The United States has a long and sordid history of disenfranchisement. It took nearly 200 years for the principle of “one person, one vote” to become the law of the land, and now much of our progress towards equal voting access is being undone. In the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, which gutted key elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, new barriers are cropping up that could make it harder for many Americans to vote.
The majority of voters are still unlikely to face issues on Election Day, but the new burdens fall disproportionately on a select cohort of Americans. Here are the groups of people who will face some of the steepest battles to cast their vote.
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People of color
African-Americans had the highest voter turnout rates in 2012, but new obstacles could keep many black voters from the ballot box this year. Laws that require voters to present photo ID at the polls—which have cropped up in eight states since 2013, bringing the total to 34 states—disproportionately impact African-Americans. That’s because people of color are less likely than whites to have the specific forms of required photo ID, and because these laws are more common in Southern states (where African-Americans are concentrated).
In addition to obstructive voter ID laws, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans are often plagued by language barriers. While the Voting Rights Act contains protections for language-minority voters, poll workers are not always aware of them (so they might not honor these voters’ rights, for example, to have someone assist them at the polls).
People of color often have to take more time and travel further distances in order to vote. In 2012, black and Latino voters waited nearly twice as long as white voters to cast their ballots, likely due in part to state decisions to restrict early voting. And this year, Native Americans in northern Nevada will have to travel nearly 100 miles round-trip to cast their ballot in November.
First, the good news: in recent years, court decisions and new laws at both the state and federal level have eliminated formal bans on voters who do not live in a “traditional dwelling.” As a result, homeless people are now formally able to register and vote in every state.
But homeless adults—of whom there are at least 400,000 nationally—still face a variety of informal barriers. Some states require voters to provide a mailing address when they register. Other states require voters to prove how long they have lived in a voting district, a task that is understandably difficult for homeless people. And again, stricter voter restriction laws—like photo ID requirements—fall particularly hard on the homeless community, who are less likely to have a driver’s license or other forms of acceptable identification.
People with criminal records
Americans with criminal records, especially those with felony convictions, face some of the steepest—and most convoluted—barriers to the ballot box. In fact, a new study found that a record 6.1 million people are barred from voting this year because of felony convictions.
Because voting for people with felony convictions has not been federally regulated, those seeking to register face a patchwork of state voting laws that range from no restrictions (in Maine and Vermont) to a lifetime of disenfranchisement (in 10 states). Ten states also restrict voting for people with misdemeanors. These restrictions disproportionately impact people of color. In Florida, felony disenfranchisement bars 23% of African Americans from voting, and four other states also suppress the votes of 1 in 5 black citizens.
Unfortunately, the confusion and misinformation around state laws can even discourage eligible Americans with criminal records from voting. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Many people with past criminal records mistakenly believe they are ineligible to vote.” As a result, many end up staying home unnecessarily on Election Day.
Even though women made up a majority of voters in 2012, voter ID laws are creating new obstacles for them, too. Thirty-four states require voters to present some kind of identification. Roughly 90% of women change their last names when they get married (and often change their names back following a divorce), and many may not realize their voter registration does not match the name on their ID until it comes time to vote. What’s more, women are also more likely to belong to other groups who face barriers at the polls—low-wage workers, seniors, students, and the poor.
More than 23 million people—disproportionately women and people of color—work in low-wage jobs. These workers are especially likely to have volatile and erratic schedules, which makes it hard for them to plan to get to the polls. Additionally, only 30 states require employers to give workers time off to vote—and even among states that do provide workers leave to vote, that time off is not always paid.
For workers who subsist on very low wages, the decision to take time off to cast a ballot can result in a difficult financial loss. That may explain the 30-point gap in voter participation along income lines: Less than half of people earning under $30,000 a year voted in the 2012 election, while over 80% of people earning over $150,000 voted. As a point of comparison, 99% of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans voted.
Transgender citizens have become a vocal voting bloc this election cycle, but stringent photo ID laws threaten their ability to cast a ballot. An estimated 27% of trans people lack identification that accurately reflects their gender, in large part because they face uphill legal and financial battles to update their ID documents. For example, in at least 15 states, trans people are required to show proof of a gender reassignment surgery—a task that is simply not possible for those who are unable or choose not to have the surgery.
People with disabilities
People with disabilities face a wide range of voting obstacles, but chief among them are transportation, lack of accommodations at the polls, and poll workers who are ill-equipped to offer help. A full 30% of people with disabilities are unable to drive, which makes it hard to get to the polls in the first place—particularly for those voters who live alone or in rural areas. Even if they manage to make it to their polling location, a lack of ramps or curb cuts and limited support for voters with vision impairments make it difficult for people with disabilities to vote—even though laws like the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and the Americans with Disabilities Act were designed to improve ballot access. These barriers help explain why turnout rates among voters with disabilities—especially those with cognitive disabilities—tend to be lower than voters without disabilities. In fact, it can be difficult for people with disabilities to even register to vote, since most online voter registrations are not accessible for people with vision-related or cognitive disabilities. All told, these barriers to access could account for as many as 3 million votes.
None of these barriers are inevitable. Most are the consequences of policy decisions, some of which were made with the deliberate intent of disenfranchisement. Election Day gives Americans the opportunity to reverse these laws, and to elect policymakers who will work on behalf of those who don’t always have a voice.