In 37 states and Washington D.C., voters may cast a ballot in person at some point before election day; in Rhode Island, you cannot. This poses a barrier to accessing the ballot for people with inflexible work schedules, childcare responsibilities, lack of access to transportation and other reasons that might prevent a person from showing up to vote on election day. Hopefully, that will soon change: R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea introduced a bill in this legislative session to allow Rhode Islanders to vote early, in person, as many as 20 days in advance of a primary or general election. The response to this bill has been neatly split along party lines: State GOP Chairman Brandon Bell told the Providence Journal that he opposed the legislation because it would force voters to make decisions without “important information” which “usually comes to light later in the campaign.” Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo wrote in her testimony in support of the bill: “Our current system needlessly excludes many working Americans who are unable to cast ballots on election day due to inflexible schedules or other conflicts.”
Between 2006 and 2012, in-person early voting programs were expanded across the country, which allowed researchers to study the impacts of the legislation. The percentage of voters who cast their ballots in person grew in each election throughout that time frame. Some of the best-studied outcomes of the legislation were that in-person early voting reduced the stress on election officials on election day, which allowed them to carry out their jobs more effectively and led to shorter lines at the polls on election day, according to a report published by the Brennan Center for Justice.
But perhaps most importantly, early voting legislation has proven to enfranchise the populations of voters that have historically been prevented from voting through practices such as poll taxes, voter ID laws, racial gerrymandering and purges to voter rolls. These practices have impeded black and Latino Americans in particular from voting throughout history.
Early voting has been proven to increase voter turnout between 2 and 4 percent, with a higher increase among minority voters, according to an article published by ProPublica in 2016. According to a fact sheet produced by the American Civil Liberties Union, 32 percent of ballots cast in the 2012 election were cast early, either in person or by mail. In 2008 and 2012, 70 percent of black voters in North Carolina voted early. In 2012, black voters in Ohio voted early at twice the rate of white voters.
In 2008 in Florida, a group of black church congregations organized a “Souls to the Polls” initiative in which they transported their congregations from church the Sunday before election day to vote early at polling sites. That year, black voters made up 13 percent of registered voters, but cast 22 percent of early ballots. In 2012, the Florida legislature passed a law to roll back early voting, but the law was struck down by the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., because the judges found that the law violated the Voting Rights Act by disproportionately preventing black voters from voting.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, ruling that the racial discrimination against voters that the Act was passed to prohibit no longer exists. In the wake of that decision, state legislatures across the country, especially those dominated by Republicans, passed laws that reduced access to the ballot in ways that particularly affected these historically disenfranchised voters. The ACLU reported in 2016 that following the Shelby decision, at least 17 states passed laws that restricted voting. In Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, the early voting periods were cut short, and in Wisconsin early voting on nights and weekends was eliminated, posing an obvious barrier to people with strict work schedules. We hope to reverse that trend here in Rhode Island.
Today, Brown students will be meeting under Faunce Arch to leave at 3 p.m. to join groups including Common Cause of R.I., the Working Families Party and the NAACP of Providence to participate in a lobby day in support of the early voting bill. Please join the Brown Progressive Action Committee, your peers and activists in Rhode Island to ask legislators to expand voting access in the state. We only live in a democracy so long as people are able to vote.
Julia Rock ’19 and Jenna Israel ’21 are the community engagement director and the student engagement director, respectively, of the Brown Progressive Action Committee. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.