New laws, rul­ings could cause Elec­tion Day con­fu­sion

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Christina A. Cassidy

AT­LANTA >> With more than 120 mil­lion Amer­i­cans ex­pected to cast bal­lots for pres­i­dent this fall, the na­tion’s vot­ing process seems more con­vo­luted than ever and rife with po­ten­tial for con­fu­sion come Elec­tion Day.

Vot­ing rules vary widely by state and some­times by county, mean­ing some Amer­i­cans can reg­is­ter the same day they vote, while oth­ers must do so weeks in ad­vance. Some can mail in a bal­lot, while oth­ers must stand in line at a polling place that might be miles from home. Some who for­get photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion can sim­ply sign an af­fi­davit and have their bal­lot count, while oth­ers must re­turn with their ID within a few days or their vote doesn’t mat­ter.

Four­teen states have new vot­ing and reg­is­tra­tion rules in place for this elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice at the NYU School of Law. Le­gal chal­lenges have led to a mul­ti­tude of re­cent court rul­ings that have blocked or struck down some pro­vi­sions and up­held or re­in­stated oth­ers, scram­bling the pic­ture fur­ther.

The new rules and the rapidly shift­ing land­scape have al­ready caused con­fu­sion, and some ex­perts fear prob­lems on Nov. 8.

“You would think that by 2016 we would have got­ten our act to­gether, but in fact it seems things are as liti­gious and con­fus­ing as ever,” said Rick Hasen, an ex­pert on elec­tion law and pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine School of Law.

The bat­tle over vot­ing mir­rors the larger bat­tle for po­lit­i­cal power in the U.S.

While Democrats and Repub­li­cans have both sup­ported ef­forts to ex­pand ac­cess, par­tic­u­larly on­line reg­is­tra­tion, it’s largely been Repub­li­cans who have been push­ing re­stric­tive laws, such as those re­quir­ing vot­ers to show photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion be­fore cast­ing bal­lots.

Sup­port­ers say such mea­sures are aimed at pre­vent­ing fraud; crit­ics say such laws fall most heav­ily on the poor and mi­nori­ties, who might not have driver’s li­censes or could find it dif­fi­cult to ob­tain the doc­u­ments needed.

Re­cent court de­ci­sions have rolled back some of the more far-reach­ing re­stric­tions but have also cre­ated headaches for state and lo­cal of­fi­cials who need to make sure they are com­ply­ing with the lat­est rules.

In Wake County, North Carolina, elec­tion of­fi­cials pre­pared two train­ing man­u­als for their poll work­ers — one with the state’s voter ID re­quire­ments and one with­out. (Voter ID was ul­ti­mately struck down over the sum­mer.)

Ad­vo­cacy groups worry that con­fused poll work­ers might, for ex­am­ple, de­mand doc­u­ments that are not re­quired. They also fear that all the pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing voter ID laws might lead some peo­ple to stay home be­cause they mis­tak­enly think they won’t be able to vote.

“In pe­ri­ods of change, it can of­ten lead to a lot of con­fu­sion for vot­ers as to what the rules are, and for elec­tion of­fi­cials, too,” said Wendy Weiser with the Bren­nan Cen­ter, point­ing to prob­lems in 2012 in places like Penn­syl­va­nia, where the state’s voter ID law was put on hold and then struck down. “There were also vot­ers in Ohio, New Jersey who mis­tak­enly thought — hear­ing the news from Penn­syl­va­nia — that they had to show ID, too.”

The Supreme Court opened the way for some of th­ese mea­sures in 2013 when it struck down a part of the Vot­ing Rights Act that re­quired cer­tain states and lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tion — par­tic­u­larly in the South — to get Jus­tice Depart­ment ap­proval of any changes in their elec­tion laws.

Soon af­ter, Repub­li­cans in North Carolina passed a pack­age of mea­sures that not only re­quired vot­ers to show photo ID but also re­duced early vot­ing and elim­i­nated same-day reg­is­tra­tion dur­ing the early vot­ing pe­riod.

