The Confusing Path To The November Ballot, Thanks To “States’ Rights”

Voters in line for a national election,
Church of Christ, Seminole, Oklahoma
(Copyright © 2004 by Wil C. Fry.)

It boggles my mind that we need a story like this: A Complete Guide To Early And Absentee Voting (NPR), which lists 50 separate dates and rules for early voting, absentee voting, etc., for a single election. The story is more than a week old, so some of the deadlines have already passed, but it’s relevant because everything in it will still apply in 2018, and 2020, and so on.

There are three states (Oregon, Washington, and Colorado) that primarily conduct their voting through mail-in ballots. All states allow some voting by mail, but about half require an “excuse” (reason why you can’t vote in person) to get an “absentee” ballot. Almost two-thirds of the states allow some form of “early voting” in-person, but each has a different start date and end date.

Keep in mind, this is for a national election. It’s one thing for each state to have different dates and rules for state elections, or for each precinct or school district or city to have different rules and dates for school board elections or city council votes or county tax/bond questions. But it’s quite another thing to have 50 sets of dates and rules for national elections.

And it’s not only dates and rules for voting, but across the 50 states there are at least five broad categories of “voter ID” laws. Some of those laws apply only to in-person voting but not to absentee ballots. Some states only require that a voter sign the log book when asking for a ballot. Others require various forms of identification. Few of the laws are identical.

“Seven states have passed photo identification laws that are considered ‘strict’. This means voters without acceptable photo identification must vote on a provisional ballot and take some additional steps after Election Day to ensure their ballot is counted…

“Ten states have passed photo identification laws that are considered ‘non-strict’ because at least some voters without acceptable photo identification have an option to cast a ballot that will be counted without any further action on the part of the voter. In some states, voters can simply sign an affidavit attesting to their identity or have a poll worker vouch for them. In others, voters can cast a provisional ballot and then election officials will determine later, through signature verification or another method, whether the ballot will be counted…

“Two states… accept non-photo identification such as a bank statement or utility bill with a voter’s name and address on it…

“Thirteen states fall into this [non-photo ID] category. For the states that do not require photo IDs, the main difference between ‘strict’ and ‘non-strict’ is whether voters themselves must take any additional steps after casting a ballot.”

In the states that do require an ID of some kind, the kinds differ from one state to the next. Some states allow college IDs, for example, and others don’t. In Wisconsin, only some college IDs count. In some states, you can use an expired driver license or state ID card; in others, it has to be current. A few states count a birth certificate as acceptable ID, but others don’t.

(My argument here is not about whether we should or shouldn’t require identification to vote, but whether the rules on voter ID should differ so greatly from one spot to the next.)

It’s also often true that precinct workers don’t know their own rules. I’ve “tested” this accidentally by voting at different precincts in the past few years (our polling places change based on how popular the election is expected to be). At each place, the workers ask for different forms of ID — in the same county. At one spot, my wife was only required to show her voting ID card, which has no photo on it. At other place, I was told that this same card isn’t good enough because it doesn’t have a photo — I was required to show my driver license. At yet another, I was required to have both. This is all within the past two years, and was not due to a change in the law.

In all the states that require some form of ID, not only are different forms required, but how you obtain those forms is different. (Fifty separate rules for driver licenses, state IDs, etc.) What’s also different between states is whether it’s easy or difficult to get a state ID or driver license. For example, after Alabama enacted a voter ID law in 2014, it followed up in 2015 by closing 31 driver license offices, almost all of them in areas dominated by poor, non-white voters who traditionally vote for Democrats. Where I used to live in Oklahoma, residents were only able to obtain a driver license one day a week, and only for half a day, and it was not a day that most people normally have off work.

How you register to vote also varies. When I moved back to Texas in 2009, my wife and I were automatically registered to vote when we went to the Driver License Office to switch our licenses from Oklahoma to Texas. (Not completely automatic; the clerk asked if we wanted to register to vote while switching over the driver licenses; we said yes; that was it.) In other states, you have to visit the separate Election Board office to register, or mail in a form. Some states require that you declare a party when registering to vote, and others don’t. When I registered in Oklahoma in 2000, I was required to declare for either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, or be listed as “Independent” (which meant I couldn’t vote in any primaries, which was often where the real election took place — in my county there were often no Republican candidates for offices, so only those registered Democrat got to choose the winner). In Texas, I was not asked to select a party. At each primary, I can choose which party’s ballot to vote on.

While I do have positions on each of these issues, this entry isn’t about those. It’s about the almost rabid insistence that we adhere to the “original intent” of the men who — in the 1770s — wanted the 13 original states to function almost as if they were 13 separate nations, bound only by the need for common defense against enemy countries.

I haven’t focused much on the topic of “state’s rights” versus national unity on this blog, though it’s been mentioned a few times in the context of other topics.

Early in my adulthood, I briefly held the opinion that “by golly the Tenth Amendment says any power not explicitly designated to the federal government should be reserved to the states”. But I didn’t hold that position for very long, nor was I ever very attached to it. Quickly, I made several realizations that helped me change my mind:

  • If the Constitution was never meant to be changed, when why did the founders specifically make it amendable?
  • If we always abided by the original intent of the Constitution, we’d still have slaves
  • Much of the Constitution is worded vaguely enough that we can easily interpret it several ways
  • There is simply too much redundancy in having 50+ state and territorial copies (each with odd differences) of various agencies, laws, and rules.

We have 50 or more designs for highway signs, 50 or more driver license designs, 50 or more sets of rules for what parents can and can’t do with their children, and all the national election nonsense that I’ve written about above.

Yes, we’re a large nation — but we’re not the largest. And yes, we’re a very populous nation, but not the most populous. So I can’t think of a single reason to sit on our hands and waste the nation’s time and money — billions every year — on the outdated notion that each state is a separate country, or needs to be.

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