Former President Barack Obama described the U.S. as “the only country in the advanced world that makes it harder to vote rather than easier.” The nation’s founders restricted the vote to those who held property or paid taxes, which effectively meant White men. Even now, decades after constitutional amendments enfranchised Black people and women, most felons can’t vote, most people have to work on Election Day, some states require advance registration to vote, people without proper identification might not have their vote counted, intimidation at the polls is a worry and letting voters send their ballots by mail is contested, even during a pandemic.

1. How do states limit voting?

From the 1890s to the 1960s, some states let people vote only if they first paid a poll tax, passed a literacy test or had a registered voter vouch for their good character. The common denominator was a desire to discourage Black Americans from voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed these practices, but other obstacles to voting arose in their place, such as intimidation of voters at polling places, voter identification requirements and what critics call “purges” of voter-registration lists.

2. Who is intimidating voters?

President Donald Trump has talked about dispatching supporters and law enforcement officials to monitor polling locations -- especially in urban areas where Democrats and minorities could be expected to vote in disproportionate numbers -- for what he warns, despite the lack of evidence, will be massive voter fraud. Republicans say they want to ensure the election is run fairly and honestly and that all poll watchers are trained to abide by state laws. But there are bad memories of past efforts, particularly the activities of a so-called ballot security task force during the 1981 general election in New Jersey. That case resulted in a court-ordered 1982 consent decree that prohibited the Republican Party from engaging in nuisance voter challenges and intimidation activities. The decree was allowed to expire in 2018.

3. How do voter ID laws work?

Some states require voters to present a driver’s license or other official identification document with a photo on it; those lacking one may cast only a provisional ballot and then must take additional steps after Election Day, such as bring acceptable ID to an election office, for that vote to be counted. Advocates of such laws, who tend to be Republicans, say that if you need to prove who you are to board a plane, you should have to do the same to vote. Opponents say they discourage voting especially by poor people, who often don’t have photo ID, and that in-person voter impersonation on Election Day is exceedingly rare.

4. What are ‘purges’ of registration rolls?

States keep their registration rolls accurate by periodically removing, or “purging,” the names of people who have died, moved or become ineligible to vote. But the practice in states including Georgia and Wisconsin has drawn legal challenges on grounds it goes too far and prevents eligible people from voting or is a form of voter suppression. Some states have also imposed restrictions on voter-registration drives.

5. Why are these things left to individual states to decide?

The Constitution says state legislatures decide the “times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives,” a principle extended to voting for president. But Congress “may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” That’s what it did with the Voting Rights Act. A key piece of that law required nine mostly Southern states, plus other counties and municipalities with a history of such practices, to get court or Justice Department approval for any proposed change in voting rules. In 2013, the Supreme Court threw out that requirement, declaring that the country’s progress in overcoming racial discrimination in voting meant it no longer was warranted. That ruling opened the door to a wave of new state laws that voter advocates say are designed to limit turnout. The Supreme Court is considering a case that may further weaken what remains of the Voting Rights Act.

6. How many states have adopted laws limiting turnout?

Since 2010, 25 states have enacted measures “making it harder to vote,” including restrictions on registration, cutbacks to early voting and strict photo ID laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

7. How many Americans vote?

The 136.8 million ballots tallied in the 2016 presidential election represented 56% of the 245.5 million voting-age Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. That put the U.S. 26th of 32 in voter participation among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations in their most recent national elections. A significant chunk of American adults, roughly one in three, weren’t registered to vote in 2016.

8. Could voting be made easier?

Periodic efforts to move Election Day to the weekend, or make it a holiday, have failed. (While much of the world holds elections on weekends, the U.S. still does it on Tuesdays, which was seen as most convenient for 19th century Americans.) But most states now allow early voting, which means they start opening polling places days or even weeks before the election; in more than half of those states, the early-voting period includes at least one Saturday or Sunday, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five states conduct all elections by mail-in ballots, while many others loosened rules for absentee voting by mail this November due to the pandemic. And many states now allow felons to re-register to vote, or to apply for restoration of their voting rights, after their incarceration ends. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that mail-in balloting is rife with fraud.

9. Why not allow voting online?

A dozen nations including Australia, Canada, France and India have experimented with online voting since 2000, but only Estonia has fully adopted it. Some U.S. states let military personnel and citizens who are overseas vote by web or app, but overall, the U.S. has moved in the opposite direction, toward having paper ballots or paper receipts that could be audited in case of doubts over an election’s outcome. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in a 2018 study that “no known technology guarantees the secrecy, security, and verifiability of a marked ballot transmitted over the internet.”

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