In some states, initiatives like early voting, no excuse voting, and straightforward absentee ballot programs have already kicked off. If you live in certain areas of the country, casting a ballot this election season might seem as clear as ever.
But the reality is that millions of American voters — those who live in states with high voter ID hurdles on the books or in states affected by last-minute voting changes — are facing mixed messages and confusion ahead of Nov. 6. Officials owe voters explanation and clarification — quickly.
Because each state runs their own elections and makes their own voting rules, they have the authority to require very specific types of identification or documentation at the polls. For example, in one state you may need to bring a government-issued photo ID to your precinct. In another, a student ID or gas bill will suffice.
This process can be baffling, time-consuming, and even costly. From strangely maze-like government websites to misinformed DMV or poll workers, the system can sometimes seem designed to make it as hard as possible to vote.
By design or not, millions of people in our country face voter ID barriers. These laws, and how they’re implemented, disproportionately affect those without a current driver’s license in their state: both older and young adults, people with disabilities, voters of color, and lower-income voters.
In addition, when voting policies change at the last minute, like we saw happen in North Dakota and Georgia, barriers can become full-blown blockades.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a court ruling that says voters in North Dakota must show proof of a current residential address to vote — a policy at odds with the fact that many Native Americans who live on reservations rely instead on P.O. boxes. The “good” news is that tribal governments are organizing on a massive scale to assign and document their members’ addresses.
In another state, Georgia, a different kind of voting battle is playing out—though the consequences are similar. Last week, one day before the voter registration deadline in Georgia, we learned that 53,000 applications were thrown into limbo because these voters’ names did not identically match government records. About 80 percent of these 53,000 Georgians are voters of color, according to claims in a responsive lawsuit.
Since this was revealed, we’ve seen understandable confusion among voters, worsened in large part by state and local officials failing to proactively and effectively bring attention to how the dilemma can be solved.
Georgians can still cast a regular ballot during early voting or on Election Day if they have a valid photo ID that "substantially matches" the information on their voter registration documents.
However, this raises concern about the training that Georgia’s election workers receive and whether they’ll practice the proper judgment when determining if a voter’s ballot meets this “substantial match” standard.
It could be argued that there is an information war happening here — or to be more accurate, a misinformation war.
People in every state, and that includes both voter ID and non-voter ID states, are so confused and intimidated by complicated and onerous voting laws that they simply won’t vote.
This is a trend in dire need of a change.
But this election season is truly a litmus test for whether state and local officials are willing to go to bat for all of their voters.
States have a responsibility to their constituents and to the democratic process. With time dwindling, it’s imperative that states reach out and explain in a meaningful way what their voter ID laws mean to constituents (like legal precedent says they must do), as well as thoroughly train employees who issue IDs or work at the polls.
Kathleen Unger is the founder of VoteRiders, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that informs and helps citizens to secure their voter ID and supports voter ID education at the local level.