Last night’s primaries and caucuses in Michigan, Mississippi, Idaho, and Hawaii, delivered a major victory for Sen. Bernie Sanders, helped Donald Trump on his march to the Republican nomination, and spelled doom for Sen. Marco Rubio. They also shined a spotlight on serious voting rights problems in those states.
Hawaii: Trouble in paradise
For several election cycles, Hawaii has one of the worst voter turnout rates in the country. Last night changed that trend, with high turnout that triggered long lines, delays at the polls, and many voters giving up and leaving in frustration. At least 2,000 people were forced to cast provisional ballots, which have yet to be counted.
Though the state made voter registration easier by passing a law in 2014 allowing registration on election day, many problems remain.
Unlike a primary, in which voters have all day, and often several days in advance to cast a ballot, caucuses require all residents to be present at a specific time on a specific day — in this case, Tuesday night from 6 to 8 p.m. Those who have to work, take care of children, or can’t make it to the caucus site due to an illness or disability are shut out of the process.
To add further confusion, Hawaii’s Republican ballot will also include Ben Carson and Jeb Bush, though both have dropped out of the race.
The island’s physical distance from the mainland has also made it difficult for voters to feel included in the election process. No candidate has made a campaign stop there this cycle, and there have been few mentions from the campaigns of the many issues plaguing the island, including a homelessness crisis, a meth addiction boom, and environmental contamination from pesticides.
To address the dismally low rate of voter participation, some Hawaiian lawmakers are pushing for the state to transition to an entirely vote-by-mail system, which has boosted voting rates in Oregon, Colorado, and Washington.
Michigan: Overwhelmed at the ballot box
Republican and Democratic candidates have flocked to Michigan this week, holding countless town halls, debates, and rallies to win the states nearly 150 delegates, and driving record turnout on election day.
Unprepared, several polling sites ran out of ballots and had to turn voters away.
Additionally, rules implemented by the Republican-controlled legislature over the past few years made it harder for some to cast a ballot.
In January, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a law eliminating the ability for voters to quickly vote for a single party rather than choosing each candidate one by one. Election clerks have warned this could lead to longer lines at the polls, and studies show the change will particularly hurt Democrats, who more frequently take advantage of the straight ticket option.
The state also has no early voting and only allows absentee voting for those who meet one of six specific reasons. Efforts to allow anyone to vote absentee for any reason were recently stalled in the state legislature by Republican opposition.
First time voters face additional challenges, as state law prohibits them from casting absentee ballots if they registered by mail or at a voter registration drive. Student voters living on campus at one of Michigan’s many colleges could also be hurt by a law mandating that one’s voter registration address be at the same address as his or her drivers license.
Voters in Mississippi reported widespread confusion, because many polling places were changed last-minute. Several precincts did not open on time, while others had glitches in their electronic poll books. In another troubling sign, requests for absentee ballots increased 50 percent since 2012.
State legislators are now considering measures to increase voter participation, including an expansion of early voting and allowing online registration.
It was also the first presidential election for this deep south state since the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, gutting the federal law that protected voters in Mississippi and other states with a history of racial voter suppression. Since then, the state has implemented a voter ID law that civil rights groups warn will disenfranchise many elderly voters, the poor, and people of color. The state’s ID law is less restrictive than those recently implemented in Texas, Wisconsin, and other states, as it allows student IDs to be used for voting, but it still disenfranchised hundreds of voters in the 2014 midterm election. At least one local election was decided because the resident who would have cast the deciding vote did not have a proper ID.
Nationally, voter ID laws have been found to significantly depress turnout in communities of color. A study released in February found that in primary elections, “a strict ID law could be expected to depress Latino turnout by 9.3 points, Black turnout by 8.6 points, and Asian American turnout by 12.5 points.” Because voters of color tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the researchers concluded that voter ID laws will hurt Democratic candidates this year.
Idaho: No longer locked up, still locked out
Idaho also has a voter ID law that has not been challenged in court by civil rights groups, in part because the law is looser on what forms of ID for accepted and allows voters with no ID to sign an affadavit and still be able to cast a ballot. Still, the law may have contributed to long lines at some polling sites on Tuesday.
Idaho also disenfranchises people who have completed felony sentences but are still on parole or probation, a practice that several states have moved to eliminate because it disproportionately suppresses the votes of people of color. Nationally, nearly 6 million Americans, the vast majority of them black or Latino, are barred from voting due to a current of previous felony conviction.