/Americans want their vote to count. Heres what voters need to know about their rights

Americans want their vote to count. Heres what voters need to know about their rights


Josh Peter
 
| USA TODAY

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Why voter suppression in the US has increased since 2013

Civil rights experts point to long wait times to vote as a sign of growing voter suppression in the U.S. Here’s what to expect in the 2020 election.

The Carter Center has monitored elections in some of the world’s most dangerous and corrupt countries — Sudan, Kenya and Venezuela among 39 countries in all. Now, the not-for-profit organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter is adding to that list of countries once seen as a model for fair and free elections.

The United States.

Avery Davis-Roberts, associate director in the Democracy Program at the Carter Center, said in recently taped remarks, “we typically prioritize work in places where democracy seems poised to take a step forward or where it’s in danger of sliding backwards. These places are often struggling with polarization, a lack of public trust, ethnic or racial divisions and fears that election results won’t be credible or accepted.

“U.S. elections have never been perfect, but generally Americans trusted in the process and believed in the results. But in the last five or 10 years, we’ve started to see many of the same discouraging trends we see in countries where we work.’’

More: How election officials are preparing for voter intimidation tactics

As the Nov. 3 election approaches, with President Donald Trump and Joe Biden battling on the campaign trail, the fear and cynicism among American voters is undeniable.

More than half of 1,505 registered voters surveyed in a YouGov poll Oct. 1-2 said they expect to see “an increase in violence as a result of the election.” Another YouGov poll found that almost half of voters disagree with the idea that the election “is likely to be fair and honest.”

Amidst that uneasy climate, voter knowledge is key, said Stephanie Young, Chief Communications and Culture Officer at “When We All Vote,’’ a nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter participation.

“An informed voter is a voter whose vote is most likely not to be suppressed because they understand their rights,’’ Young said.

Here are the rights voters have at the polls:

The Right to Vote Free of Intimidation

Federal law prohibits the intimidation of voters and can result in prison time. Check it out: 18 U.S. Code Section 594.

The law states: “Whoever intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose….shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.’’

Yet the law hasn’t always stopped voter intimidation.

In 1981, for example, the Republican National Committee (RNC) targeted a tight race for New Jersey governor. The RNC created the “National Ballot Security Task Force,’’ comprised of off-duty police and sheriffs officers and deployed to deployed to voting precincts heavily populated by Blacks and Latinos.

The stated purpose of the so-called task force was to prevent voter fraud. The outcome: discouraging Democrats from going to the polls on a day when the Republican and the gubernatorial candidate prevailed by 1,797 votes out of 2.3 million cast.

More: ‘The country’s lost its mind’: Polls warning of civil war, violence show deep partisan chasm over election

But Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said there’s no recent history of widespread efforts of voter intimidation, which would include being questioned about citizenship, criminal record or other qualifications.

“Obviously people are concerned about this election and that’s understandable,’’ Ebenstein said. “But at least over the last decade, I can’t think of effective or organized efforts that were carried out to keep people away from the polls. It would be a shame for people to assume there was going to be something like that and stay away out of intimidation.’’

Voters who encounter or witness intimidation are encouraged to call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), or the U.S. Department of Justice voting rights hotline at 1-800-253-3931, or, if threatened by violence, 911.

The right to vote by provisional ballot if your name is not on the list of registered voters

If you show up to the polls and your name is not on the list of registered voters, you have the right to vote with a provisional ballot. The ballot should be counted when officials confirm you are a registered voter in that county and you did not vote elsewhere.

“Sometimes people show up and find their names are not on the rolls,’’ said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “They may have been unlawfully purged. Or removed from rolls. Or there may have been an error on the part of officials who failed to include a voters’ name on the rolls.’’

It happens. More than you might think.

During the 2016 presidential election, for example, 2.4 million provisional ballots were cast and 71 percent were counted either partially or in full, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

So before heading to the polls, it never hurts to make sure you’re registered to vote and confirm your polling site.

The right to vote with accommodations

“People with intellectual or mental health disabilities have been prevented from voting because of prejudicial assumptions about their capabilities,’’ U.S. Department of Justice has written. “People who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids, such as walkers, have been unable to enter the polling place to cast their ballot because there was no ramp.  People who are blind or have low vision could not cast their vote because the ballot was completely inaccessible to them.’’

Efforts to protect the voting rights of people with disabilities has led to accessible polling places that meet the American Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and “curbside voting.’’

Any voter unable to reach the polling site because of physical limitations or architectural barriers may request a ballot “curbside.’’ A polling site worker brings a ballot or a voting device to the voter and, if necessary, assists the voter. But not everyone is in favor of this accommodation.

More: 30 years after the ADA, access to voting for people with disabilities is still an issue

The state of Alabama is challenging that right. On Oct. 15, state officials asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a lower court order allowing curbside voting.

Voters with disabilities can report complaints and possible violations of the federal voting rights laws to Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section in Washington at 1-800-253-3931 or 202-307-2767.

Another protected accommodation: Voters who struggle with English can bring a family member or friend — but not an employer — to help them fill out and cast a ballot.

There also are toll-free numbers for assistance in Spanish (1-888-839-8682), Arabic (1-844-925-5287) and Bengali, Catonese, Hindu, Urdu, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog and Vietnamese at 888-274-8683.

Ballots are available in a variety of languages and, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner, federal law requires more 260 jurisdictions to provide some type of language assistance

The right to vote after the polls close

If you’re in line when a polling place closes and you still want to vote, stay put.

“It doesn’t matter if that line is stretching for hours or blocks,’’ said Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “As long as you’re in line when the polls close, you have a right to vote.’’

6. The right to re-Vote

If you make a mistake, like voting for the unintended candidate or voting or more than one person for a single office, ask a pollster for help. Replacement ballots are available.

While there is no mention of a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in voting rights law, Clara Long of the Human Rights Watch said she thinks PPE should be available at the polling places in light of the ongoing pandemic.

“Authorities, local and federal, have the responsibility to protect people’s right to health as well as their right to vote,’’ Long said. “So that means providing PPE at the polls for people who don’t have it. And people should be asking for that if they don’t have it.

“Voters have the right to have their access to the vote facilitated. Facilitating the vote is part of the obligation that the U.S. has under a human rights framework that it’s actually been a leader in developing globally in terms how elections should be held.’’

More: Who’s undecided? Donald Trump’s toughest hurdle to pull off a win: Most minds are made up

But this year, talk often circles back to the fear of voter intimidation.

Long applauded the recent decision by Michigan officials to prohibit people from openly carrying guns within of 100 feet of buildings with polling places on Election Day. But she expressed uncertainty about what will transpire across the country on Election Day.

“The question is what is enforcement going to look like?’’ she said. “Are states and local authorities going to scrupulously enforce voters rights?’’

For more follow @JoshPeter11 on Twitter.