Politics

Inside The First Super Tuesday In 50 Years Without A Functioning Voting Rights Act

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus on Tuesday, March 1, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Voters from Vermont to Colorado, Alaska to American Samoa and a host of states in between were heading to polling places and caucus sites on the busiest day of the 2016 primaries.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA AND HOUSTON, TEXAS — Issac Graves has voted in many presidential elections, but Tuesday was the first in which he had to remember to bring his passport.

“I’ve been voting since I was 18, and this voter ID thing, it’s a waste of time and money,” he told ThinkProgress outside his polling location in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s a step backwards and we shouldn’t have it. It suppresses turnout and it keeps minorities and poor people from voting… It’s outrageous.”

Graves, like millions of other voters across the U.S., faced new restrictions when he went to cast his presidential primary ballot on Tuesday — the first Super Tuesday since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a vital component of the Voting Rights Act.

Five of the 13 states holding primaries and caucuses on Tuesday have new voting rules in place — Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

And voters in nearly all of these states experienced problems.

Confusion And Last Minute Changes

In Alabama, the Secretary of State’s website, where voters could find their polling locations and times, was broken for several hours in the morning. In Georgia, malfunctioning poll books led to long wait times in Fulton and Gwinnett counties, and at least one poll worker was caught telling residents that non-English speakers were not allowed to vote. In Texas, polling locations were consolidated at the last minute, and, combined with a controversial voter ID law, led to long lines and confusion. In Virginia, the Democratic Party told ThinkProgress many voters were unable to cast ballots because of inconsistencies in the voter registration database. The group also cited confusion over the voter ID law, and reports of voters being illegally denied provisional ballots.

“For a lower turnout election, we’ve seen a shockingly large number of issues and these need to be addressed prior to the general election,” said press secretary Emily Bolton.

Richmond, Virginia resident Isaac Graves brought his passport to vote.

Richmond, Virginia resident Isaac Graves brought his passport to vote.

CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Even voters in Super Tuesday states without new laws reported problems. In Arkansas, some counties incorrectly told voters they had to present a photo ID in order to vote, even though the state’s voter ID law was ruled unconstitutional 2014. At least one voter was improperly turned away for not having an ID. In Colorado, the voter registration locator on the state’s website was not functioning in the morning.

“We have already heard from hundreds of voters today wanting to participate in the electoral process but are confused by voting laws in their state,” said Chris Melody Fields, who helped run a national Election Protection hotline with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In both Texas and Virginia, states formerly covered by the Voting Rights Act because of their history of racial voter suppression, voters told ThinkProgress they feared new voter ID laws passed by the Republican-controlled legislatures would discourage people of color from turning out to vote.

Virginia Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington), who testified against his state’s voter ID law in the ongoing federal lawsuit, said he’s been hearing complaints not only from his own constituents, but Latino voters across the Commonwealth.

“They’re upset,” he said. “There’s a lot of confusion. They tell me they were able to show their utility bill in the past and now can’t use that to vote. I think these laws are done with the intent of suppressing and depressing voter turnout, especially in communities that vote for Democrats.”

Lopez explained that many Latinos in Virginia, who work multiple jobs, do not have the time or resources to travel to the DMV to obtain an ID. One of his constituents, he said, is a cleaning lady who does not have a car and uses public transit to travel between her jobs. Taking the bus to the DMV or the local electoral board office would take her at least an hour each way.

“That doesn’t even count the time you’d need to spend there waiting in line,” he said. “When you’re trying to keep food on the plates of your kids, and pay the mortgage or rent, it’s problematic. She can’t take three or four hours out of her work day to make sure she can vote.”

At the same time, Lopez said, the Republican-controlled state legislature has voted down bills he believes would increase voter participation, such as measures to expand the hours of polling places and registrars.

In Texas, ThinkProgress observed at least two people at the polls early Tuesday turned away from the polls in a matter of 30 minutes because they were at the wrong precinct. Stephanie, a registered nurse who declined to give her last name, said she worried the confusion would depress turnout.

“It’s an inconvenience,” she said. “You want to vote, you allot time to take off from your job, and then when you get here, you have to go someone else.”

The Strictest Voter ID Law

Officials fear more voters could be disenfranchised in Texas, which has the strictest photo ID law of the Super Tuesday states. According to the Washington Post, more than a half a million registered voters in Texas do not have the ID required to vote on Tuesday. During the last major election where the law was in place — the 2014 midterms — at least 277 voters experienced problems casting ballots.

At an event in Houston, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) expressed disappointment that voter ID would continue to be enforced, even though a federal appeals court found in 2015 that Texas’ law violated the federal Voting Rights Act. And voter ID isn’t the only problem Lee anticipates at the polls. This year in Houston, voters have significantly fewer polling places to go to than usual, due to precinct consolidations across Harris County. As a result, many people had their locations changed on Tuesday, and Harris County election officials admitted there would likely be confusion at the polls.

Combined with the strict voter ID law, Lee said she worried that voting in Houston would be messier than usual.

A polling location in Houston, Texas.

A polling location in Houston, Texas.

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

In Arkansas, State Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) noticed that many voters were being misled by local news reports and by local governments about the state’s ID law, which requires poll workers to ask for an ID but allows residents to vote without one.

“I represent a college town, where we have 28,000 students, many of them first time voters,” Leding told ThinkProgress by phone. “We want to make sure voters know what the law is and what their rights are. Obviously we are concerned people might think they have to have a photo ID, and that’s not the law.”

Referring to Washington County’s official website, which erroneously told voters they must bring a photo ID, Leding said, “I assume someone just forgot to go back and change it. I hope it wasn’t intentional.”

Silence From Politicians

Despite these legal changes impacting millions of people, voting rights has barely come up in the 2016 race. Debates among both the Democratic and Republican candidates have avoided the topic, as have the candidates’ speeches and ads. Yet the laws introduced over the past few years could have a major, election-deciding impact on this fall’s race, depressing turnout among voters of color, students, the elderly, and the poor.

Graves, who grew up in Alabama but has recently settled in Virginia, said he vividly remembers living under Jim Crow segregation laws. He spoke of riding with his grandmother on the back of Richmond’s streetcars. He said his mother worked an elevator in a department story, but “couldn’t try on the clothes.”

Leaning against the brick wall outside his neighborhood polling place, he said the state’s new voter ID law reminds him of those times.