by Don Waisanen, Sonia R. Jarvis and Nicole A. Gordon
If you are an eligible voter heading to the polls this November, you may need to ready yourself for some maddening and confusing changes to your state’s voting requirements. You may find yourself needing to pay for updated documentation such as a birth certificate. You could have to take time off work to make a visit to the DMV for a driver’s license, or even find that you have been misinformed about what’s needed to vote—as some election workers haven’t caught up with these rapid developments.
As fallout from the 2020 election, more than 440 bills restricting voting access have been introduced in 49 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. About half the states have put in place laws making it harder to vote in the past couple years, and they just keep coming. Arizonans, for instance, will be voting this November on a new voter ID law that eliminates the current ID in favor of selective, narrower requirements, such as a photo ID for voting at the polls. As a prerequisite to registering to vote and then voting, these laws now ask many citizens to obtain forms of documentation that, when measured in lost time and money, can cost the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries.
You might think that these changes are what’s needed to safeguard election integrity, a concern we share. Elections should be run with the highest standards of security to make sure that every eligible vote is valid and counted. But if we look under the hood for the actual effects of these tricky laws—ranging from inconvenience to new measures intended to stop people from casting ballots—we’re left with policies that simply kill the very results they were intended to ensure.
Many politicians claim these laws help us avoid “voter fraud,” of which there is no meaningful or substantial evidence. So why do they continue parroting this story? Other countries have systems in place to guarantee automatic and simple means for citizens to vote, but in the last decade, many U.S. states’ policymakers have figured out that the way to win elections isn’t to do the difficult work of listening to and courting diverse voters, but instead to put up as many barriers to voting as possible and wipe out votes they don’t want. States such as Texas continue to play games by ensuring that citizens can vote with a gun permit but not a state university student ID card—making voting easier for some but more difficult for others, along highly partisan and racial lines. Changes to voter ID laws alone could be enough to tip the balance of power one way or another in many coming races, especially those in swing states.
In our forthcoming book, States of Confusion: How Our Voter ID Laws Fail Democracy and What to Do About It (NYU Press),we discovered how difficult it is for voters to navigate a system when states all have different laws and requirements for voting. Across the country, we conducted online surveys, audits of election offices, community focus groups, and more. Our research showed how these seemingly neutral policies operate under the guise of protecting voting integrity, but are sharply partisan power plays that function to exclude and disenfranchise voters in politicized and racialized ways.
With these new laws skyrocketing, policymakers have created barriers for citizens trying to exercise their fundamental right to vote, causing too many to slip through the cracks of our electoral systems. As the nonpartisan Cost of Voting in the American States report for 2022 summarizes, “many of the new laws are unnecessary, lack substance, and create confusion.” When it comes down to it, everyone should have the same experience becoming a voter and casting a ballot. When those experiences are vastly different, it sustains an electoral system that is unreasonable, unfair, and unjust at its core. States’ haphazard and exclusionary voter ID laws need to be replaced in favor of a consistent, national voter identification law that’s fair and inclusive.
Many voters will struggle with the obstacles policymakers have put in place over the next month. But uniform national voter identification standards could go a long way to cleaning up this mess: ensuring election integrity while making processes for procuring and using voter ID simple, accessible, and cost-free. As our research made clear, many answers to these crises are at hand. In the interim, local community organizations can do a lot to help people get what they need to vote. Nonprofit organizations such as Spread the Vote have figured out one way to help citizens. They pair voters with individual volunteers who can take them on rides to government organizations, plow through labor and time-intensive searches for narrow forms of documentation, and more. But we shouldn’t expect every person in the U.S. to have a personal “voting buddy” to ensure that they can cast a ballot. If you find yourself unsure about your voting status—whether your current ID is adequate to allow you to cast a ballot or early voting will still be available, or even if you will be able to use drop boxes—free help is available. Contact the League of Women Voters at www.vote411.org, call or text Election Protection for personal assistance at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) to speak with a nonpartisan Election Protection volunteer, or review the National Conference of State Legislatures’ summary of all state voter ID laws here.
Overall, it’s time for policymakers to stop playing games with our electoral system. They must focus on solutions that will work for every citizen who desires to participate on an equal basis in the political life of this country.