Last-minute Election Laws Disenfranchise Countless Voters

North Carolina is not new to the voter suppression scene. From “surgically” excluding African-American voters to attempting to steal an election, the state that Duke University calls home has repeatedly tried to reduce access to voting in a drive to reduce turnout. With just one week until the election, the state legislature, the NC Board of Elections, and various other echelons of decision-making power in elections across the country have disenfranchised a countless number of voters with a new tactic: last-minute changes to voting rules, confusing voters, and reducing voter turnout at the polls.

Unfortunately, the laws changing and limiting access to voting are most rampant in North Carolina. In a time when roughly 37 percent of the nationwide voting population plans to vote by mail, there is still confusion within the NC State Board of Elections as to the last day when voters can mail in their ballots. Last Wednesday night, a judge extended the deadline from November 6 to November 12, the same date designated as the deadline for military and overseas mail-in ballots. However, despite this attempted enfranchisement, the North Carolina Court of Appeals put a temporary stay into effect on Wednesday’s ruling, halting those changes. While we can expect a decision this week, North Carolinian voters are currently left without this crucial information just days before a critical election.

Several other uncertainties about voting for North Carolinians are also confusing citizens, including the question of whether mail-in voters need a witness to watch them vote and fill out the paperwork to reduce the almost “mythical” risk of voter fraud. Another question is what one must do if the Board of Elections finds an error in your absentee ballot.

North Carolina is not the only state to confuse voters in this way. In Florida, the governor made a last-minute requirement on Sunday to insist that all early voting ballot drop-off locations are staffed, straining the Florida Board of Elections’ resources and providing one last check designed to intimidate everyday voters. Despite state election law saying nothing about staffing early voting drop-off sites, the new restriction – combined with lack of 24-hour staffing abilities – means that some ballot drop-off locations will see their hours decreased, further disenfranchising voters.

In Texas, each county was allowed only one mail-in ballot drop-off location, despite Texas comprising some counties with populations larger than Louisiana and areas larger than Connecticut. Although Governor Greg Abbott ordered this on October 1, potentially giving voters enough time to educate themselves on the newfound regulation, a lower court justly challenged this ballot collection system. However, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel rejected the challenge, overruling the lower court’s judgment. Texas voters, as of October 26, still do not know at how many places they can drop their absentee ballots off. Some could drive up to the length of Connecticut, depending on their county, but for now, they wait, suspended in their ignorance. Both Florida and Texas are swing states and potential tipping-point states with a combined population tallying approximately one-sixth of the United States as a whole.

This problem affects states and voters nationwide. Voting rights groups have filed approximately 300 lawsuits. In South Carolina, home to an increasingly competitive Senate race between Jaime Harrison and Senator Lindsey Graham where votes have already been cast, the U.S. Supreme Court stated in a recent hearing that mail-in ballots do need a witness. In the perpetual swing state of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court has yet to establish whether the state Board of Elections could accept sloppy signatures, extend the deadline for mail-in ballots, or begin counting already submitted mail-in ballots.

We want to get our elections right. Our state’s rather complex system of checks and balances theoretically improves the chances that we do this fairly. That well-balanced system should approve – swiftly – any efforts to make elections more accessible and open; Houstonian voters should have more than one drop-off location. Almost as important as making the moral decisions for our elections, however, is making them in a timely manner. With a heavily-delayed mailing system, voters should be able to perform their most basic civic duty without understanding legal jargon like “stay” and “Court of Appeals.” In the six-day difference between the previous mail-in deadline and the potential new deadline, thousands of mail-in ballots in North Carolina could be accepted or declined, all in a state that has been repeatedly labeled “the swingiest of the swing states.” Those voters, especially the subpopulation with structural barriers to access to recently updated information, have been effectively disenfranchised by last-minute election laws.

Our election laws should advocate for more open policies for voting, but those making the decisions should remind themselves that educating the public about the correct way to cast your ballot takes time. Once one body improves access to the polls, each additional eleventh-hour challenge or convoluted measure prevents thousands if not millions of voters away from engaging in the political process and reinforces the perception that they didn’t belong there in the first place.

Jonah Perrin is from Chapel Hill, NC, studying philosophy and political science.

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