Among the many strategies sometimes used to suppress voter turnout, along with the “chill effect,” is confusion, usually through spreading bad information or through using indecipherable language on election materials. Thursday [3/29], Missouri became the latest state to freeze plans for a photo voter ID law, when a county judge rejected ballot language for a proposed constitutional amendment that would ask voters if they wanted to change rules around voting in the state.
Calling the language “insufficient and unfair,” Judge Pat Joyce refused the following language that voters would have read in a ballot summary at the polls:
“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to adopt the Voter Protection Act and allow the General Assembly to provide by general law for advance voting prior to election day, voter photo identification requirements, and voter requirements based on whether one appears to vote in person or by absentee ballot?”
Problem number one: There is no “Voter Protection Act,” so voters would have been stumped figuring out whether their state constitution should “adopt” it. Problem two, the language around “advance voting prior to election day,” makes it sound like the General Assembly would create laws to establish an early voting period, but actually it would “restrict the time period during which advance voting may occur,” explained Joyce.
Just a coincidence, or mistake on the ballot’s authors’ part? Likely not. This is a game that politicians often play when trying to get their way on election day, especially on ballot referendums where some legislators want to trick voters into pulling the lever for something other than what the voter thinks she or he is voting for. Ever go to the polls and see language for “Ballot referendum #1” and then stand there stumped because you have no idea what it means or which way to vote on it? Have you ever had a same-sex marriage law on your ballot and found yourself perplexed about whether your vote would count for or against it, based off how the ballot language was worded?
This was not because you don’t know how to read, it was because the language was designed to make it unreadable, hence causing you to err in how you vote. How this doesn’t qualify as voter fraud—when fraudulent language is used—is a crime itself. But in many ways it’s akin to the literacy tests of the Jim Crow era that kept people from voting (though not exactly the same). Some legislators, mostly Republicans, continue to play these games today, either in Washington around same-sex marriage laws, or in Missouri around voter ID laws.
The same is playing out in Minnesota where the Republican-controlled legislature forced through a bill that would put a strict photo voter ID amendment question on November’s ballots, but possibly with language that doesn’t clue voters in about how strict it is. Laura Fredrick-Wang of Minnesota’s League of Women Voters told the local Fox news station that proposed ballot language for the amendment is “not necessarily addressing the scope of what the law could do,” namely that it doesn’t tell voters what kind of ID would qualify as a permissible voting one.
Like Minnesota, Missouri is placing their voter ID before voters by ballot after the governor already vetoed it. The Missouri judge’s rejection of the language, while not a total victory, was called a “victory for voters’ rights” by Missouri’s own secretary of state Robin Carnahan.
Ever read ballot language so confusing that you just decide not to vote at all? That’s a suppressed vote, and that is the strategy for many legislators, particularly around voter ID laws, as with other civil rights laws before them. Such suppression doesn’t just happen when illegible ballot wording is present; it also happens with the implementation of voter laws itself.
Next week, Wisconsin will have its presidential primary, but there’s uncertainty around whether or not the state will be able to implement a photo voter ID law the governor wants in place by the Tuesday, April 3 primary. The law was challenged and temporarily stopped by two county judges: one who ruled that it deserved a trial for those who say they will be burdened if not prevented from voting, and the other who said the law may not hold muster under the state’s constitution. Wisconsin’s Department of Justice appealed both judge’s ruling and now the state’s Supreme Court will decide if the voter ID will fly or not.
Stuck in the middle though are county commissioners and poll workers who don’t know if they should ask people to show ID or not. The state’s Government Accountability Board director Kevin Kennedy has advised that the state not implement the ID laws, regardless of the Supreme Court decision, because announcing yet another new change to voting rules so close to the primary would lead to a “yo-yo type situation.” Add in the fact that Wisconsin also just had a significant redistricting shuffle and you have a stew for some long lines and frustrated voters — many of whom will simply go home.
Same in Pennsylvania, where there is confusion around whether student IDs will be allowed for voting, or at least what type. Philadelphia columnist Annette John-Hall summed up brilliantly what voter chaos looks like in her recent piece “Voter ID Bill Fulfills Its Intent: Discouraging Voters,” describing her experience talking to voters lining up at Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) offices to get voter IDs:
Well, on the day I showed up at Eighth and Arch Streets last week, PennDot resembled a modern-day Tower of Babel – everybody talking, no one quite understanding what the other was saying.
Some folks thought they needed a photo ID in addition to a driver’s license to vote, not realizing that their driver’s license or passport counts as an acceptable form of ID. Others didn’t realize that their ID would have to be updated to coincide with a changed name or address.
And I didn’t hear one PennDot employee inform anybody of the waived $13.50 fee provision for folks who couldn’t afford the identification.
That’s because in order to get a free ID, people need to sign an affidavit, PennDot’s Scott Shenk told me.
But how, I ask, would voters know about said affidavit if they weren’t told that one exists?
That’s the point: Votes—kill, destroy, stress.
This article was originally published by Colorlines.