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Just How Bad Was Voter Suppression This Election?

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It may never be possible to calculate exactly how many eligible voters were unable to vote Tuesday due to new voter-ID laws, registration problems, and polling location misinformation. Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, wouldn’t give an estimate of how many people were likely blocked from the polls this year, but she did say that millions of Americans were affected by new changes, particularly laws passed after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act last summer. In Texas alone, the implementation of a new voter-ID law meant that 600,000 registered voters lacked the proper identification.

You can get a sense, though, of the scale of voter difficulties from the Election Protection Hotline (866-OUR-VOTE). The hotline is a project of the Election Protection Coalition, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The hotline handles calls from voters who need to know if they’re registered, find their assigned polling locations, and report difficulties in their attempts to vote. Yesterday, the national hotline had taken over 16,000 calls by 8 p.m., with 3.5 hours to go until polling ended. (By comparison, the hotline received 12,857 calls all day on Election Day in 2010.)1

Texas, Georgia, and Florida seemed to be experiencing a particularly problematic Election Day. The hotline took roughly 2,000 calls from each of those states. Chris Melody Fields, the manager for legal mobilization and strategic campaigns at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that the call center received hundreds of calls from Georgia yesterday morning alone—so many, in fact, that calls had to be rerouted to call stations for other states. The problem in the Peach State: On top of the 40,000 voters waiting to see if they are actually missing from the system or were processed in time for Election Day, the website of the Georgia Secretary of State, where voters can check their registration status and look up their assigned polling center, was down for hours.

Representatives from the organizations involved with the hotline shared stories of voters who didn’t speak English fluently being told they couldn’t bring family members into the voting booth to translate; voters who had been registered for years but weren’t on the rolls today; a man in Alabama was turned away simply because his signature didn’t resemble the one on his ID. One volunteer told me that she received calls about a polling station that was requesting photo ID and turning away voters without it—in a state that doesn’t require photo ID to vote. (She said that after she called the polling station, the misunderstanding was cleared up and voters without ID were processed.) 

“I can tell by watching the calls come in that there’s a high volume of registration related problems,” this volunteer said. And, of course, the hotline calls probably represent only a tiny fraction of the total people whose efforts to cast a vote were thwarted.

  1. The hotline also has phone lines for voters who do not speak English, including a new one that did not exist in 2010. The cumulative count for all of the phone lines yesterday up until 8 pm was over 18,000 calls. Neither a cumulative count for the full day yesterday, nor a final count for just 866-OUR-VOTE has been calculated as of this writing.