By Aya Elamroussi
Anthony Mensah says he had no problem registering to vote in his home state of Wisconsin. When he turned of age, his mom urged him to register.
“For me personally, it was a pretty painless process,” he said. He was able to vote in the 2016 general elections via absentee ballot in his home state while he remained in Washington, D.C.—attending American University.
But he was one of the lucky ones.
To vote in Wisconsin, citizens must register using acceptable official photo ID or social security number and proof of residency 20 days before an election or on Election Day.
Since the 2012 presidential election, 20 states have implemented restrictions on registration and voting, a 2016 New21 analysis found, citing those restrictions are to combat voter fraud. But the other side of the issue is that these restrictions reduce voter turnout, particularly among minority and lower-income groups, a 2013 Cambridge University study finds.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 underwent a change in 2013. The Supreme Court ruled Section 4 of the act as unconstitutional in the case Shelby County v. Holder, which is now known as The Shelby Decision.
Section 4 lays out the procedures for how the Justice Department should enforce Section 5 of the act. Section 5 requires that states identified with a history of discrimination, particularly those in the South, must obtain approval from the federal government before they can make changes to their election laws. Election laws on the local level can take the form of changes to poll closing hours, poll locations and early voting windows.
Now, jurisdictions that were protected under the Voting Rights Act have complete authority to change voting laws—impacting voter turn-out.
Although Mensah,19 and an African-American, is not from a state that is under the act, Wisconsin– among other states like North Carolina, Texas and Arizona– has been undergoing changes in its voting laws.
During the 2016 presidential elections, Trump questioned the integrity of the electoral process.
“The election is absolutely being rigged,” Trump tweeted.
Even after he won the presidency, Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer stated that voter fraud was so widespread that it cost Trump the popular vote.
While he has yet to support those claims, voter fraud does happen, but not in the widespread scale Trump and Spicer have repeatedly stated to the public. A ProPublica study estimated the rate of in-person voter fraud is around one case per 14.6 million registered voters.
But how exactly does voter fraud happen?
A ProPublica voter fraud analysis cites the different ways voter fraud took place. The perpetrators were convicted.
- Colorado, 2009 — Duplicate voting:
A person voting twice in different counties within the same state.
- New Jersey, 2009– Misuse of absentee ballot:
A voter submitting multiple ballots.
- North Carolina, 2012– Dead voter
A voter submitting an absentee ballot in the name of someone who is dead.
- Florida, 2015– Ineligible voter felon:
Citizens on probation after they have served time in prison cannot vote.
- Illinois, 2009– Noncitizens voting:
Permanent residents who obtain a driver’s license an use that government-issued ID to register and vote.
Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation wrote in his 2011 study on voter fraud that “requiring voters to authenticate their identity at the polling place is necessary to protect the integrity of elections and access to the voting process.”
Spakovsky- the think tank’s voter fraud expert- also said, “The only effect that voter ID will have on the midterm elections is, in the states that have such a requirement, improve the security and integrity of the election.”
But the ProPublica analysis says that requiring people to show ID at the polls would not have stopped the people convicted of voter fraud since 2000.
Candice Nelson, a political science professor at American University and an expert on presidential and congressional elections, says that voting laws in the US is a Republicans-versus-Democrats issue.
“It’s playing out as Democrats are more supportive of convenience voting, make it easier to vote. Republicans are less supportive,” Nelson said. “And the underlying argument that’s come out in some of the court decisions on these issues is because of race.”
In North Carolina, there was record turnout among African American voters in the 2008 presidential elections for Barack Obama.
But a month after The Shelby Decision, North Carolina passed voting laws that required strict voter ID to cast a ballot, cut a week of early voting and eliminated same-day voter registration, out-of-precinct voting and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
The racial data provided to the legislators showed that African Americans used early voting in both 2008 and 2012. Evidence show that 60.36 percent and 64.01 percent of African Americans voted early in 2008 and 2012, respectively— compared to 44.47 percent and 49.39 percent of white voters, according to an appeals court document.
African Americans especially used the first seven days of early voting. Knowing this racial data, the General Assembly amended the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting, shortening the total early voting period from seventeen to ten days—the appeals court document says.
US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the law “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision,” the court appeal report said, and struck down the law.
“The laws were written, and this was in the language, to blatantly discriminate against African Americans,” Nelson said.
The Justice Department is the government agency that oversees civil rights issues—including voting rights. Now that it is led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Nelson expresses concerns about the due diligence the DOJ would take to look into discriminatory voting laws passed as a result of The Shelby Decision.
“I think what will be an issue in  and  is we now… have a Justice Department headed by Jeff Sessions, who is not particularly friendly to making it easier for people to vote,” Nelson said. “If cases come to Justice Department, [it] probably won’t rule as favorably against a state trying to cut back voter rights,” she added.
Before confirmed as AG this past February, Sessions (R) was Alabama’s senator and his confirmation faced much animosity due to allegations of past racism brought forth by Democrats.
How are voters restricted from voting?
Voter restriction takes place in various forms. A 2013 Cambridge University study found that the following are ways that exemplify the different types of policies that have been proposed and adopted in various states:
- Required photo identification or proof of citizenship to vote
- More stringent regulation of groups or individuals who aim to register new voters
- Shortened early voting periods
- Repeal of same-day voter registration
These laws impact minority and lower-income voters because they impose an impediment to access the polls for these specific groups, Nelson said.
“If you have to vote only on Tuesday between x and y… [and] you have to be at your job at 7 a.m., and you work until 6 p.m. And you can’t vote during that time, then you’re disenfranchised,” Nelson added.
Nelson said that “it can make it hard for people who don’t have flexibility.” Lower-income workers tend less flexible work hours.
Sister Rose Stietz helped register voters in a Milwaukee church since the year 2000. But as of December 31, 2016, she can no longer do that.
The state of Wisconsin recently passed legislation that discontinued the program.
Governor Scott Walker (R) signed into law 2015 Wisconsin Act 261 in March 2016. The act eliminates “special registration deputies,” people who volunteer to register people to vote after completing at least one approved training program.
The elimination “coincides with electronic voter registration” the law says. In other words, people can now register online.
But Sister Stietz says restrictive voting laws harm the idea of democracy.
“It’s certainly killing the democratic process,” she said.
As history revealed itself, she said, more people have been able to vote—citing the progression of the groups who gained suffrage over the years: land owners, white males, African- American men and then women.
Sister Stietz added, “They struggled to do that. Now it seems to be regressing [in] that the fewer people allowed to vote the better.”
But Mawal Sidi, like Mensah, had no problem registering to vote or casting her ballot.
Sidi, now 22 and studying broadcast journalism at American University, registered to vote in her home state of Georgia when she was in high school.
“I remember it was really easy,” Sidi said of her first time voting in the 2012 presidential election.
But she said that an immigrant community in her home city was not aware of the voting process.
“It sort of this lack of information.”
A 2016 Pew study found that one in five voters live in states requiring photos IDs, but don’t know it.
So the Sidi family took the initiative to inform the community on how to vote.
“As immigrants, we had to take it upon ourselves to educate the other immigrants.”