“Register to vote, and register your friends, too!” “Get to the polls.” “Get out the vote.” Over the past few months, you’ve likely been inundated with messages like these, as we march toward Election Day 2018. While it’s true we all need those reminders, these certitudes largely ignore a glaring truth: Despite all our bragging about being the world’s most shining example of democracy, America makes it very difficult for every person to truly participate.
Nationwide, Election Day is still not a federal holiday, which hits working people particularly hard: In 2014, 35 percent of registered voters who decided not to vote in the midterm elections cited work or school conflicts as the reason, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Additionally, only 37 states (including 3 that mail ballots to all voters) allow for early voting and just 15 States and the District of Columbia allow same day registration on election day.
And this is on top of a lack of civics education in schools. Natasha Harper-Madison, 41, says the first time she voted when she was 18 remains one of the most shameful moments of her life. “I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea who half of the people on this ballot were,” she says. “The further down the ballot I got, the less I recognized the names or implications of the public office they served. Even when I put that ‘I voted’ sticker on my chest I felt like a fraud.”
This feeling, Harper-Madison says, was the result of growing up in poverty: Her mother was much more concerned about where to get food for her and her six siblings than she was about civic duty, Harper-Madison says. And the schools she went to was underfunded, overcrowded and did little to teach her and her peers about policies, candidates or even how to cast a ballot.
Making matters worse for her and voters who still find themselves in a similar situation is that Harper-Madison’s home state of Texas, has some of the nation’s toughest voting restrictions.
In order to vote in Texas, you are required to register in person or by mail. Texas is the only state that requires people to be registered by a Volunteer Deputy Registrar. Additionally, as of 2017, the state requires that people register a full 30 days before Election Day. If you make it to the polls on election day, you are required to show government-issued photo identification in order to cast a ballot.
In April of this year a federal appeals court in the state upheld it’s strict voter ID law. This was the first time a federal court has upheld the law, a revamped version of one of the toughest voter ID restrictions in the country. Similar laws in North Carolina and Wisconsin have been in and out of the courts for years.
As a result, today, Austin, Texas, where Harper-Madison has lived for decades, is a microcosm for the difficulties voters face across the country, especially when it comes to traditionally disenfranchised populations. For people of color, individuals with disabilities, those struggling with homelessness and transgender people, the challenges of voting are often amplified.
Supporters of all of these regulations say they help prevent voter fraud, but opponents point out that there is no evidence that voter fraud is a widespread problem and that such laws only make it more difficult for traditionally disenfranchised populations to exercise their right to vote.
Harper-Madison, for her part, has made it her goal to transcend the cycle of poverty and help others do the same. Today she is running for city council in Austin and is the creator of Take5ToVote, an initiative to help community members old and young in East Austin understand how their government works and why voting is so crucial. She says part of the reason she’s running is to model the type of civic engagement she never saw and to help put an end to some of the systemic challenges that low-income and otherwise marginalized voters face when it comes to participating in our democracy.
Take5ToVote started in 2016 when she had a friend construct a prototype of a voting machine that she took to events at local community centers where a small staff of volunteer mentors educated people about everything from what type of identification to bring to the polls to the role that local officials played in making policy. Her goal is to equip everyone she can with the knowledge that their vote really does matter, and the tools to make informed decisions. Her message: “Keeping it all the way real sis, there are many people who would seek to suppress your vote and your voice. However not showing up gives them a double win,” she says. "Don't give them the double win of you not showing up.”
Harper-Madison is no stranger to challenges, whether it’s securing an education, building a business or surviving cancer. But, voting, a right enshrined in the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, should not be this hard, she says.
Voting as a Transgender Person
The 2016 election was the first time Danielle Skidmore voted as her true self. “The first time I saw my voter registration card and it said Danielle Marie Skidmore instead of my birth name,” Skidmore says, smiling broadly as her voice trails off. “Being authentic. You can’t beat it.”
Skidmore came out privately nine years ago but didn’t come out publicly until 2016 after she’d started hormone replacement therapy. In addition to changing her name, she also went through the process of changing her gender marker on her identification. Both of these processes were completed in a single afternoon at court, but were years in the making. In addition to tracking down all her paperwork, and hiring an attorney, Skidmore also needed letters from a therapist and medical doctor. “These letters and the medical costs associated with both are a real challenge for most all transgender people. Beyond cost, just access to doctors and therapists is difficult in much of the country still,” she says.
“We as humans are more comfortable putting people in boxes,” Skidmore says of the process, which was at times invasive and exhausting. “The single most important thing we can do for our community is recognize people as real and valid and legitimate human beings. But, documents are how people function in society.”
And when it comes to voting, documents are especially important, even more so in a state like Texas where voters are required to have a photo ID. For trans people this can present a myriad challenges at the polls because for starters, not everyone is able to afford the cost of a name change and gender marker change. In fact, only 11 percent of transgender people have their preferred name and gender marker on all of their identity documents, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. This can lead to at best, triggering confusion and at worst, illegal turning away of trans people at the polls when a trans person presents as one gender, but is listed as being another gender on their documentation.
This problem is compounded when you consider that trans people are more likely than cis people to experience homelessness, as well as employment and housing insecurity — all known difficulties in obtaining the documentation that the state requires to vote.
Skidmore considers herself among the very lucky and privileged of her community. Aside from a few stares from fellow voters and slightly perplexed looks from poll workers, she was able to vote without issue in 2016. She wants the transgender community to go out and vote but she understands the impulse to hide. It’s something she grappled with for decades.
