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November 10, 2014

Problems at the polls

Legislation has systematically disenfranchised vulnerable voting populations.

I voted for the first time on November 4, 2014.

It was a moment I had been looking forward to since at least 2008, the year I had, at long last, been granted the golden ticket of permanent U.S. residency. Imagine my surprise when carrying out this most simple, important public duty, instead proved to be one of the most frustrating civic experiences of my life.

I arrived at my polling location, 1700 East 56th Street, at 6:30 a.m. to find poll workers still setting up. Though Illinois law requires all locations to be open 6:00 am–7:00 pm on Election Day, I was simply told that their equipment hadn’t been delivered to the correct location, and that—get this—they didn’t have any idea of when they’d open. In half an hour? Two hours? “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you.”

I came back around 7 a.m., stepping right into a sizable line of voters still unsure of whether or not they could vote yet. Even some of the poll workers were unsure—unsure of whether or not they were open, unsure of how to use their own equipment to type in a name, unsure of whether or not Illinois law requires voters to present photo ID to vote.

Though my experience was frustrating, I’m far more vexed by its commonality—by the fact that our voting process is as tiring, outdated, and cumbersome as it could possibly be. Far worse than my ultimately minor annoyances, are the genuine wrongs committed against voters who may not fully know their rights, or who may be afraid to stand up for themselves if told otherwise by a misinformed authority figure. I’m frustrated that factors like these can, and will, continue to keep citizens from voting.

In the city of Chicago alone, polling locations across at least six precincts opened late. Misinformed election judges at locations including LaSalle II Magnet School and Hyde Park’s own Ray Elementary School instructed voters to present voter ID cards and/or photo identification to vote, though Illinois does not have a voter ID requirement. At least 2,000 of 10,000 registered election judges didn’t even show up, the result of malicious robocalls falsely informing them they had to report for an impromptu training or else be unable to serve on Election Day. The calls have since been traced back to two Republican party officials.

But even this was only the beginning. Nationwide, millions of voters across at least fourteen states faced new barriers and unprecedented challenges blocking them from casting their ballots, including needless and discriminatory voter ID laws, reduced early or absentee voting opportunities, and the closing of regular and early polling places.

First, let’s be clear that an individual can’t just walk off the street and cast multiple ballots. Though 10 states and D.C. do offer same-day voter registration, most require voters to register about a month in advance of Election Day. Before someone can cast their ballot on the big day, a poll worker must first verify that they are registered to vote at that specific location and that they have not voted already. The casting of their vote (though not for who/what the vote was cast) is then permanently documented in the public record.

Though one could hypothetically vote by posing as a registered nonvoter, they’d (1) need to know an awful lot about the person and (2) be foolish enough to commit a third-degree felony for the sake of a single extra ballot. Even the most comprehensive investigation into voter fraud to date uncovered just 31 cases out of the more than 1 billion votes cast in all midterm and presidential elections since 2000.

So in exchange for hypothetically preventing about five fake votes per election, these twenty-first century poll taxes automatically prevent some 3.2 million otherwise eligible voters from participating altogether. It will come as no surprise to the Republicans aggressively pushing such laws through their state legislatures that those disenfranchised are predominantly Democrats: seniors, minorities, low-income individuals, and young adults aged 18–24­­­—individuals least likely to have the required forms of identification (like a driver’s license) or the ability to pay and travel—often great distances—to obtain one. Republicans have gone so far as to ensure that while gun permits meet the requirement, college IDs, Medicare cards, and Social Security cards do not.

It’s true that not everyone who was disenfranchised this year would have voted even if they’d been able to. But that’s not the point—the point is that even a single disenfranchised voter is one too many. The point is that this should never, ever have happened in the first place.

Despite priding ourselves on living in the world’s “best” democracy, we continue to fail so pathetically and disastrously in allowing our citizens to vote—arguably the most simple and important of their civic duties. Had such shenanigans taken place abroad, we would have immediately cried vocal foul on the country’s appalling failures to serve democracy due justice. But mum seems to be the word on our own, very apparent, voting rights failures.

Nothing about this is acceptable or OK, nor—in far too many cases—even legal. It screams class-action lawsuit. It screams: Stop this madness now.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a fourth-year in the College studying economics and public policy. Follow her @golovashkina.

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