What Are Voter Rights?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed August 06, 2020
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It's important to know that when you cast your ballot, nothing undermines your voting rights; it's also crucial that the integrity of the election process itself is preserved. Sometimes these concerns conflict with one another, creating tension between the attempt to protect the right to vote with concerns to rid the system of corruption, including voter fraud.
In this article, you will learn about protecting your right to vote, including:
- Voting restrictions and laws that can limit voting rights
- Efforts to combat election reform that impact voting rights
- How to recognize when your voting rights have been violated
- Actions to take if your voting rights have been violated
Laws That Protect Your Voting Rights
There are several federal laws that protect your right to vote. Some of the laws target specific members of the population such as The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act or The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Act, which allows soldiers and others who are overseas to vote with absentee ballots in federal elections.
History of Voting Rights Barriers
Just as laws can protect your right to vote, some laws can infringe upon your voting rights. For many years, literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and white primaries were used to ban African Americans and other minorities from voting in elections. The 1965 enactment of The Voting Rights Act (VRA) banned literacy tests and specifically prohibited laws that discriminate based on race.
The Act was extended to prohibit discrimination against those who speak another language other than English. However, the VRA only bans laws that explicitly discriminate. Therefore, minority voters can still be affected by laws that indirectly keep them from voting. Additionally, the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision eviscerated much of the Act's strength by invalidating a formula used to address past discrimination.
State Voting Restrictions
Each state must maintain its own electoral system and is bound to protect the sanctity of the election process. Although some state laws might make it more difficult to vote, they are acceptable if they don't violate federal laws or constitutional protections. Examples of restrictive state laws include those that:
- Make registration more difficult by limiting mobilization efforts or reducing registration opportunities;
- Prevent the preregistration of persons ages 16 or 17;
- Reduce in-person voting opportunities; or
- Reduce access for absentee-ballot opportunities.
State Election Reforms
Lawmakers and advocates for election reform argue that enactment of state laws that may adversely affect voting rights are necessary to maintain the integrity of the election system and that the laws can address important issues such as voter fraud. There are continuous debates about this and disputes about the frequency of voter fraud because incidences may be difficult to detect.
Supporters of election reform believe that instilling confidence into the election system is worth the imposition on voting rights. But opponents disagree, claiming these laws are merely a politically motivated attempt at disenfranchising mostly minority voters, and also worry about additional costs and burdens on elections administrators.
Voter ID Requirements
While the federal government has laws addressing acceptable forms of identification, states can also set their own laws. These laws are controversial mainly because groups that are less likely to have identification (low-income, minorities, the elderly) may be disproportionately impacted by these ID requirements.
A voter purge occurs when state officials remove voter names from voter rolls. Although people whose names are missing from the rolls may be eligible voters, a voter usually can't vote without being on the list. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court validated voter purges and the scope is fairly wide.
The political practice of gerrymandering refers to the creation of electoral maps that give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible. Gerrymandering is controversial because it's executed in a way that tends to predict the outcome of the elections by diluting a group's voting power.
For instance, state lawmakers may authorize a map that breaks up districts mainly populated by Latino voters by stacking them in some districts and diminishing them in others. Doing so is unconstitutional if it dilutes minority voting strength when there is discriminatory intent. However, the law is unsettled regarding how far legislatures can take redrawing districts to favor one party over another.
How to Report Voting Issues
Protecting your voting rights is a multi-layered process. An initial step is to ensure that you're registered to vote. You can check your status here.
If you have any problems with casting your ballot, you should:
- Contact an election official at the polling place immediately.
- If the official can't or won't help you, report the problem directly to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice.
- Complete the Election Complaint Report.
Activities That Should be Reported
Anytime you feel intimidated or were in fact intimidated or prevented from voting, you should report the incident. For example, if a person tries to tell you how to vote, or if the polling place closes early or opens later than it is scheduled to.
Protect Your Voting Rights with Help from an Attorney
Because voting rights are an essential part of being a citizen, you must protect this fundamental right. If you suspect that your voting rights have been violated by voter dilution, voter intimidation, or any other means, you may voice your concerns to an experienced civil rights attorney who can help decide if you're eligible to file a lawsuit.