New Report Charges that States Disfranchise Older Voters

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 11, 2017

Since 1948, Wisconsin resident Christine Krucki had voted in every presidential election, but effectively lost her right to vote when her state enacted a voter ID law in 2011. An old Illinois photo ID and proof of her residence in Wisconsin was just not good enough to allow her to cast a vote.

Krucki did not have a birth certificate and was forced to purchase one for $20. However, her last name on the document did not match her current last name, changed when she married. She then paid $15 dollars for a copy of her marriage certificate , but that document listed her list name differently than her birth name, as she was adopted a different name after moving in with her stepsister when she was in her early 20s. Changing her name on the Illinois marriage certificate to match her birth certificate to solve the problem would cost between $ 150 and
$ 300.

The obstacles Krucki faced when attempting to exercise her right to vote are encountered by millions of older Americans when they attempt to vote. With the 2018 mid-term elections less than a year away, two U.S. Senators release a report detailing Krucki’s problem at the polls, and notes how suppressive state laws and inaccessible voting locations disenfranchise older voters.

Pushing Older Voters Away from the Polls

Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Committee on Rules and Administration’s 15 page report, “Barriers to Voting for Older Americans: How States are Making it Harder for Seniors to Vote,” finds that strict voter identification (ID) laws, closure of voting locations, inaccessible polling places and limits on early voting and absentee ballots are preventing seniors and people with disabilities from casting votes.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. But, that right is under threat for millions of older Americans and individuals with disabilities across the nation,” stated Sen. Bob Casey in a statement announcing the report’s release. “This report brings awareness to the unique challenges that seniors face in exercising their constitutional right. We must work to ensure that all Americans have equal access to the voting booth.”

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is becoming harder and harder for many Americans, especially our seniors,” add Sen. Klobuchar, noting that long lines, inaccessible polling places, and strict voter ID laws have become barriers to voting for older Americans. “This important report shines a light on the hardships these voters face and proposes common sense solutions to make voting easier for everyone. We need to do more to restore Americans’ confidence in our political system. Our first step should be making it easier for their voices to be heard on Election Day,” he says.

The report, released on Nov. 2, also includes new information from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that only 17 percent of the polling places it examined during the 2016 election were fully accessible. Most polling places GAO examined had one or more impediments from parking to the voting area and had accessible voting stations that could impede private and independent voting.

According to the report, suppressive voting laws and issues of accessibility affect tens of millions of older Americans and people with disabilities. In the 2016 election, 30 percent of the voters were between the ages of 50 and 64-years-old and 13 percent were 65 and older. Sixteen million (11.5 percent) of the 139 million votes were cast by people with disabilities. As the baby boomer population continues to age, these restrictions and barriers are likely to adversely impact more Americans.

In order to protect the voting rights of older voters and persons with disabilities, the report calls on Congress to ensure the full authorization and empowerment of all federal voting laws, which will make polling places accessible to older voters. Access to polls can also be increased by allowing opportunities for accessible early voting and absentee voting. Finally, it calls on limiting restrictions on voting and ensure that election laws fully consider the needs and abilities of older Americans.

Reflections from Rhode Island

“The depth of this issue varies from state to state,” says AARP State Director Kathleen Connell, who herself is a former Rhode Island Secretary of State. “I believe that older Rhode Islanders are well protected here, but we must be vigilant. Older Rhode Islanders are traditionally the most engaged voting group. Their voices are important and should not be silenced in any way.”

“I would add, however, that deliberate voter suppression is a threat to voters of all ages and the implications are as serious as they are obvious.

“When Voter ID legislation was passed in Rhode Island, we worked with then Secretary of State Ralph Mollis to set up photo booths to create ID cards for voters who did not have proper photo IDs. It was well received, but transportation was identified as a barrier to reaching some potential voters. Fortunately there were other remedies in place and, I have to say, no one contacted us saying they were prohibited from voting.”

Adds, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, this report presents a troubling situation across our country. The right to vote is sacred. I have spent the past three years modernizing our elections so that we can engage and empower all Rhode Islanders. Civic participation at all age levels is critical to our success as a state. I will continue to work to remove barriers so that eligible Rhode Islanders can have easier access to the ballot.”

Joe Graziano, Gorbea’s Communication Coordinator, notes that the GAO findings cited in this “Barriers to Voting” report is based on Council on State Governments research that his Department did not have a chance to review. “While it is not called “early voting”, Rhode Island does have an emergency mail ballot period that allows Rhode Islanders to cast their ballot ahead of Election Day without an excuse, says Graziano, noting that older voters have been able to use this system, in fact, 45 percent of the emergency mail ballots cast last year were by Rhode Islanders 65 and older.

Graziano admits that the GAO report shines a light on some of the barriers to voting across the nation. “Secretary Gorbea agrees that access to voting is critical and has successfully strived to improve it in the last three years including the introduction of online voter registration, automatic voter registration and the implementation of new, easier to use elections technologies (voting machines and ePoll books). Additionally, she has redesigned the ballot and the voter information guide to make them easier to read and understand. She also introduced legislation to update and expand opportunities for early, in-person voting,” he says.

“As a way to mitigate the negative impact of the photo ID requirement for voting, the Rhode Island Department of State has made sure that free photo Voter IDs are available to people in the communities where they live,” says Graziano, noting that last year alone, the Secretary of State staff held 51 events at senior centers and retirement facilities to ensure that eligible, older voters had proper voter identification, were introduced to new voting technologies and had any of their elections related questions answered by our Elections Division staff.

Looking to the upcoming General Assembly Session, Graziano says that Secretary Gorbea will once again introduce legislation for early in-person voting. “The legislation would eliminate the need for emergency mail ballots by allowing voters to cast their ballot at their local city or town hall, up to 20 days prior to an election, including the Saturday and Sunday prior to Election Day,” he says.

For more details about the Senate voting obstacle report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Voting%20Rights%20Report.pdf.

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