National News

‘This Definitely Interferes’: Four Fights Over Voting Rights

Posted November 3, 2018 5:00 p.m. EDT

Tactics to discourage minorities and college students from casting ballots are proliferating. We took a look at four disputes over voting rights.

— Easing early voting. Or not.

When North Carolina’s Republican legislature ordered all early-voting sites to stay open 12 hours a day for 18 days this year, they called it a move to boost voting.

It’s not turning out that way.

Many poorer counties don’t have the resources to comply, and more than half — including many rural, disproportionately minority ones — have had to close some early-voting sites

Sprawling Halifax County, 700 square miles and 52 percent African-American, closed two of its three early-voting sites. Now a drive to cast a ballot is as long as 20 miles. It had cost about $6,000 to open the sites for the last week of early voting in 2014. The new policy raised that to nearly $48,000, “which didn’t include overtime,” said David Hines, the county election board chairman.

This was not the first such effort. In 2016, a federal appeals court struck down another legislative early-voting measure, saying it targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Many counties saw no need for the latest requirement, since they had been operating more sites for fewer hours or fewer days to affordably meet the needs of their voters.

Hines said that he had gotten complaints but that early turnout had still been good.

— Busting ballot collectors

One of the latest voting flash points is a common practice known as “ballot bundling,” in which political or civic groups collect mail-in ballots and take them directly to election offices.

In September, a divided 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Arizona law that makes it a felony for anyone but a family member, caregiver or postal worker to deliver ballots. The state’s Republican-controlled legislature has called the law an anti-fraud measure, despite lacking evidence that the practice abetted fraud.

Voting rights advocates said it made casting ballots more difficult, although not impossible, for people in rural areas, especially minorities like Native Americans who lack convenient postal services and, often, transportation. Those minorities predominantly vote Democratic.

“We registered 19,000 new voters in Arizona; now we’re trying to get them out to vote,” said Eduardo Sainz, Arizona director for the Latino group Mi Familia Vota. “This definitely interferes.”

The group has switched to arranging rides for would-be voters, a costlier and slower way of increasing turnout.

— On the bus, off the bus

When it comes to voting rights, few states have been as contentious as Georgia this election. That is largely because Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has presided over an aggressive policy of voter purges that have fallen heavily on minorities. He is also the Republican candidate for governor.

But the contentious atmosphere was crystallized Oct. 15, when about 40 older black voters in Jefferson County were told to get off a bus heading for early voting, after a county official intervened.

The county has explained that the voters were visiting a local senior center at the time and that officials “felt uncomfortable with allowing Senior Center patrons to leave the facility in a bus with an unknown third party,” according to a statement provided to a local television station. Officials also said taking them to vote constituted county-sponsored political activity, which is not permitted.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, the group that sponsored the bus, called the incident “an intimidation tactic,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, adding, “These are grown people.” Kemp’s opponent, Stacey Abrams, moved quickly to rally with some of the affected voters. A few days after the incident, Black Voters Matter tweeted that “most of the seniors that were on the bus have now voted.”

— Straight tickets, in dire straits

On Election Day, Iowans and Michiganders will lose the option to easily vote for a single party across the board, so-called “straight-ticket voting.” Not too many years ago, straight-ticket voting was common on U.S. ballots. But since 2011, legislatures in eight states have done away with it, arguing variously that it is unfair to third parties or that it keeps voters from scrutinizing each candidate’s qualifications. Texas is set to lose straight-ticket voting in 2020.

In most cases, analysts agree, the real reason is that straight-ticket votes are often (but hardly always) cast by Democratic Party loyalists, especially minorities. Eliminating the option lengthens polling-place queues and discourages voters from selecting individual candidates in downballot races. Seven of the eight states that eliminated straight-ticket votes are controlled by Republican legislators.

In Michigan, Republicans outlawed straight-ticket voting in 2001; voters reinstated it after a ballot initiative the next year; in 2015, the Republican-controlled legislature outlawed it again.

Now it is back on the ballot, in a state that traditionally “has either the longest, or one of the longest, ballots in the country,” according to Todd Cook, campaign director for Promote the Vote, the group pushing the amendment.