In a democracy that values widespread participation in the political system, the voting process should be easy and accessible to every eligible citizen. But in the United States, not every state lives up to that ideal. With this year’s Election Day just around the corner, some states have taken steps to ensure that as many voters as possible have access to the ballot box, while others have thrown up countless roadblocks. For example, 21 states allow people to register to vote up until the last minute, up to and including on Election Day itself. But elsewhere, many would-be voters have missed the registration deadline and will be turned away. Some of the states with the highest voter turnout have adopted some form of automatic voter registration (AVR), which essentially makes the process effortless. AVR requires voters to opt out, rather than opt in. The system has been proven to clean up voter rolls, save money, and dramatically improve registration rates. But even with more states adopting the AVR system, the fight to make the voting process more inclusive hasn’t been easy.
In recent years, states in the South have closed nearly 1,200 polling locations. But limiting voter access isn’t a strictly southern practice. Currently, at least 35 states enforce, or have plans to enforce, voter identification requirements. While some states accept multiple forms of ID at the polls, others have put forth more restrictive policies, prompting accusations of voter suppression and discrimination. Research has found that voter turnout is usually directly dependent upon access. In other words, the more convenient it is to vote, the more likely people are to cast a ballot.
Below is a list of the states where it’s hardest to vote, and easiest. States have been ranked based on registration deadlines, implementation of AVR, state voter ID laws, access to polling stations, and previous voter turnout rates.
The top five hardest states to vote
A four-year study that evaluated voting laws in the U.S. and assessed the difficulty of voting in each state ranked Mississippi at the bottom of the list. Researchers found the southern state has the most restrictive voter registration policies, including not permitting early voting and requiring people to register no later than 30 days before an election. Although voters are permitted to vote absentee, they are required to have a valid reason. The state also doesn’t permit online voter registration.
Although election officials in Virginia do allow online voter registration, they do not permit no-excuse absentee voting or early voting. While the state’s registration deadline isn’t as strict as Mississippi’s, the cutoff is 22 days before general and primary elections. Virginia does have voter ID laws, but multiple forms of identification are accepted (drivers license, state-issued Virginia ID, passport, employer ID, or even a student ID). For convicted felons, voting rights can be restored after they complete their sentence and parole with individual permission from the governor or another authority, and recent Democratic governors have restored rights to more than 173,000 people.
Even though election officials in Tennessee permit no-excuse absentee voting, online registration, and early voting, the state has a reputation of carrying out some shady election practices. According to Pew’s Election Performance Index, Tennessee has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the United States, ranked 40th out of all 50 states and Washington, DC. Despite efforts by voting rights groups to make it easier to vote, state Republicans drafted and passed a law that would place strict new regulations on groups that hold voter registration drives. Fortunately, in September, a federal judge halted the implementation of that law. However, if the block is eventually lifted, there is a chance that other states would model similar laws after Tennessee’s.
While Indiana isn’t the hardest state in which to vote, election officials have put several obstacles in place to make the ballot box less accessible. Voters in Indiana are allowed to register online and cast an early ballot. However, no-excuse absentee voting by mail is prohibited. Indiana also requires a government-issued ID in order to cast a ballot. Although most states keep polls open past 7 p.m., Indiana is one of only three states with polls that close at 6 p.m. Convicted felons in the state have their voting rights restored immediately after they serve their time.
Texas has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation. For years, the state has faced legal challenges by voting rights groups, who say the law was intentionally created to discriminate against voters of color. Voters do not have access to online registration and the registration deadline is 28 days before each election. While the state does permit early voting, voters cannot vote absentee without a valid excuse. A recent study by the Leadership Council Education Fund found that Texas leads the nation in polling station closures. Since 2013, the state has closed approximately 750 locations. The electronic voting machines in Texas have also been criticized, as some voters who used the Hart eSlate machines to cast straight tickets in the 2018 midterm elections say the machines changed their votes.
The top five easiest states to vote
Oregon was named the easiest state to vote in 2016 by researchers at Northern Illinois University, Jacksonville University, and China’s Wuhan University. In 2015, it became the first state in the nation to adopt AVR. The system uses information from the DMV to identify eligible voters. In the first six months of its implementation, the program automatically added more than 206,000 people to its voter rolls. In the November 2016 election, more than 100,000 people who were automatically registered through the new system cast a ballot. Fourteen percent of Oregonians who were automatically registered to vote that year were people of color. That number is just below the percentage of the state’s minority population. In addition, the overall voter turnout that year was increased from 43 percent to 60 percent.
In May, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill to expand the state’s AVR system through the DMV. In order to cast a ballot, voters are allowed to show a valid ID or use their social security number in order to confirm their identity. By law, the state must have a specific number of polling stations available in each county during an election cycle. Election officials in Colorado are also taking steps to secure votes. In September, it became the first state to nation to stop counting votes by barcode. The effort is intended to shift toward reliance on the human eye over machines, which can be subject to hacking or technical difficulties.
California has been taking steps for years to modernize its voting system. The progressive state permits online voter registration, pre-registration for high school students, a DMV voter registration system, no-excuse absentee voting, and early voting for more than four weeks. California’s governor also just signed a new law to allow people to register to vote at any polling place on election day. At the polls, voters aren’t required to show ID before casting a ballot. Convicted felons also have their voting rights restored after their prison and parole time is completed. But even with numerous laws already in place to make it easier for people to vote, some counties are still working to eliminate additional obstacles. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, for example, recently proposed some new changes to counter voter suppression, including automatic voter registration and moving California’s primary elections to March. Multiple counties have also adopted the Voter’s Choice Act, an optional law that helps to modernize elections by introducing new strategies to help voters cast ballots. Despite false claims that California’s relaxed voting policies makes it easy for undocumented immigrants to cast ballots, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud taking place in the state. Non-citizens are not eligible to vote in federal elections, but some cities like San Francisco allow undocumented immigrants to vote in local school board elections.
Like other states on the list, North Dakota allows no-excuse absentee voting and early voting. What makes the state unique, however, is the fact that it has no formal registration requirements. But even though North Dakota gives its residents plenty of opportunities to cast a ballot, the state has failed to pass voting laws that take indigenous people into consideration. In order to assign accurate precincts, election administrators require voters to show an ID with a street address — P.O. boxes aren’t accepted. Although the law seems neutral on its face, it disproportionately affects Native Americans who live on reservations and don’t have traditional addresses. Some rural states like Utah only require those who register to describe their address when registering to vote, but North Dakota hasn’t caught up. In 2018, the Supreme Court shot down an effort to block enforcement of the state’s voter ID law despite outcry from Native communities, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled the law constitutional. In response, voting rights groups are taking action to ensure indigenous people are assigned addresses that adhere to the state’s guidelines.
Election officials in Iowa allow online voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and early voting. Although the state did implement a voting reform law in 2017, a judge recently struck down some portions for being unconstitutional. When the law was originally signed, it adopted an absentee ballot verification process, required voters to present a form of identification at the polls, and allowed county auditors to throw out ballots that didn’t appear to match the signature on their voting record. Unfortunately, those convicted of a felony in Iowa never regain the right to vote.
Adopting systems and techniques to make voting more convenient is the most cost effective, time-saving way to preserve our democracy. Until more states prioritize voter accessibility and make the process easier for every eligible citizen, voter suppression and discrimination will persist.