There are a number of strategies that have been employed historically and that are no doubt on the table in the upcoming elections. I wrote in a previous piece the trials through which North Carolina voters are going with the implementation of the photo ID requirements of citizens in order to vote. 218,000 registered voters in the state lack government-issued photo identification in order to cast their votes such as if they are non-drivers and are unable to navigate the labyrinthian system that is the acquisition of a government ID card, which itself requires a passport or a birth certificate and accompanies a cost that amounts to a poll tax.
There is an additional measure that can be exploited, and to which relatively few have paid as much attention: time off on Election Day to vote. An increasing number of states allow voting by mail or have other early voting or absentee voting procedures in place, which have the benefit of flexibility with respect to voting scheduling as well as reducing the length of lines on Election Day. Other states have various different procedures to permit employees to leave work for some period of time in order to vote. Some states require that employers provide employees with two hours of paid leave to vote, others three hours of paid leave, and others do not require that the leave be paid but do require that there not be retribution as a consequence of taking that time off.
The State of Missouri allocates three hours for employees, who with prior permission from their employer are entitled to paid leave for that period of voting time. Needless to say, such laws disproportionately impact non-exempt employees (that is, those working for an hourly wage), which in many cases garner less income than do salaried positions, and thus having a disproportionate impact on those who are less wealthy or economically stable.
On April 5, 2016, local elections and bond measures were voted on in Missouri, with this type of election admittedly already low in turnout given that the state’s presidential primary was held just weeks earlier on March 14. Despite Missouri’s election laws, there was confusion among the hospital staff at SSM Saint Mary’s as to their ability to take time off to vote and with what degree of notice it would be required. Compounding the confusion was the fact that election times had to be extended due to precincts running out of ballots, in turn requiring an adjustment in allotted time off from work, with some voters ultimately unable to make it to their polling places. The election was not widely publicized and thus many were uninformed of its presence, let alone the intricacies of Election Day voting laws (especially when working 7am to 7pm shifts that cover virtually the entire time that the polls are open), and this case was merely anecdotal evidence.
However isolated this incident of inability to vote was and however ripe the conditions were for voters to lack the tools with which to assert their voting rights at work, it may well be a more pervasive challenge that goes undocumented if workers themselves are not cognizant of the hours to which they are in fact entitled to vote in their state, and thus know neither their ability to challenge their employer’s behavior nor to report that behavior to election monitors. The lack of information regarding election laws among the American electorate (made all the more complicated by the extensive state-level variation in rights and protections) makes these sorts of malpractices (e.g., a company making it difficult for their employees to vote on Election Day and not allowing for added time in the more densely populated regions that can accrue several-hour long lines) all the more likely, or at a minimum all the more possible.
One solution is to make Election Day a federal holiday or on a weekend (as is the case in some countries abroad such as France, Germany, and New Zealand), which would not solve the photo ID challenges, but which would preclude voters from facing the undemocratic trade-off of political participation versus needed income. The setback to such a remedy is, of course, the political reality that the present and increasing constraints on voting disproportionately benefit one political party, that which controls Congress currently. However, this is not an issue – or should not be an issue of partisanship but rather of process. Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner wrote recently that he would rather lose an election than suppress votes in order to win. I call upon members of both parties to promote further transparency with respect to voting rights and eligibility, and greater accountability with respect to those individuals and entities that are not compliant. Maximizing access to the ballot box and helping voters to avoid fearing being penalized for taking time to participate in the democratic process – arduous though we make it at times – is truly the least that we can do while calling ourselves a great democracy.