In one state, a ballot will be mailed to every registered voter this fall. It can be returned by mail, or in one of numerous drop boxes. You can also cast a ballot in person, during a lengthy early voting period or on Election Day, with an average wait time of just 3 minutes. If you’ve been convicted of a felony, you don’t lose the right to vote.
In another state, you can vote in person on Election Day, but you might have to travel farther than before because of polling place closures and could face a long line. There’s no early voting or drop boxes. You can only vote absentee if you qualify under a limited number of circumstances. And if you have a felony on your record, you’ll probably never get your right to vote here back again.
The second state is Mississippi, which has the highest percentage of Black citizens in the country.
The first state is Vermont, the country’s whitest.
Access to voting and political representation in the United States is starkly unequal.
For “Who Counts?” — a new investigation from the Center for Public Integrity — a team of nearly two dozen journalists spent hundreds of hours examining inequality in access to voting and political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
We found that 26 states have made elections less equal since 2020 for people of color, lower-income voters and people with disabilities. Those states are all controlled by Republicans claiming concern about fraud. But that has come almost entirely from false allegations former President Donald Trump spread after losing re-election in 2020, encouraging an attack on the U.S. Capitol to stop his successor from taking office.
While our project shows that 20 states, mostly controlled by Democrats, improved access to voting since 2020, we found inequity in the process of voting in every U.S. state, including those with a progressive reputation.
And we found significant inequity within individual states. That’s driven by local discretion over key aspects of voting and unequal local government resources to run elections.
Public Integrity editors took an especially close look at the handful of states where the record was at least somewhat mixed. Voter ID rules were eased after a lawsuit by Indigenous leaders in North Dakota, for example, but we felt that was offset by issues with gerrymandering of Indigenous communities, stricter limits on the time voters can spend in a voting booth on Election Day and a scaling back of temporary COVID-19 universal vote-by-mail.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
For this project, 14 reporters examined more than a dozen categories of voting access and representation, particularly what has changed in the past two years. The team wrote stories about all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Contributors included Public Integrity staff reporter Aaron Mendelson, Raleigh News & Observer reporter Kimberly Cataudella and Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reporter Jared Bennett, both Public Integrity alums; as well as Medill School of Journalism grads Gina Castro, Hayley Starshak and Peter Winslow; Columbia University grad and past Public Integrity collaborator Lizzie Mulvey; Knight-Wallace fellow Lindsay Kalter; StateImpact Oklahoma reporter Robby Korth; author and New York Amsterdam News journalist Karen Juanita Carrillo; and freelance journalists Alan Hovorka, DeArbea Walker and Jordan Wilkie.
For each state, they looked at:
- How easy it is to register to vote.
- Absentee ballot and vote-by-mail availability and rules.
- The availability of secure drop boxes for absentee ballots.
- The process for “curing” absentee ballots rejected for minor issues.
- Voter ID.
- Voting list purges.
- Polling places.
- Availability of early voting.
- Restrictions on organizing voter registration and turnout.
- Felony disenfranchisement.
- And threats to the integrity of election-result certification.
“Who Counts?” builds on “Barriers to the Ballot Box,” an investigative project two years ago that also included a 50-state look at voting access. It was a finalist for the Toner Prize for National Political Reporting.
A centerpiece of that project: gathering, analyzing and making public nationwide polling place data from before a 2013 Supreme Court decision — which overturned a key Voting Rights Act requirement — through 2020. It enabled Public Integrity journalists, other news organizations, organizers and researchers to gauge the consequences for voters.
Like “Barriers to the Ballot Box” and most of Public Integrity’s work, the stories produced for “Who Counts?” are available to republish under Creative Commons. Our polling place data will be updated for 2022. Sign up here if you’d like to receive notice of opportunities to partner with us on journalism on this topic.
What makes voting unequal
In considering equity in access to voting and political representation, we looked at state election law and policy changes since 2020 as well as congressional and legislative redistricting.
We determined that a change made access less equitable if it disproportionately affected and potentially disenfranchised a particular group of people, whether by race, ethnicity, age, income, disability or rural vs. urban residency. We also included gerrymandering in 2020 legislative and congressional redistricting that diluted representation for Black, Latino or Indigenous voters.
A number of new restrictions in the 26 states we identified as making voting less equal have long been known to create disproportionate barriers for lower-income voters, Black, Latino and Indigenous citizens, college students and people with disabilities.
They include limits on absentee and mail voting, requirements for photo ID and mandates to scrutinize signatures. In some states, polling place closures and bans on same-day voter registration can turn one long drive to a local elections office into two long drives for people in rural communities, while people living in under-resourced urban neighborhoods stand in line for hours on Election Day.
Copycat legislation adopted in 24 states preventing local officials from obtaining outside funding to support the cost of running elections could exacerbate disparities and lead to longer lines at the polls in Black and Latino communities.
Some states also made violating aspects of election law a felony instead of a misdemeanor, something likely to intimidate marginalized people into not voting at all. Especially when states such as Florida are creating “election police” and hauling Black men off in handcuffs for voting after they were told by election officials that they could.
We determined that a change in state law or policy made voting more equitable if it levels the playing field for voters by providing more flexibility or better accommodates the unique needs of a particular marginalized community.
Expansion of absentee and mail voting, for example, provides more flexibility for lower-income workers, who are less likely to have time off work and access to transportation to get to the polls on Election Day. Same-day voter registration policies offer similar benefits.
Providing a way for voters to fix minor errors, such as a missing signature, before final votes are counted can alleviate disproportionate absentee ballot rejection rates for marginalized people. And creating mechanisms for people with disabilities, serving overseas in the military or who are eligible to vote but incarcerated ensures that the right to vote is meaningful logistically, not just in theory.
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