Vote! (If You Can): The Obstruction of the Right to Vote in the United States

By Jacquelyn O’Keefe
The Right to Vote is the bedrock of democracy. Yet within the United States of America, there are existing barriers that circumvent, limit, and prevent citizens from accessing the political system and exercising their right to vote. Entrenched political interests stagnate the system, aggravate pre-existing limitations, and impede positive change. 

Compared to other advanced industrialized nations, the United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates—ranging from around 60% in a presidential election and 40% in a midterm election. We lament low turnout and point to disengaged youth, rising political apathy and low levels of education as the culprits. While, these problems do exist, we have a greater problem at hand. 

Here’s the problem:

Structural constraints dissuade voters and amplify existing socioeconomic barriers.

Registration Requirement:

In many political systems throughout the world, citizens are automatically registered to vote. However, in the United States, you are “compelled to register” upon turning eighteen, but you are not automatically registered to vote. Thereafter, you are required to re-register in every municipality in which you reside. By default, this makes it incredibly difficult for college students, people experiencing housing instability, and individuals without a permanent address to vote. In the six years I have been eligible to vote, I have registered a least six times in two different counties, and three different countries. Despite re-registering, my name has not been on the registered list of voters multiple times. In every case, I cast a provisional ballot which is typically not counted. The registration requirement creates an unnecessary boundary to accessing the political system, and disproportionately affects young and low-income voters.

High Cost of Voting:

In Political Science, we often refer to resource constraints within voting— be it a lack of time, civic education, money for transportation, a flexible work schedule, or access to voting information. All of these constraints raise the cost of voting. For example, if you work two full-time jobs to make ends meet, getting to the polling station (on a Tuesday of all days) takes time, access to transportation, and money. Further, researching ten ballot measures and twelve candidates to make an informed vote requires a baseline level of education, time, and access to technology. In states that require Voter ID laws, yet another obstacle is created in getting to the polls. When people have limited access to these resources, they have limited access to the voting system.  Our voting system caters to the well-off and does little to compensate for the high cost of voting. These high costs complicate the voting process for students, low-income individuals, the elderly, and citizens living abroad.  

Only One Day to Vote?

Times are changing and states are promoting absentee ballots and early voting. Regardless, in the majority of localities, we have less than 24 hours to get to the polls. Polling stations, especially in urban areas, are saturated with voters on election day. On the other hand, affluent areas typically experience shorter lines and a lower ratio of voters per polling station.

In some municipalities, people report standing in line for hours waiting for their chance to vote. Voting takes place on Tuesday when many have work or school. Federal law requires employers to provide two hours of paid time off for voting; however, voters must vote in their municipality of residence. This presents a challenge for individuals who live and work in different counties. Given long wait times, two hours may not be an adequate amount of time to vote. In order to increase access to the polls, we need to promote voting by-mail, expand the voting window, and consider declaring election day a national holiday.

The Impact:

Overall, these barriers to voting are well known to politicians, yet elected officials lack the political incentive to change the system. All citizens are affected by these systemic constraints; but, they disproportionately affect low-income persons, students, the elderly, and citizens living abroad—all groups who tend to lean liberal. Reforming the system could dramatically transform the voting demographic. This change is unwelcome to many Republican lawmakers. The right to vote is not, and should not be, a partisan issue. It is an issue critical to the welfare of democracy. Politicians need to set self-interest aside and prioritise the interests of the Republic. Democracy thrives on political participation, therefore, the State should undertake measures to ensure all citizens can easily and effectively exercise their right to vote.

“We claim voting is the highest civic duty, but we make it difficult to fulfil that duty.”

Today is election day, and today, I will not be exercising my right to vote. Despite registering abroad early and contacting voting officials, my ballot was not sent in time. I am disheartened and saddened that I will not have a say in my countries future. But even greater, I am angered by the limitations imposed by our system. If I, with a degree in Political Science and access to resources and technology, cannot access the voting system, then I question… who can? We claim voting is the highest civic duty, but we make it difficult to fulfil that duty. We compel all to “Get Out the Vote,” but we disproportionately build barriers for certain groups of people. We claim voting is a right, when in fact, it is a privilege.

As a nation, we need to hold voting in the highest regard. For the welfare of our nation, we need to safeguard democracy, respect the right to vote, and guarantee that citizens’ voices are heard. 

Now, Get Out the Vote—but just make sure you have time, money, transportation, determination, and your whole Tuesday afternoon free.

Jacquelyn O’Keefe has a Bachelor of Political Science from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. She is currently earning a Master’s Degree at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation. Her interests include politics, education, and sustainability.