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Striving to #ProtectOurVote Amid Voter Suppression in 2016

A 2016 Post-Election Report

November 14, 2016

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Millions of Americans turned out to vote for the 45th President of the United States. This report captures the end of this long and historic electoral journey.  This is our first post-election analysis, and there is more to come. As full and final election results and data, including demographic data, come in, and as we continue to reach out to voters who used Election Protection as a resource, we will release subsequent analyses of this unique election cycle.

I. How Voter Suppression Impacted Voters in Four States in the 2016 Election Cycle: NC, PA, TX & WI

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law leads Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition and program. Throughout the 2016 election cycle, the Lawyers’ Committee and key partners coordinated national efforts to educate, empower and engage voters, and collected important data about the voter experience. This report presents our preliminary assessment of the 2016 election, supported by data received by way of our 866-OUR-VOTE voter protection helpline and Election Protection field programs, and presents select overviews of real voter experiences at the polls.
This year, the Election Protection coalition mobilized under unprecedented conditions. The 2016 election cycle marked the first presidential election year without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder (Shelby County) rendered Section 5 of the Act inoperable. Section 5 requires certain states and political subdivisions with histories of voting discrimination to seek federal approval before implementing any proposed voting changes.
In addition, partisan bullies bombarded voters with misinformation, rhetoric about rigged elections and threats of voter intimidation, some of which came to fruition. And, all of this was happening in a national atmosphere with active social justice movements and empowering activism, and despair, triggered by police brutality and killings and exacerbated racial and political polarization.
In total, 866-OUR-VOTE received 77,147 calls between January 1 and November 7.  We received 35,677 calls on Election Day. Significantly, many of these calls concerned voter problems, and some reflected systemic problems that affected multiple counties in a state. In addition, thousands of voters flagged issues for Election Protection via social media. The data collected by way of the hotline was complemented by information received from on-the-ground Election Protection volunteers in 28 states. Our 2016 program was supported by at least 4,000 legal volunteers and 4,000 grassroots volunteers led by key partner Common Cause. In response to the unique problems voters faced in this election cycle, Election Protection engaged thousands of volunteers to support voters throughout the 2016 election cycle.
Our analysis reveals that poor election administration and voter suppression impacted the election in a number of states. Voters in the jurisdictions formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), continued to face significant hurdles to the ballot in keeping with what we observed throughout 2016. And in this report, we provide an overview of voter suppression in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Our analysis focuses on voter suppression resulting from voter ID requirements, poll worker misconduct, and voter intimidation.
 

Voter identification, poll worker misinformation and other election administration failures

Proponents of restrictive photo ID commonly assert a number of rationales for adopting these types of laws, including preventing voter fraud and non-citizen voting. The reality is that little evidence support these assertions and multiple courts have found that the intent and effects of these laws revolve around restricting the votes of traditionally disenfranchised communities, including racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. Strict photo ID laws continue to be scrutinized by courts around the country, with laws in North Carolina and Pennsylvania being struck down in their entirety. Texas’ stringent law was ruled to have discriminatory effect, and an interim remedy was in affect for voters who did not possess the photo IDs listed in the law. In Wisconsin, the state’s restrictive photo ID law was in place for the first time in a presidential election. The final fate of the Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina photo ID laws is still subject to further court review. In 2016, voters and advocates reported widespread failures by jurisdictions to properly train poll workers and educate voters on the less restrictive laws in place and refusal by poll workers to properly follow the rules and give out correct information.
 
 

Covered by VRA_NC

North Carolina

In North Carolina, without an enforceable Section 5, approximately 49% of the Black voting-age population and 40% of the Latino voting-age population are more vulnerable to discriminatory voting practices. In July 2016, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that HB 589, often referred to as North Carolina’s “monster voter suppression law”, was enacted with “racially discriminatory intent.” The court found that the legislation, which introduced a restrictive voter ID law, reduced early voting opportunities, and eliminated same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and pre-registration, targeted African American voters with “surgical precision.” The U.S. Supreme Court later denied the state’s request that the Court allow the full provisions to go back into effect during the November elections.  In striking down the restrictions on early voting, the federal court noted that data was provided to NC legislators that showed African Americans disproportionately used early voting in 2008 and 2012. Nonetheless, 17 counties across the state cut early voting locations and hours, using their local-level discretion.

