With all the concerns about the various attempts to disenfranchise voters, another voting issue hasn’t been talked about much.
This Just In:
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has filed a lawsuit against officials of the New York State Board of Elections.
That’s right. One of the bluest of blue states is being sued for “multiple New York election practices that lead to a high rejection rate of absentee ballots for reasons unrelated to a voter’s eligibility,” reports Democracy Docket.
And the lawsuit contends that these practices “unconstitutionally burden and even disenfranchise voters in violation of the First and 14th Amendments and Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
The opening paragraph of the 44-page Complaint appears below. The relief sought by the plaintiff appears on page 7. The eye-opening STATEMENT OF FACTS AND LAW begins on page 11.
1. In a report issued just a few months ago, the New York State Senate Elections Committee recognized that “New York’s system of election administration has routinely fallen short in ways that have shaken public confidence, limited participation, and even disenfranchised voters.” 2021 S. Elections Comm. Rep. at 1. 1 “Rather than one-off incidents of malfeasance or incompetence, recent incidents in New York point to structural flaws[.]” Id. “These structural flaws tend to have a disproportionate impact on communities most at risk of being disenfranchised, such as people of color, low-income voters, voters with physical disabilities, or voters whose primary language is not English.” Id. Such voters are among DCCC’s core constituencies, and DCCC brings this action to address these severe, perpetual threats to its ability to elect its candidates and enfranchise its voters.” (emphases mine)
I’d long heard about New York State’s poor record of voting administration. Cynical Republican legislators, when challenged about their newly passed suppressive voting laws, have said, “We’re no worse than New York.”
But I didn’t know the specifics. And not surprisingly, due to timing, this litigation wasn’t mentioned during Thursday’s informative Twitter space virtual meeting held by Democracy Docket and its founder, the extraordinary voting rights attorney Marc Elias.
But the consciousness-raising that Elias did about the issue of structural voter disenfranchisement prompted me to write this post.
I thought I was done last night with a shorter post–until I saw the announcement of this lawsuit, filed February 4th. Not surprisingly, Elias and his firm are attorneys for the plaintiffs.
Elias has become a voting rights rock star in some circles. On Twitter spaces, where large virtual meetings are held, his Democracy Docket gathering had more than 500 participants when I first listened three weeks ago. Last week, there were more than 850. This week, the number was 1280 and growing.
With good reason. Elias is dedicated to using the courts to ensure that voting rights are available to all. He has an excellent success rate, as the former guy knows well.
Obviously, that’s an exhausting effort, with so many Republican state legislators doing their best to limit voting in diverse ways. Elias never sounds tired, though: this is a man who loves his work. And we sure need that work right now.
We’re accustomed to hearing about deliberate attempts to suppress votes. This week’s session included some troubling information about a different trend.
Elias calls it “the epidemic of uncounted ballots in America.”
Unfortunately, it’s happening in Blue states as well as Red ones. New York isn’t the only one.
Vote by mail (VBM), also called “all mail-in voting” and voting by absentee ballot, has become increasingly popular—despite efforts to curtail its use by Republicans, who favored it until it led to greater voter turnout in the pandemic-plagued 2020 election.
Elias urged us to read a New York Times article about Washington State, where all mail-in balloting has been in place since 2011. States with all mail-in voting have had some of the highest participation rates, attracting voters who might otherwise be unable to vote due to “the challenges of work, child care, or transportation,” The Times noted. Washington state was thought to be a voting success story.
That wasn’t quite accurate. Auditors found that in the 2020 election, four times as many votes by Black voters were rejected compared with white voters. Higher rejection rates were also found among Hispanic, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islanders’ ballots.
The reason was invariably the same: signature verification problems. There didn’t appear to be any deliberate effort to deny voters their rights; nor were any voters found to be attempting to cast fraudulent ballots. Signatures were either missing or didn’t match the ones on file, possibly due to “voter inexperience, language problems, or other factors.”
There were variations among counties, which the auditors observed could mean that some election officials were more strict in their reviews of matching signatures than others.
The Washington State auditor termed the findings “unacceptable” and tasked election officials to fix the problem.
And in Colorado in 2020, 65% of young people’s ballots were rejected in an election the Democratic Secretary of State cited for its “second-in-the-nation turnout rate…calling it a special day that ‘commemorates the will of the people and the strength of our democracy,'” reported The Colorado Sun.
During the Democracy Docket Q&A with Twitter participants, one woman remarked about the burden this signature matching imposes on her disabled son. Elias concurred that disabled voters are indeed another large segment of voters disenfranchised by signature matching.
So the list is long: Voters who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islanders, young, disabled. That’s a substantial slice of Americana—all people who wanted to vote, made the effort to vote, but were told their votes didn’t count.
There are ways to address this problem. Colorado and Washington State both permit voters to “cure” their ballots via texting from their mobile phones. According to the Sun, “The text-to-cure program allowed voters to correct signature issues and provide photos of their IDs if their ballot was flagged by officials.”
The Washington state auditor’s office issued a report encouraging voter education that explains the signature matching program and its importance, as well as collecting a few sample signatures from each voter and following up with voters who failed to appeal when their signatures were rejected.
Others have recommended eliminating the problem by substituting PIN numbers for signatures.
The New York State lawsuit goes well beyond signature verification and cites multiple issues leading to disenfranchisement: election official error (such as mailing absentee ballot applications too late–34,000 ballots mailed to voters one day before the 2020 election!); “arbitrary postmarking practices” in various parts of the state; mailed ballots that the US Postal Service has failed to postmark; and many other roadblocks, often outside the voter’s control.
According to the complaint, roughly 50,000 absentee ballots in 2020 were rejected for “immaterial technical defects” that voters could cure, or correct, if the state changed its procedures.
Elias emphasized in our Thursday meeting that allowing people to vote—and then rejecting their ballots—“gives them the illusion of democracy.“
“This needs to stop,” he said. “This system is just broken. If politicians don’t fix this, they should be sued.”
And once again, he’s done just that.
Were you aware of this seemingly nonpolitical issue with voting that’s having a significant impact? Did you realize its dimensions? Have you ever cast a vote that was rejected?