How to Fix America’s Confusing Voting System | Louisiana inspired | Start Classified

Editor’s Note: This story, written by Aliyya Swaby and Annie Waldman, was originally published by ProPublica and co-published by Gray TV/Investigate TV. The history is part of Solutions Journalism Network’s SoJo Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to rigorously reporting on answers to social issues. Each week, Louisiana Inspired will feature a story from solutions journalism that provides tangible evidence that positive change is happening right now, in our own communities and around the world.

Faye Combs entered the voting booth with trepidation. Unable to read until she was in her 40s, she struggled to decipher the words on the ballot, intimidated by how quickly people around her finished and left.

“When the election was over, I didn’t even realize what I voted for because there was just so much reading,” she said.

Comb’s feelings of insecurity and disorientation in the face of a vote are not uncommon. Poorly literate voters are more likely to take what they read literally and act on every word, sometimes without considering the context, literacy experts say. Distractions can derail them more easily and cause them to stop reading too soon.

“I’ve seen people try to read (the ballot) from left to right and end up skipping entire contests,” said Kathryn Summers, a professor at the University of Baltimore who has spent decades studying how information is made more accessible be able.

She has found that voters who have literacy difficulties are also more likely to make mistakes in their registration applications, such as voting declined.

As a ProPublica investigation found, today’s voting system remains a modern literacy test — a complicated obstacle course for people who have reading difficulties. Although many people may need help registering or at the ballot box, some counties and states have made it harder to get help.

Experts say redesigning both the registration and voting processes to be more accessible will allow more people to vote without support and participate more in democracy. Ballots and forms should be simply written and logically structured; Jargon should be removed from instructions and voting changes; and, whenever possible, new forms should be tested on a diverse set of constituents.

Such reforms can be expensive and time-consuming, which discourages some states and localities from taking on the task, said Dana Chisnell, co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Civic Design to help states and counties develop accessible voter materials.

“They may have old voting systems that they hold together with duct tape and bale strings because they can’t afford to replace them or because there were other county priorities,” she said.

But numerous examples show that such changes count more votes. “If we make it better for people with low literacy levels, it will actually be better for everyone,” Summers said.

Improve ballot design

As ProPublica wrote, poor ballot design can sabotage up to hundreds of thousands of votes each election year.

After the confusing butterfly voice wreaked ignominious havoc in the 2000 Florida presidential election, the federal government increased its oversight and regulation of local election administration, including by issuing voluntary guidelines for the appearance of ballots and election materials. But states and counties continue to end up with miscast or uncast votes due to design flaws.

For example, in 2018, Broward County in Florida used a ballot that listed the names of Senate candidates at the end of a column under a long list of instructions.

Ahead of the 2014 election, Florida’s Escambia County redesigned its mail-in ballot forms to format instructions as a checklist on the outside of the envelope, add simple illustrations, and place colored highlighting over where voters should sign.

Many states, including Florida, require absentee ballots to be rejected if a signature is missing or inconsistent with other records. The new design’s emphasis on providing a signature reduced the rate of unsigned ballots by 42% between 2014 and 2016 and the rate of ballots rejected by 53% between 2014 and 2016, even after voters were offered the opportunity to add their signature.

Learn from other countries

The United States has some of the lowest voter registration and turnout rates among its international competitors. It is also characterized by its relatively complex voting process. Many experts believe these two things are related.

Other developed countries with comparable or even lower literacy rates than the United States tend to have higher voter turnout.

A simple reason for their increased turnout is that they make voting easier. According to research from the Pew Research Center and the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, most of them have some form of mandatory or automatic voter registration.

Countries allow citizens to vote without having to actively register first, or they automatically register citizens who interact with government organizations such as automobile departments or social services. Other countries, like Australia, have gone further and made voting compulsory, and citizens who do not vote can be fined.

In countries with automatic registration programs, the percentage of people who register to vote is much higher than in the United States, where only 67% of the voting-age population is registered.

In comparison, according to Pew, Canada has 93% of the voting-age population registered to vote, and similarly 94% in Sweden and 99% in Slovakia. In the UK, where government officials search for voters each year through nationwide election advertising, the registration rate is 92%.

Barry Burden, professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, believes the registration move in the United States “is likely to have more of a chilling effect on voter turnout than we think,” he said.

“It’s a bit of a challenge for most voters, but if a person doesn’t have the literacy or language skills to go through this bureaucratic process, it could be a deterrent to even register or even get a ballot,” said Burden.

The United States is beginning to change its registration policy. Some states have introduced automated voter registration programs that use information from other government agencies to complete registration electronically, unless people consent to it.

Since 2015, at least 15 states and Washington, DC, have adopted automatic enrollment programs, and the impact has been extraordinary: With the adoption of new systems, enrollments increased 16% in Oregon, 27% in California, and 94% in Georgia.

Being able to register the same day they vote could also increase participation. Voters who made mistakes earlier in the process would have another opportunity to register or fill out their ballots with election officials who could ensure their accuracy. According to the Center for American Progress, states with same-day registration had, on average, 10% higher voter turnout than states without in 2012.

empower voters

Combs, now 78, no longer feels intimidated in the voting booth. She understands that there are many people like her who have found ways to navigate the world without being able to read well enough to do routine civic duties like voting.

At age 7, Combs was sexually abused by a stranger, a trauma that overshadowed her childhood, she said, and made it harder for her to remember the lessons she learned at school. She urged classmates to provide the answers to homework and exams, and her teachers passed them from class to class.

When she graduated from high school in Bakersfield, California, she said she left with the secret that she couldn’t read. She was too ashamed to tell her husband seven years ago of their marriage. She often took him to the voting booth because she didn’t even know where to write her name on the ballot.

As the manager of the Meals on Wheels program at Berkeley, Combs thought she was hiding her inability to read from her co-workers — until one day her secretary left a flyer about a local literacy program on her desk. She began studying with a tutor, which strengthened both her reading skills and her desire to get involved in politics. Since then, Combs has made it his mission to empower people to learn to read and participate in democracy.

She now works with the Key to Community Project, which guides struggling readers through the election process and helps them develop skills to research candidates and understand how elections work.

The nonpartisan project, led by people who learned to read as adults, is an extension of California Library Literacy Services, the country’s first statewide library-based literacy program.

Literacy advocates argue that states should contribute more to adult education to improve workforce skills and democratic participation. Combs advises participants in the California program not to worry about how long it will take them to understand the ballot.

“I know what the shame is, but you have to move beyond that shame,” Combs said. “This ‘my vote doesn’t count’ attitude needs to be banned.”

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