Durham County: Election Protection received reports that poll workers turned away voters without offering them provisional ballots. This conduct is especially significant in this particular election cycle, given the hotly-contested North Carolina gubernatorial race that, at the time of this report, is too close to call. The ongoing count of provisional ballots may ultimately decide this race, underscoring that every vote counts. This situation underscores the potential impact of the misapplication of provisional ballots.
Also, throughout the county, electronic poll books (e-poll books) were down, and there were insufficient authorization to vote forms. With support from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, an Election Protection partner, petitioned the North Carolina Board of Elections to extend polling place hours to 8:30 p.m. as a remedy to e-poll book problems. Although hours were not extended countywide, polling place hours were extended at several polling locations.
For example, problems at the American Legion Post No. 7 polling place exemplified the general lack of Election Day preparedness on the part of county election officials. The location had long lines because the site’s paper poll books required names from the book to be cut out with scissors and put on an Authorization to Vote form. The paper poll books were in place due to the e-poll book malfunction. When the polling place ran out of scissors, Election Protection volunteers offered to buy scissors nearby, but were told that poll workers had to wait for county-issued scissors. Election Protection followed up with the county, which sent scissors.
Pamlico County: Election Protection received an unverified a report that at a polling place in New Bern, a person with a Trump sign screamed, “Go home nigger. Trump will send you back to Africa!” According to the U.S. Census, New Bern is over 33% African American.

Texas

In Texas, local election officials failed to impart accurate information to voters regarding the new ID requirements in place for the general election.  This act of voter suppression potentially had an impact on African American and Latino voters. In July 2016, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit en banc invalidated the Texas photo ID law, ruling that it has a discriminatory effect on the state’s Black and Latino voters. The district court then approved an interim remedy agreement for the 2016 general election that allowed voters to sign a declaration stating they have a “reasonable impediment” to getting a photo ID, present alternative forms of ID, and vote a regular ballot. Texas also agreed to spend $2.5 million on voter education around the new changes. Yet a pattern of disseminating misinformation about the new voter ID requirements resulted in continued voter confusion:

  • According to a Texas League of Women Voters report, at the end of August 2016, one fifth (21%) of county websites provided at least minimally adequate information related to the newly relaxed voter identification requirements for the November elections. Groups conducting a similar analysis of the State and county education materials came to the same conclusion that the voter ID education materials was misleading to voters.
  • As a result, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ordered changes to certain press releases, posters placed at polling locations and materials on state websites related to voting in the Nov. 8 elections.
  • Yet, during early voting there were widespread reports of old Voter ID information posters being displayed at polling locations in counties including: Bexar, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Hays, McLennan, and Travis Counties, at a minimum.

