A new analysis of voting practices across the US shows varying voting laws make it too difficult and time-consuming to vote in some states – an issue researchers say could affect the nation’s democracy. The findings are published in the Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy.
“The ballot box is the central democratic institution,” said study author Scot Schraufnagel in a statement. “Voting and elections are key to democracy. One of the things that define the competency of an electoral system and the legitimacy of governing institutions is the ease in which you can vote.”
In the US, each state sets its own voting laws, from registration deadlines to voter identification requirements. To see how these differences could be impacting the voting process, researchers assembled election laws in what they called a “Cost of Voting Index” in order to rank each state according to the ease and time it takes to cast a ballot in each presidential election between 1996 and 2016.
Overall, differences in registration deadlines turned out to be the biggest obstacle.
States that had same-day and online voter registration options, absentee and early voting options, and no photo identification requirements made it the easiest to vote. (Most states require a form of photo identification when registering to vote but not at the polls. If you live in a state that requires your ID at the polling place but you forgot it, be sure to request a provisional ballot or call the Election Protection hotline at (866) 687-8683.)
Voters in Oregon had it the easiest when it came to voting, followed by Colorado, California, North Dakota, and Iowa.
Mississippi was the most difficult place to cast a ballot, followed by Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Texas.
In recent years, the authors note some states have changed laws to make it easier to vote, while others have made it more difficult. For example, Washington was ranked 46th in 1996 but jumped to 11th in 2016. Other states that changed significantly for the better during that timeframe were West Virginia, California, Louisiana, and Connecticut. Tennessee, on the other hand, saw the largest dip along with New Hampshire, Texas, Wyoming, and Kansas.
The authors say barriers to voting could influence voters and even deter certain populations from voting, ultimately shaping election results.
“We created this index with the idea in mind that it’s going to have a lot of interest for reasons beyond voter turnout because it helps to define an electoral climate, which might influence whether people are willing to run for public office or who is willing to run for office," said Schraufnagel. “There also are implications for civil rights. We know, anecdotally, states with larger African-American populations have higher ‘cost of voting’ values.”
They say implementing national voting standards could make it easier. These could include automatic voter registration as there is in much of Europe and Latin America or turning Election Day into a national holiday like it is in South Korea.
“For now, we can safely argue that if states desire higher citizen participation rates in elections, a reasonable place to start would be a same-day voter registration policy,” the new study states. “Beyond voter registration considerations, early voting polling stations and longer poll hours will, on average, increase citizen participation in elections."