Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Thousands of voters from across the nation reported problems with voting during this General Election, stemming not only from a rash of restrictive voting laws but also from the administrative deficiencies of an outdated voting system, according to the Election Protection coalition of civil rights groups.

“Every election should be a celebration of democracy. Instead, what we’re hearing today from too many polling places around the country is that voters are having problems casting their ballots,” said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, during a press call on Nov. 4.

Some of the problems were the outcome of controversial election laws—such as voter ID requirements, reduced early voting, elimination of same-day registration, citizenship requirements and more—that have erected barriers to the ballot box.

“Today, and for the past several weeks during early voting, we have been witnessing the most unfair, confusing and discriminatory voting landscape in almost 50 years. And, it’s a disgrace to our citizens, to our nation and to our standing in the world as a beacon of democracy,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.


Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

But, added Henderson, it came as no surprise. “This is the predictable outcome of the first major election since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County vs. Holder last year, when a bare majority voted to gut critical pieces of the Voting Rights Act.”

Since the game-changing ruling—and Congress’ failure to amend and update the VRA  as the high court directed—14 states and an untold number of municipalities have introduced new, often limiting election laws.

“Voting should make us truly equal, whether we are rich or poor; young or old; famous or unknown; male or female; gay or straight; White, Black, Asian or Latino,” Henderson added. “But in state after state we have seen politicians manipulating the election rules to make it harder for people, primarily people of color, the poor and students, to register and to vote.”

In Texas, for example, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the state to implement its restrictive voter ID law just two weeks before the election—after protracted legal wrangling—fostered widespread confusion that promises to disenfranchise much more than the estimated 600,000 Texans—mostly people of color—that do not possess the accepted forms of identification, activists said.

Nicole Austin-Hillery, of the Brennan Center for Justice, which had volunteers on the ground in Texas, shared the story of an elderly African-American women, originally from Mississippi, who had been voting since the age of 18, despite the barriers and dangers associated with the franchise. Unaware the ID she possessed was no longer acceptable, she ventured out to the polls only to be rudely told she could not vote and castigated for not getting the proper ID in time.

Others who did try to obtain the IDs had to mount massive bureaucratic hurdles, sometimes without success, and people with military IDs were given conflicting information depending on where they went.

“Again, confusion,” Austin Hillery said. “This is the problem with these kind of laws.”

Latinos and Asians, particularly minority language Americans who are covered under Section 203 of the VRA, faced significant problems in places like California, Arizona, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the NALEO Educational Fund, said, for example, that Latinos in Louisville, Ky., complained of intimidation and lack of assistance from poll workers.

“This is particularly concerning because we know in Kentucky is an emerging Latino electorate. And what we have seen across the country is that as Latinos become a larger and larger share of the population and the electorate we tend to see a backlash,” he said.

Jerry Vattamala, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense, which was monitoring 147 poll sites in 11 states and Washington, D.C., reported that several jurisdictions covered under Section 203 lacked the required interpreters. More egregiously, he said, a poll worker in Pennsylvania, who was helping a voter who needed language assistance, did not cast ballot for the gubernatorial candidate the voter wanted. And, in a similar case, the poll worker told the voter he/she had to vote “yes” for all the ballot initiatives.

Many of the calls to Election Protection’s hotlines—1-866-OUR-VOTE, 1888-VEY-VOTA (for Hispanics) and 1-888-API-VOTE (for Asians)—came from people experiencing administrative problems, however.

“Today the 1-866 hotline received more than 10,000 calls Florida, Georgia, Texas, New York and California,” Arnwine said.

In Georgia, specifically, Arnwine said the names of an estimated 40,000 persons who applied to register were still missing from the rolls.

“We’ve received as many as 1,337 calls in the last two days from Georgia and several hundred beforehand,” Arnwine said. “And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the secretary of state’s website, which many of voters rely on to verify their voter registration status and find their polling places has been down for most of the morning. And it appears that many of the counties’ phone lines were overwhelmed with voters unable to reach anyone.”

As of 8 p.m., election night, the Election Protection hotline had received more than 18,000 calls, a nearly 40 percent increase from calls received in 2010.

Similar problems in other states were reported: poor signage and insufficient information concerning poll sites, absence of poll workers, registration lists being delivered late, people who registered not finding their names on lists, Asian Americans with unique naming conventions or long names having to vote provisionally because their names were misspelled during registration, voting machines—which can be essential to disabled voters—not working, and much more.

“This isn’t what people call voting irregularities; these are large-scale systemic problems that are denying thousands of Americans their most basic right: the right to have their voices heard,” Arnwine said.

The problems raise, again, the importance of modernizing voter registration and other voting procedures and widely instituting conventions such as same-day registration, which could allow voters to immediately remedy problems caused by administrative errors or some other type of confusion and to vote.

Based on what activists are seeing in communities all over the country during this election, if voting barriers are removed, people will turn out, said Miles Rapport, of Common Cause.

“We can be heartened by the fact that people are trying extremely hard to vote…. Despite some of these discouragements, we are seeing many, many people coming to the polls in larger numbers than they did in 2010,” he said. “, it becomes the responsibility of election officials and elected officials all across the country to try over the next several years to make this process simpler, more streamlined, more accessible and more truly democratic.”