Moses Col­bert, a black pas­tor from Kings Moun­tain, North Carolina, was among those who found him­self un­able to vote in 2014 as a re­sult of the changes. Col­bert had re­cently moved to Cleve­land County from nearby Gas­ton County af­ter his wed­ding.

Shortly af­ter the move, he went to the lo­cal mo­tor ve­hi­cle of­fice to up­date his ad­dress and voter reg­is­tra­tion in­for­ma­tion. Yet when it came time to vote, Cleve­land County of­fi­cials told him he wasn’t reg­is­tered there and to go back to Gas­ton County. When he did, Gas­ton County of­fi­cials wouldn’t let him vote be­cause the ad­dress on his driver’s li­cense no longer matched the ad­dress on his voter reg­is­tra­tion form. Be­fore the changes, Col­bert would have been able to up­date his reg­is­tra­tion dur­ing the early vot­ing pe­riod.

“I was just numb, so we had to fight,” said Col­bert, 62, who be­came a plain­tiff in the law­suit chal­leng­ing the North Carolina law. “I be­lieve we are stand­ing on the shoul­ders of so many who died be­fore us for the op­por­tu­nity to vote. I grew up in the 1960s. This is not some­thing I read about in a book.”

In July, a fed­eral ap­peals court struck down sev­eral parts of the North Carolina law, say­ing they “tar­get African Amer­i­cans with al­most sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion.” Repub­li­can of­fi­cials have said dis­crim­i­na­tion was not their in­tent. A di­vided U.S. Supreme Court de­clined in Au­gust to take up the case.

Texas of­fi­cials have agreed to spend $2.5 mil­lion on voter out­reach be­fore Elec­tion Day as part of an agree­ment to amend its voter ID law af­ter a court found it dis­crim­i­nated against mi­nori­ties and the poor.

Else­where, an ef­fort by Democrats in Ohio to re­store “golden week,” when peo­ple could reg­is­ter and cast bal­lots at the same time, failed af­ter the U.S. Supreme Court de­clined to in­ter­vene. Ear­lier this week, a fed­eral judge or­dered North Dakota to re­turn to a sys­tem it had in place be­fore the Repub­li­can­led Leg­is­la­ture im­posed a tougher voter ID re­quire­ment four years ago; vot­ers there who do not have a state-re­quired photo ID can once again sign an af­fi­davit swear­ing they are a qual­i­fied voter.

An on­go­ing Kansas court fight has fo­cused on whether a group of as many as 50,000 res­i­dents could vote be­cause they did not sub­mit cit­i­zen­ship doc­u­ments, as re­quired un­der state law, when reg­is­ter­ing at mo­tor ve­hi­cle of­fices or with a fed­eral form. Fed­eral courts had pre­vi­ously or­dered the state to count their votes in fed­eral elec­tions. The sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice had sought to toss out their votes in state and lo­cal races — some­thing a state judge has since blocked.

Con­fu­sion also per­sists in Wis­con­sin, which has been in tur­moil since Repub­li­can law­mak­ers backed a voter ID law in 2011.

It was ini­tially blocked by the courts, then went into ef­fect for the pres­i­den­tial pri­mary in April. In July, a fed­eral judge left the voter ID re­quire­ment in place for the fall con­test but struck down more than a dozen other elec­tion changes, in­clud­ing lim­its on early vot­ing hours and lo­ca­tions.

It’s been es­ti­mated that as many as 300,000 Wis­con­sin vot­ers may not have the re­quired photo ID. Molly McGrath, with the na­tional group VoteRiders, has been work­ing with home­less peo­ple and oth­ers to make sure they have the proper ID and are reg­is­tered to vote.

“There’s a tremen­dous amount of un­aware­ness and con­fu­sion about the law,” McGrath said. “You can’t help but think: Is this con­fu­sion a bug or part of the de­sign?”

Repub­li­cans who have pushed the var­i­ous voter ID laws re­ject any sug­ges­tion of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“Vot­ers in Wis­con­sin sup­port voter ID, and our ad­min­is­tra­tion will con­tinue to work to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Gov. Scott Walker said last month.

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