And poll workers continued to impart wrong information to voters in the early voting period, a practice that continued through Election Day. For example, parts of Bexar County were so recalcitrant in their continued enforcement of the struck down ID law in the early voting period that the county was served with a temporary restraining order, mandating that it remove all illegal voter ID signs and correct its website and hotline with the updated voter ID rules. A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. In addition, letters were sent to officials in Harris and Dewitt Counties demanding that they immediately stop disseminating false information to voters about the voter ID rules. In response to continued misinformation, on November 3, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Texas Civil Rights Project launched a statewide public education campaign. The English and Spanish digital and radio media campaign ran through Election Day and included referrals to the Lawyers’ Committee’s 866-OUR-VOTE and NALEO Education Fund’s 888-VE-Y-VOTA voter protection hotlines.
On Election Day, voters across Texas reported voter suppression related to voter ID via incorrect signage, poll worker misinformation and misconduct, and forms of intimidation.
Denton County: Voters were impacted both during early voting and on Election Day by operational failures and reports of intimidation throughout the county. During early voting close to half of Denton’s voting machines were inoperable because the wrong machines had been delivered to early polling locations, creating confusion and long lines. On election day, reports of widespread problems with ballot scanners, also created uncertainly and voter confusion, In additional Denton voters called the hotline to report being intimidated by wide-spread armed police presence at polling locations across the county.
Tarrant County: Voters from Tarrant County polling locations called to report that poll workers were improperly implementing the photo ID law. Poll workers at precinct 4290 in Haltom City, TX improperly asked only minority voters for photo ID and posted outdated signs about the state’s ID rules for the general election. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Haltom City is nearly 39% Hispanic or Latino.
In addition, Poll workers in Southlake, TX improperly asked only African American voters for ID and bypassed requesting ID from Caucasian voters. One voter had to advocate on behalf of a family member who was improperly given a provisional ballot. Poll workers eventually relented and allowed the voter to vote a regular ballot.
Bexar County: Despite the TRO obtained by MALDEF, Bexar County poll workers continued to violate the law. One Latino voter reported that poll workers initially refused to accept an election identification certificate. Poll workers at precinct 3129 turned away registered voters who had waited in line for three hours.
Williamson County: Multiple voters calling from Williamson County reported that poll workers at different polling locations in the City of Georgetown were reluctant to tell voters about the other legally acceptable forms of ID and the reasonable impediment declaration. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 22% of Williamson County’s population is Hispanic or Latino.
Voters and on-the-ground volunteers alerted Election Protection to the following additional problems in counties across Texas:
Dallas County: Inoperable voting machines created long lines, and poll workers redirected voters to other polling locations.
Fort Bend County: Election Protection also received reports that voting machines at the George Bush High School polling place were broken, and poll workers were turning away voters. The polling place serves a community with significant numbers of African American and Latino voters.
Harris County: Voter processing delays created long lines at multiple Harris County polling locations, including Fiesta Market on Kirby Drive and MacGregor Elementary School in Houston. Voter intimidation reports included a person was handcuffed in Spring, Texas after crossing the 100-foot “no campaigning” line. The person was armed and carried a sign that read “Faggots Vote Democrat.” In addition, last minute changes to polling locations left many voters confused, including voters at the Iglesia Episcopal, Cypress Falls High School, HCC Northeast North Forest Campus, CE King Middle School, and North Belt Elementary, all of which were reportedly moved with minimal notice to voters.

Wisconsin

In July 2016, a federal trial court ruled that voters without Wisconsin’s restrictive voter ID law could vote by affidavit. Then, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals granted the state’s request to stay the trial court’s ruling. The appeals court relied on the state’s assurance that the state would make it easy for voters without the required ID to get a temporary ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for the general election. Election Protection partner the American Civil Liberties Union subsequently filed a claim arguing that the DMV’s onerous procedures made it difficult for voters to get the required ID to vote. Indeed, in the days after November 8, various local Milwaukee media outlets, like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune, and others reported that approximately 41,000 fewer voters turned out to vote in the Milwaukee area compared to 2012. The Chicago Tribune reported that Milwaukee’s election chief attributed the low turnout and problems at the polls to the state’s restrictive voter ID law and that Election Protection partner League of Women Voters suspected that the law discouraged people from participating in the election.
Menominee County: Menominee County is over 80% American Indian. Multiple voters called from the City of Keshena in Menominee County to report that Native American voters were subject to long lines due to multiple ID checks. One voter reported that poll workers checked IDs three times before allowing voters to proceed with casting their ballots, and Election Protection learned that a chief elections inspector wrongly denied a regular ballot to a disabled Native American voter who was erroneously directed to the DMV to obtain the required ID.
In Milwaukee County and elsewhere in Wisconsin, poll workers providing misinformation regarding the ID requirements for voting and same day registration burdened some eligible voters attempting to cast a ballot. Some voters were told to leave the polling place and return with valid IDs or proof of residence, even though they already had acceptable identification or proof of address.
For example, Wisconsin’s voter ID law does not require the voter’s current address to match the address on their ID, yet poll workers in Dane County, Grant County, and Milwaukee County tried to deny voters a regular ballot based on mismatched addresses. There is no way to know how often poll workers denied someone their vote based on this kind of incorrect information. In some instances, Election Protection volunteers had to direct poll workers to the relevant sections of the Election Manual before they agreed to let voters vote. One voter was able to fight back with information about the law learned from an Election Protection training in Wisconsin.

