Primary season kicks into high gear this month, with 17 states holding elections in June and more to come throughout the summer. It starts what will likely be a contentious campaign, the first federal cycle since the presidency was determined by just 80,000 votes in three states. Americans need no reminding that every vote counts.
But voters might face several hurdles when they go to register or cast a ballot. The past decade has seen a number of laws that restrict the right to vote. This year in particular, voters are wary. Russian interference in the 2016 balloting has Americans questioning the integrity of our election system. And out-of-control gerrymandered legislative maps lock some voters into districts where they don’t have much of a choice about who they send to Washington.
Here are the three major threats to the ballot this fall — and what’s being done to protect the vote:
Restrictive Voting Laws
This fall, voters in at least eight states will face more stringent voting laws than they did in the last federal election cycle in 2016. And voters in 23 states will face tougher restrictions than they did in 2010 (the last major wave election). The most common impediments are strict voter ID laws (read the research on why these laws make it harder for some citizens to vote), but they also include additional burdens on registration and cutbacks on early voting and absentee voting — this year, voters in Iowa will have just 29 early voting days, down from 40 prior to that state’s midterm primaries.
If these laws remain in effect, they have the potential to make it harder for millions of Americans to vote. Even with an expected wave of enthusiasm this November, a growing body of research shows these laws reduce participation, particularly among communities of color, low-income voters, young people, older citizens, and people with disabilities.
So what can be done?
Besides passing laws that expand voting access, judicial orders are likely the best way to stop some of these laws before Election Day. Courts in as many as eight states could issue decisions in lawsuits that could temporarily stop some of these laws before November. And even in places where restrictive laws aren’t going anywhere, voter education and mobilization are key so that people know what they’re up against when they head to the polling place.
While there’s no evidence that Russian interference changed vote totals in the 2016 election, a recent Senate report showed that agents linked to the Russian government targeted election systems in 18 states. These agents attempted to access voting-related websites in at least six states and even gained access to some registration databases.
The interference might not have changed the outcome of the election, but it shook Americans’ confidence in our nation’s outdated voting machines and computer systems. And rightly so. This fall, 43 states will use voting machines that are no longer manufactured, and officials in 33 states say they must replace their machines by 2020 but are unlikely to have the funds to do so. In a recent survey, some election officials told the Brennan Center they’ve had to resort to buying spare parts on eBay and in some cases are using computers that still run Windows 2000. Older machines aren’t just more vulnerable to hacks — they’re also more likely to break down.
Adding to the uncertainty, 13 states still use voting machines that produce no paper record as their primary polling place equipment. That makes a software-independent audit virtually impossible.
The concern isn’t limited to hacks or malfunctions that affect vote totals. If websites fail, voters may not know where to cast a ballot. If a recount is needed and there’s no paper trail, voters may lose confidence in the results. It’s no way to run a democracy.
Fortunately, Congress set aside $380 million for states to upgrade their election infrastructure. While our analysis shows that this amount won’t be enough to replace all the nation’s vulnerable voting machines and computers, it nonetheless represents a down payment on phasing out the most outdated systems. And it’s not too late — in 2017, Virginia was able to decertify and replace all its paperless machines only two months before statewide elections.
Organizations like the Brennan Center, Verified Voting, Common Cause, and the National Election Defense Coalition are sending materials to election officials across the country that gives them guidance on how to secure older machines and offers suggestions for replacements and fixes that can happen before November 6.
Partisan gerrymandering — or the process of redrawing legislative maps to lock in power for one political party — continues to skew the results of American elections. Sophisticated computer models have made it easier for whoever’s in power to divide opponents and secure nearly bulletproof districts that don’t change power even when it’s apparent that voters want change.
A Brennan Center analysis has found that extreme partisan gerrymandering in just half a dozen key states gives Republicans an advantage of 16 to 17 seats in the House of Representatives. And our research has shown that this fall, Democrats would likely have to win the national popular vote by nearly 11 points to take a slim majority in the House. There’s a real risk that Democrats will win the national vote but lose the House (which happened in 2012).
And it’s not just Republicans who are at fault. Democrats hold fewer state legislatures (where redistricting is often controlled), but in states like Maryland, they, too, have used gerrymandering to secure their control of the state’s Congressional delegation.
In response, citizen-led efforts in four states have put redistricting reform on the ballot for this fall. And crucially, a wave of lawsuits against partisan gerrymandering has culminated in a Supreme Court case that could ultimately establish a national standard to determine if an extremely gerrymandered map is unconstitutional. A decision is expected this month.
And Reasons to Be Optimistic…
Despite these threats, there’s growing momentum behind other efforts to protect Americans’ voting rights. The Brennan Center’s signature proposal — automatic voter registration, where information you provide at government offices like the DMV is automatically used to add you to the registration rolls or update your registration — will be in effect in seven states and the District of Columbia. By our count, state legislatures this year have introduced more bills to expand voting than attempts to restrict it. And in Florida, voters will have a chance to restore voting rights to more than a million people who can’t vote because of a prior felony conviction.
The threats this year are powerful and diffuse, but citizens nationally are taking up the fight to protect the vote.