With Election Day nearing, the partisan rhetoric over voting is growing and not helping those at the center of the storm—actual voters in key states.
Perhaps this is inevitable given a political culture where rants and raves take center stage, as best evidenced by President Trump making new noise about the virtually non-existent threat of illegal voters—people posing as someone else to vote. (Non-existent means 31 instances of voter impersonation out of a billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014.)
But back in real life, there’s plenty of rhetoric that’s not giving an accurate picture to voters in a handful of states with tight races where every vote might count in determining governors and who controls Congress. The bottom line is the reality of what will face ordinary Americans seeking to vote is being obscured.
Situations now unfolding in Georgia and North Dakota are prime examples.
Let’s start with Georgia, where, on Tuesday, a federal judge ordered the state not to reject mail-in ballots where there were discrepancies between what voters write on the envelope and state election records. (Those could be a signature that doesn’t look like what was on their registration form, or not correctly filling in a date on the envelope.)
Technicalities of that ilk are designed to disqualify and to disenfranchise. And they are part of a bigger pattern in this state that’s also holding 53,000 registrations hostage. These are paper voter registration forms, which, under a new “exact match” statute, are not getting approved without further scrutiny. This is not happening with voters who registered online or automatically when getting a driver’s license.
On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered Georgia not to disqualify those absentee ballots that had suspicious signatures or other disqualifying marks. Civil rights lawyers, as they’re wont to do, quickly declared victory over the voter suppressors.
“We are pleased that the court has enforced the due process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution,” Sean Young, legal director of Georgia’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Today’s ruling is a victory for democracy and for every absentee voter in the state of Georgia.”
Is this really a victory for democracy and every absentee voter? The answer is absolutely not—and it isn’t helpful to suggest otherwise. Why not? The judge ruled that the mail-in ballots, if questioned, should be treated as provisional ballots. That means they’re subject to additional verification after Election Day before counting.
In Georgia, like many states, people casting provisional ballots have several days to return to local election offices with additional identifying documents before their ballot will be counted. In many more instances than not, that never happens.
So that’s not exactly a victory for democracy; that’s a needless runaround for voters. In fact, the federal court told both sides in that Georgia lawsuit to file memos on Thursday over the court’s recommended order to election officials. From there, local officials will start the process of notifying the tagged absentee voters.
The ACLU wasn’t the only one to convey misleading information about this ruling. The Hill, a Washington, D.C., publication, also reported that, “Judge blocks Georgia officials from rejecting absentee ballots with mismatched signatures.” The University of Florida’s Michael McDonald, a nationally known voter turnout expert, tweeted, “The judge has not ordered a remedy, yet. Although a remedy appears to be likely after reply briefs are filed tomorrow. It’s also misleading since voters who do not cure their signature issue will still have their ballots rejected.”
Beyond these granular details and political assertions lies the reality facing some number of Georgia voters—that, for their ballots to count, they face a bureaucratic runaround that continues after they think they’ve done their civic duty by voting.
By the way, there is some good news from Georgia, but it is not widely reported—or, if it is being covered, it’s largely buried by more inflammatory but less significant partisan rhetoric. Georgia, because it has online registration and automatic registration for drivers, has seen its voter rolls grow by more than a quarter-million since November 2016. (That’s despite its aggressive purging of people who infrequently vote or move.)
Earlier this week, McDonald said the latest figures showed 170,000 Georgians registering in the last month before registration closed, and 19,000 people being removed from voter rolls. (Some reasons are legitimate—like moving or deaths; others are less so, such as not voting for a few years but meeting all other voter qualifications.) At any rate, this wave of new voters dwarfs the voter suppression numbers cited in all of the pre-election litigation, and this surge is largely seen as benefitting Democrat Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial bid.
These positive trends don’t make voting and casting a ballot that counts any easier. But they suggest the real story in Georgia is about getting people to the polls, but that’s not in sync with the left’s voter suppression narrative or exaggerated victories.
There’s another version of sloppy rhetoric and the needless bureaucratic runaround facing some voters unfolding in North Dakota.
That’s where an estimated 18,000 voters are in limbo—the figure given by U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan in a dissent where the majority last week refused to take up an appeal over North Dakota’s uniquely pernicious voter ID law. (This state has a close Senate contest, where the incumbent, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, won in 2012 by a 3,000-vote margin.)
North Dakota doesn’t require voters to register. But the GOP-run state passed a law requiring residents to show an ID with a street address to get a ballot. The problem is many Native Americans who live on reservations don’t have addresses, and here, too, is where the rhetoric is eclipsing the reality that would-be voters face quite a runaround.
“If you encounter anyone who says to you that they do not have a residential street address to provide to either the DOT or the tribal government to obtain an ID, please encourage them to reach out to the 911 Coordinator in the county in which their residence exists to start the simple process to have the address assigned,” wrote the Secretary of State in a September 28 memo to tribal officials, seeking to stem the controversy.
Subsequent press coverage was confusing, with the Secretary of State Al Jaeger saying that his office was not empowered to tell tribal leaders what they could and could not do to help people get the requisite IDs, and then his deputy saying that the tribal leaders’ solution—printing a letter noting addresses—would suffice.
This week, Maggie Astor, a New York Times reporter investigating how easy or hard that process would be, tweeted that it was very difficult to get around the reservations, because of a lack of wifi, road signs, landmarks and clear addresses—a report cited on election blogs that was at odds with the state’s 911-based solution.
“So yes, addresses can be assigned. County 911 coordinators can assign them. Tribal officials are assigning some too. One tribe printed so many IDs with newly assigned addresses that part of the ID machine literally melted,” tweeted Astor. “It can be done—it’s technically possible and the tribes are determined to make it happen—but coupled with the very short amount of time before the elections, it is a BIG ask.”
North Dakota’s handling of the ID requirement for Native Americans has been slammed on national editorial pages. But criticism aside, the question of what voters have to do to cast a ballot that counts hovers closer to the ground. And in states like North Dakota and Georgia, it could determine the outcome of very close and key races.
This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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