 

Pennsylvania

Over the past three years, Pennsylvania has made great strides in making the state’s elections more voter-friendly. The state’s strict voter ID law, found to violate the state’s constitution by “imposing an unreasonable burden on the right to vote”, and was struck down in 2014. The law in place for the 2016 general election required voters to show ID only if it was their first time voting in an election district. This was followed by more progress in 2015 and 2016, during which the state took significant steps to offer citizens the opportunity to register to vote online and therefore expand access to the ballot box. Unfortunately, the institutional problems of untrained and under-trained poll workers continued to negatively impact voters’ experiences in some counties.
Two peculiarities of Pennsylvania state law create some of these issues and impede local elections officials’ ability to fix it: (1) three of the poll workers in an election district (i.e., precinct) are elected by the voters of that district every four years and (2) in many cases training is not mandatory for those elected poll workers. This unusual practice of electing poll workers can make it extremely difficult for local election officials to remove or sometimes even correct poll workers who do not follow the proper rules and procedures, like those for requesting voter ID. And since the local election officials often cannot prevent a poll worker from serving because she or he has not completed training recently, a significant number of poll workers do not complete refresher trainings and therefore do not learn about changes to the law, like that for voter ID
Voters and on-the-ground volunteers alerted Election Protection to the following additional problems in counties across Pennsylvania:

Allegheny County: Poll workers did not show up to open the polls at a polling place in Springdale. In Pittsburgh poll workers turned away multiple people with children, claiming that they are not allowed to take their children into the voting site, in another Pittsburgh location.
Bucks County: Poll workers told multiple voters that they were not found in the poll book, and refused to give them provisional ballots.
Delaware County: A voter who has been voting in the same election district for the past four decades reported that poll workers asked everyone for ID. The voter was eventually allowed to vote without showing ID
Lehigh County: Despite the large Spanish-speaking community at an Allenton polling place, there were no proficient Spanish-speaking poll workers. There was confusion among voters, particularly senior citizens with limited English language proficiency.
Luzerne County: Poll workers demanded that all voters show ID. When Election Protection brought this to the County Solicitor’s attention, we were informed that the problem was not isolated to just one polling location.
Montgomery County: A voter went to vote wearing a political t-shirt for Election Day. As she entered the polling place after waiting in line, a poll worker yelled over to her to “cover up.” She complied but was repeatedly chastised when her jacket opened slightly. Election Protection confirmed with the county election officials that individuals who are at the polling place to vote should be allowed to wear political apparel.
Philadelphia: Several voters appeared at their polling place but were told they were not on the poll book, though Election Protection was able to determine they were properly registered. One individual who was not offered a provisional ballot, did not return to vote even after Election Protection affirmed he was registered because of his initial negative experience. Additionally, a group of senior citizens using walkers showed up at their polling place and were not offered provisional ballots, but were turned away without voting.
Another individual showed up at her polling place and was told she was not on the poll book and would have to vote provisionally. After the voter showed proof of her registration, the poll worker looked again and found her name, allowing her to vote on the voting machine.

Conclusion

The stories and reports above provide a snapshot of what voters in four states encountered when trying to participate in the electoral process. We will continue to analyze information reported to Election Protection in the coming weeks and remain committed to improving efforts to improve our electoral process and ensure that no eligible voter is denied the opportunity to participate in our democracy.