The Black Box: Voting in America

We have a serious democracy problem in our country. Maybe our troops should be fighting for democracy right here at home. Eligible voters have dropped out, refuse to vote, or feel ambivalent about voting. "What difference is it going to make?" many of my friends ask me.

In the 2014 midterm elections, less than 37 percent of age-appropriate, registered Americans participated. We have a right to be concerned, because even when we are allowed to vote, are "they" counting our votes correctly? How can we be sure?

The topics highest on my list of concerns are:
1. Voter Suppression
2. Voter Intimidation
3. Computer Vote Tampering and Vote Counting Irregularities
4. The Electoral System
5. Lack of Representative Voting Systems, i.e. First Past The Post vs Instant Runoff Voting
6. "Top Two" Voting

Today's blog is the first of a six-part series on voting, found in Chapter 30 of my book, In Search of the Next POTUS: One Woman's Quest to Fix Washington, a True Story.

1. Voter suppression
A simple way to stop voters from voting is to make it appear that voting isn't working -- whether it means Americans believe their parties no longer represent them, that the ballot box is rigged, or that Congress is whack and no amount of voting is going to change that fact, voter suppression is happening if people aren't showing up at the polls.

Voter suppression comes in many forms. In June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Article 5 of the civil rights movement's hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965. Article 5 required nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) to obtain federal pre-approval to enact or enforce voting laws.

States have been angling for their own laws to crack down on voting rights. Before 2006, no state required a government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Now, 30 states have some form of voter ID requirement.

One benefit of the Supreme Court ruling is that it allows states to more easily enact online registration, which 20 states have implemented. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute seeking to improve our systems of democracy and justice, asserts that 16 states now have better access to voting.

However, voter ID laws aren't part of that better access. The assumption is that IDs will prevent voter fraud. Brennan Center for Justice states in a 2006 fact sheet that it doesn't make sense for someone to pretend to be someone else. "Each act of voter fraud risks five years in prison and a $10,000 fine -- but yields at most one incremental vote. The single vote is simply not worth the price. Because voter fraud is essentially irrational, it is not surprising that no credible evidence suggests a voter fraud epidemic." Despite repeated investigations into allegations of voter fraud, including a five-year examination by G.W. Bush Jr.'s Department of Justice, there is not enough evidence to say that it's as big a problem as the disenfranchisement of many people who would struggle to produce an ID where states now require them.

"In-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent," write investigative journalists Natasha Khan and Corbin Carson as part of their News21 report called "Who Can Vote?"

Why is it hard for voters to obtain the proper ID? Can't they just show their driver's license? There are many reasons why this logic breaks down. Families and students who have recently moved won't have the correct address on their driver's license, which disqualifies them from voting in states with strict ID laws. And many people don't drive, hard as that may seem to those of us who do.

If you don't drive, how do you get a government-approved photo ID? You have to present your birth certificate to the proper authorities. Elderly people have difficulty placing their hands on their birth certificates. In fact, people who were not born in a hospital often don't have birth certificates. For poor people, the cost of obtaining a government-approved ID is prohibitive, especially when combining the fee with transportation costs to the proper government building. And there's a catch 22--to obtain your birth certificate, you often need a photo ID, but to obtain the photo ID, you need a birth certificate. So if you were born at home with a midwife, or if you were born in a state that requires you to produce a photo ID to get your birth certificate, you may be out of luck.

How many people don't have photo IDs in this country? The numbers are significant. I'm referring to Americans. The Brennan Institute conducted a thorough study and found it to be around 11 percent, or 1 in 10 Americans for whom obtaining a photo ID is difficult or impossible. The center's report "conclusively demonstrates that this promise of free voter ID is a mirage. In the real world, poor voters find shuttered offices, long trips without cars or with spotty or no bus service, and sometimes prohibitive costs."

The cost of voter restriction laws to our democracy is great. Voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise the elderly, the poor, non-drivers, and students--those who typically don't vote Republican. States with elections that could have been swayed by discouraged voters in 2014 were: North Carolina's state senate, Kansas's governor, Virginia's U.S. Senate, and Florida's governor.

In Virginia's 2014 election, strict ID laws prevented 198,000 "active Virginia voters," who did not have acceptable identification according to the Virginia Board of Elections, from exercising a basic right as a U.S. citizen. To give you an idea how close these elections were, Senator Mark Warner bested challenger Ed Gillespie by only 12,000 votes, a lot less than those disenfranchised by ID laws.

In Florida, incumbent Governor Rick Scott squeaked by Charlie Crist with a 1.2% margin. Writes Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, "Perhaps the most significant for this election was a decision by Scott and his clemency board to make it virtually impossible for the more than 1.3 million Floridians who were formerly convicted of crimes but have done their time and paid their debt to society to have their voting rights restored."

Another voter suppression tactic are laws that make it difficult for volunteers to help eligible citizens register to vote. Florida's House Bill 1355 for elections (not to be confused with HB 1355 Purchase of Firearms by Mentally Ill Persons) became effective in May of 2011. The voting-rights-restrictive HB 1355, that Governor Scott signed, sets forth crazy requirements for any group wanting to register new voters. The League of Women Voters (LWV) whose 91-year history of volunteering without any problems were so discouraged by Scott's law that they stopped helping citizens register in Florida. The new rules required that LWV members pre-register with the state, sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury listing all criminal penalties for any false registration, and run each registration form over to a county official within 48 hours. Oh, and each registrant had to carefully note the time they signed their form so that the county official could make sure the LWV worker got it there before the 48 hour buzzer rang. If the LWV volunteer messed up, she could personally face a $5,000 fine, third degree felony, and up to five years in prison.

Florida is not an isolated case. Ohio's Secretary of State Ken Blackwell instituted rules that make it "extremely difficult for small churches and other nonprofit organizations to hire and train voter registration workers -- and they expose voter registration workers to felony charges for making mistakes."

Six weeks after the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Article 5, North Carolina passed some of the most restrictive voter laws in the country. It banned same-day registration, pre-registration for young voters, eliminated out-of-precinct provisional ballots, shortened the early voting period by one week, and disallowed extending polling place hours in case there were long lines. North Carolina's new laws will also require an ID as of 2016.

These requirements violate the Constitution because they are considered a poll tax. IDs cost time and money to obtain, and the poorer the citizen, the less time and/or money they have to search for an ID.

Who knows if Republican Thom Tillis would have defeated incumbent Democrat Kay Hagen in the 2014 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina without all these restrictions? Rev. William Barber, the preacher credited for the "Moral Monday" movement, rallied a couple hundred activists in Greensboro, North Carolina's Government Square to get out the vote. As Barber explains, "for us the right to vote is not just a constitutional matter, but a right born out of struggle, out of sacrifice and a gift from the God of justice." The election ended with only a two percent spread, but the Republican prevailed despite Barber's Moral Monday activists whose efforts increased black voter turnout 45 percent over 2010 numbers.

Follow this blog to read the other five segments of this article.