also has an early voting period.

2. Colorado - Colorado provides mail in ballots for all registered voters, has an early voting period, and allows same day registration. Colorado also expanded access for non-English speaking voters.

3. Vermont – Vermont passed automatic voter registration, has same day registration and has early voting that begins 45 days before Election Day.

4. West Virginia - West Virginia passed a law making it the third state to enact automatic voter registration —the first to do so with broad bipartisan support.


The Bad – these states are—or were—headed in the wrong direction:

1. Virginia – Virginia has no early voting period, no same day registration, requires a photo ID to vote, and places strict limits on third-party voter registration.

2. Mississippi – Mississippi has no early voting period, no same day registration, and requires a photo ID to vote.

3. North Carolina – North Carolina eliminated same-day registration, reduced the early voting period, ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and implemented a photo ID requirement to vote. A recent appeals court ruling struck down the state's restrictive voter ID laws (see details).

Today, legislation supporting voter access has a ton of momentum across the nation, but there are also alarming trends. After the Supreme Court struck down key components of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, this election will be the first time voters go to the polls in a presidential year without several key protections. In a number of states, legislation has been passed in the last three years to make registration and voting more difficult, including burdensome photo ID laws, rules limiting early voting, and regulations placing additional restrictions on registration.

Recent court rulings suggest the tide is turning. See the opinion piece in today’s New York Times about the recent court rulings against such measures. In sum: voter access is moving in the right direction, even in those states that have endeavored to restrict access in recent years.

We find more reasons to be optimistic. One national authority on voter rights, the Brennan Center for Justice, notes, “The 2016 session saw more automatic voter registration bills introduced than any other kind of voting legislation.” And for the fourth year in a row, legislation expanding voter access has outpaced those seeking to restrict it. These new laws, some that modernize voting systems and others restoring voting rights for Americans with criminal convictions, have garnered bipartisan support and are being proposed and passed at a more rapid pace than ever before.