A closeup of the Uwajimaya ballot box

Weekend Reads | Is It Getting Harder or Easier to Vote?

by Kevin Schofield

This weekend’s read is a research paper by a trio of researchers looking at the relative “cost of voting” in each of the 50 United States. By “cost of voting,” they mean how much effort it takes to register to vote and ultimately cast one’s vote.

There is a long and nasty history of politicians attempting to disenfranchise voters — especially Black voters — by passing laws that erect barriers to voting. Such efforts led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prohibited many of the most common racially discriminatory practices and created a “pre-clearance” process for a specific set of states with flagrant and persistent records of voter suppression and gerrymandering, in which those states needed the approval of the federal government before implementing laws that impacted voting rights. But in 2013, in the case Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the part of the Voting Rights Act that enacted the pre-clearance process (Section 5); not surprisingly, it took very little time for those states to begin reinstating voter restrictions. 

Then, last year, in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, when former President Donald Trump spread the “Big Lie” that the election had been rigged and stolen, many states took the opportunity to make further revisions to their election laws. According to the researchers’ tally, 19 states passed over 33 new laws making it more difficult to vote, and 25 states passed 62 laws that made it easier (a handful of states appear on both of those lists, passing a mixed bag of new rules).

In 2018, prior to this recent round of new legislation, the researchers published their first version of a “Cost of Voting” index measuring the relative difficulty of voting in each state. They just published an update, both to the composition of the index itself (taking into consideration new “innovations” in voter suppression) and the state-by-state rankings.

Their index includes 42 separate factors grouped into 10 different areas, including registration rules and restrictions, voting convenience, voter ID laws, poll hours, and absentee voting.

Here’s the good news for us: Washington ranked No. 2 for ease of voting, just behind Oregon. Our mail-in voting system adopted throughout the state is a big reason for that; in fact, the researchers note that the top eight states for ease of voting all have universal mail-in voting systems like ours. New Hampshire, on the other hand, was the state where voting is most difficult, followed by a set of deep-red states, including Mississippi, Arizona, Wisconsin, Texas, Alabama, and Wyoming. Vermont moved the most toward inclusivity since 2018; Wisconsin moved the most in the opposite direction.

“FIG. 1. 2022 COVI rank and values” via “Cost of Voting in the American States: 2022” by Scot Schraufnagel, Michael J. Pomante, Quan Li, Election Law Journal, published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., Sept. 1, 2022, Copyright © 2022, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., used under Creative Commons CC BY.

The paper has some interesting discussion of the laws that were passed in both directions; we tend to hear a lot about new voter restrictions, but much less about new ideas for how to make voting more inclusive. Some of the new inclusive ideas: Colorado made automatic (opt-out) voter registration available at the offices of any state agency where you might show up to transact other business; Nevada uses electronic voting machine technology to allow voters to cast their ballot on election day at any precinct, not just their own neighborhood location; and Indiana (and other states) allow those under the age of 18 to preregister to vote when first applying for a driver’s license, for example.

On the flip side, Georgia passed a truly eye-opening list of restrictions: photo ID requirements, no automatic voter registration, banning food and water distribution to those standing in line to vote, eliminating ballot drop-off locations and drop-boxes, restrictions on who can turn in absentee ballots on behalf of other voters, and prohibiting permanent absentee voter status.

Texas didn’t get much worse last year, but that was mostly because it was already so bad: It moved from 45th on the list (i.e., sixth worst) to 46th. It banned drive-through and 24-hour voting, which were implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers suggest that the only saving grace for Texas was that it continues to provide a full 13 days of early voting.

Sadly, even the notion that everyone should vote has become deeply politicized in our fragmented country. Whether the message is about “election integrity” or “voter suppression,” the impact is the same: de-legitimizing elections in the eyes of the voters.

The researchers do point out one irony: the unsubstantiated presumption that efforts to get more people to vote naturally favor Democrats. In particular, they point to one recent study that shows that switching to all mail-in ballots, as we have done here in Washington, only moderately increases the number of total voters and makes no meaningful shift in the proportion of Democrats or Republicans who vote.

They also note one other problem: Most of the new election laws are “unfunded mandates” where the legislature didn’t appropriate additional funds to implement them. That is a recipe for more election-day logistical problems, which will only cause voters to further question the legitimacy of our elections.

Cost of Voting in the American States: 2022

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by Jaidev Vella.

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