A democracy is one in which the right to vote is free and secure. That right includes several basic protections against discrimination and violence that make it difficult for people to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote, including access to the ballot box, information about polling places and voting rules, and fair redistricting plans.
Historically, the right to vote was only made accessible to large population segments through years of struggle and demand for inclusivity. That expansion resulted from recognizing that a country could not legitimately claim to be a democracy if vast parts of the population were denied a voice.
Today, the right to vote is fundamental to American democracy and enshrined in state and federal law.
Whether you’re new to voting or have been voting for years, you can benefit from knowing the basics about your right to vote. It includes the laws that protect your rights and what to do if you face any barriers.
For example, if you are asked to pass a test or present photo identification, tell the poll worker you don’t need to.
Voting is not subject to a test
In science and technology, a test can be a clever way to discover something new or see if something works well. For example, a testing device might be used to test the strength of a piece of steel.
For African Americans in the United States, voting rights were severely restricted by many state legislatures until after the civil war. These restrictions included poll taxes, residency and property restrictions, and extra-legal activities such as voter intimidation.
Literacy tests were one of the most egregious forms of voter suppression designed to deter black voters from casting their ballots. Typically, these tests consisted of 30 questions that could only be answered in about 10 minutes and were intentionally difficult to understand.
Although a test is a logical first step to making voting more accessible, it isn’t necessary and should not be imposed on every American citizen. Luckily, some states have made it clear that they do not require a test to vote. However, if you are in a similar circumstance, a civil rights group like Naacpldf.org can assist you.
No need to present photo identification
You do not need to present photo identification in some states when voting. Instead, you may show other documents, such as a bank statement or utility bill with your name and address printed.
Some of these states allow you to vote on a provisional ballot if you still need an acceptable form of ID. However, you must sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury before the County Board of Elections will count your ballot.
Proponents of voter ID laws argue that increased identification requirements will prevent in-person fraud and increase public confidence in voting. Opponents say these laws restrict the right to vote and place undue burdens on voters. They also raise the cost of franchises and impose unnecessary obligations on election administrators.
Reading and writing skills are not required
In the United States, a surprisingly large percentage of people are functionally illiterate. That is why, in the last few years, several states have adopted various new voting laws that make it harder for voters with low literacy skills to cast a ballot.
While many of these laws have yet to be shown to increase turnout in the long run, they are still worthy of study. Election officials and voter educators should embrace them as the next step in protecting democracy from the scourge of non-voters. The best news is that these laws only apply to some voters, and most are only required for specific types of elections. The biggest hurdle to voting rights is ensuring all voters can cast a ballot without fear of being discriminated against, especially regarding literacy requirements.
No need to be able to access your polling place
Polling places are often in buildings used for other purposes, such as schools, sports halls, churches, and local government offices. In most states, polling places are staffed by officials (called election judges or returning officers) who monitor the voting process and assist voters.
Voters who are registered but cannot access their polling place can get a provisional ballot from the election worker. They may also be allowed to vote curbside or in a different location.
The law requires each polling place to have at least one fully accessible HAVA-compliant voting machine that allows disabled voters to vote privately and independently. Usually, this means a device that can read the ballot to you (for vision disabilities or dyslexia) and push-button voting for mobility disabilities.
If you cannot access your polling place because it is not wheelchair accessible or is too far away, you can ask for curbside assistance from an election worker. You may also bring a family member, friend, or another person to help you at the polls.