As election day draws near, Skidmore who herself is running for city council, has one clear message to other struggling with if or how to vote. “Please don’t disenfranchise yourself,” she says. “If going to a polling place is triggering or hard vote absentee, vote by mail. Take care of yourself first, but know that your vote really matters.”
Voting with a disability
Renee Lopez understands the importance of showing up on Election Day, but sometimes she just can’t. Lopez, 57 was born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, a disability which impacts her joints. She navigates the world with the help of a wheelchair. Getting to the polls takes a lot of planning. She can use paratransit — public transit rides that aim to serve those with disabilities — but, rides must be scheduled in advance and often necessitates a guessing game because it’s a shared ride system, there’s a chance she’ll be in the car for close to an hour before even getting dropped off. If the lines at the polls are long, she might not be able to vote before the ride comes back for pick-up. If lines are short she could be waiting to be picked up for an hour or more.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that people with disabilities have access to public services, programs, or activities, such as voting. Additionally, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 required that each polling place have at least one voting system that is accessible by people with disabilities in federal elections.
And yet even with those laws in place, Lopez says, voting isn’t easy. For example, sometimes that “accessible” voting machine is in the back of a polling place and requires navigating through rows of people to get there. During the 2016 election the US Government Accountability Office surveyed 178 polling places and reported that 60% had one or more potential impediments for voters with disabilities. “There’s an assumption, a belief that people with disabilities just don’t vote,” she says, “I don’t think we’re seen as a group of people that should be considered by candidates.”
A study from Rutgers University found that in 2016, there were 62.7 million eligible voters who either have a disability or have a household member with a disability — that’s more than one-fourth of the total electorate. But the voter turnout rate of people with disabilities was six percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities.
“It turns into a catch-22 because we’re not seen as a valid group of voters but people don’t understand that it’s because of the difficulty in even getting to a polling place,” Lopez says. “[Nonetheless] it’s my right as an American. I’ll do whatever I have to do just to make sure I do go vote even if it is difficult.”
The burden, she says is often unfairly placed on people with disabilities to plan for challenges they might face and explain their needs on Election Day. Lopez has limited physical mobility in her arms and as a result she cannot be wearing a coat to the polling place if she wishes to vote. Because she doesn’t have “reach” tasks like getting out her ID can be difficult.
Lopez says she’s often seen people with disabilities who might have difficulty standing in line accused of “skipping.” Educating election judges about how to help voters with disabilities is key she says to creating lasting changes that make it easier for voters with disabilities. Though the challenges presented by different disabilities can be unique to individuals, it’s essential for election officials to feel comfortable interacting with people and asking questions about how to help.
Lopez for her part is tackling the challenge head on. She volunteers as an election judge for early voting. “I wanted the visibility,” she says. “I want people to have the knowledge that we are an important part of the voting process and to get used to the idea that we are an important part of their community.”
Voting while homeless
Nicole Carithers-Benoit is clad in a flowy orange dress and flip flops, with a broad smile nearly as bright as her neon pink phone case. If you passed her on the street you would have no idea she is struggling with homelessness. She wants to keep it that way.
Carithers-Benoit, 45 says she has been registered to vote since she was 18. But, in recent years she says, she’s had bigger problems.
She has struggled with drug addiction, post traumatic stress disorder and other medical issues that have made it difficult for her to work. Originally from Indiana, she’s spent the past year staying with friends in Florida and California, before coming to Austin in April. She is currently staying at the Salvation Army homeless shelter in downtown Austin, one of the city’s largest homeless shelters, while she tries to get on her feet
Carithers-Benoit admits she’s uncertain what the future holds. She’s been a recovering addict for 10 years and decided to leave Indiana for the sake of her sobriety. She’s given up enough in this life. She won’t give up on trying to vote. “I know I have the right to vote. I’ve always known that. It’s just about finding the resources so we can actually be heard.”
She said she’d looked up information about voting, but because she initially still had her Indiana driver’s license and she didn’t yet have a permanent address, she didn’t think she was eligible to vote in Texas. She tried to ask for help at the shelter, but couldn't get clarity. “If you don’t ask the right questions you don’t get the answers you need,” she says.
Reports from earlier this year suggest there are more than 2,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city of Austin. Broadly speaking, homeless individuals can register to vote in all 50 states, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, but the ID and residency requirements vary by state. Many states including Texas lack specific written policies pertaining specifically to registering homeless individuals, which leads to a lot of confusion and disenfranchisement of people who deserve a voice as much as anyone else.
“Unfortunately it's sad that we're put in a box, out of sight out of mind. They turn a blind eye,” she says of politicians and the public alike. “We’re human just like you. We’re just having a bad situation.”
After many months, Carithers-Benoit found out from a candidate canvassing in a local park that because she receives mail at a nearby church, she could get a Texas ID. Carithers-Benoit says that now that she will absolutely be voting on Election day.
She knows she might face obstacles at the polls. Maybe there will be a problem with her ID, maybe it will just be judgmental stares. The result: “I have the feeling that those of us who are low income really don't have a voice,” she says. But she adds, it’s important to remind elected officials that she is still one of the people whose lives they are often making policy about. She hopes to use her voice this year for candidates pledging to make voting easier for everyone.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Nicole Carithers-Benoit was staying at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, in fact, she was staying at the Salvation Army homeless shelter.