Opinion

I watched a polling site in Raleigh. It’s too hard to vote.

Timbrel Cunningham, center, looks over candidates as a large line forms outside of the Tarboro Road Community Center after Saint Augustine University’s Superior Sound
Marching Band led students to the precinct to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
Timbrel Cunningham, center, looks over candidates as a large line forms outside of the Tarboro Road Community Center after Saint Augustine University’s Superior Sound Marching Band led students to the precinct to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. jleonard@newsobserver.com

On Tuesday, I spent eight and a half hours poll monitoring outside the Chavis Community Center in southeast Raleigh. At least 75 percent of the people who went in to vote came out without having voted. Most were African-American.

Most were told that they were at the wrong location, although they could have voted there three days earlier during early voting. Many had waited in line for 45 minutes, only to be turned away. Still others hadn’t yet registered; again, although they could have registered three days earlier and voted the same day, that option was no longer available.

Several people walked away angry, and said they could not or would not vote, either because they had already used up their breaks from work, or because transportation restrictions made it too difficult. Everyone who walked out without voting was frustrated.

There are easy and reliable ways to ensure that more people vote, and that more votes are counted.

First, the legislature could make district-wide voting available on election day, not just on early voting days. Where this isn’t possible, the board of elections needs to make it clear to people — before they stand in line — that their early voting location may not be the same as their election day location. As it was, there were only a couple of paper signs that said, “Check your location here: https://vt.ncsbe.gov/RegLkup/”. That’s not exactly user-friendly, and impossible for people without smart phones.

Second, same-day registration has to be available on election day, not just early voting. Seventeen states offer same-day registration, which allows any qualified resident of a state to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day. A prospective voter must bring a photo ID to an early voting site, and if the ID doesn’t have an address, they must bring a piece of official mail, for example, before they are registered and allowed to vote.

Third, election monitors must offer a provisional ballot where there is a question about a voter’s eligibility to vote. Citizens of our state are guaranteed the opportunity to cast such a ballot where a question is raised, but elections officials often allow people to leave the voting site without offering this option.

A father of two had almost made it to the parking lot when I ran up to him and said, “Were you able to vote today, sir?” He turned to me and said, “They said I wasn’t registered, so I guess that’s that.” A man came out a few minutes later and said, “They told me I’m at the wrong location, but to get to the right place I have to catch the bus back into downtown and make a change, and that’ll take me an hour.”

Both were frustrated, but neither knew what they could do to make it better. So I entertained the kids while the dad got on the phone with election protection (1-888-OUR-VOTE) and found his registration; a few minutes later I drove the other man to his correct polling place. Both walked out of their polling place with “I Voted” stickers on their chests and huge smiles on their faces.

Voter protection volunteers like me from the ACLU and Democracy NC worked hard all day to use our own smart phones to help people find out their polling locations, double-check their registrations, and report irregularities, but we couldn’t do it all ourselves. We still saw dozens of votes wasted because of inefficiency and confusion.

This is its own kind of voter suppression, and while it may not be as blatant as a poll tax or a mob, the message is clear: we don’t care about your vote. It’s time to change that.

Anne Gordon is a senior lecturing fellow at Duke University School of Law.

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