When Pennsylvania voters arrive at the polls this Election Day, they will be asked for a valid ID but they won’t actually need one in order to cast a ballot. It’s just one of the many concerns voting rights advocates have ahead of Nov. 6.
The greatest worry, says Eric Marshall of the group Election Protection, is that confused voters may avoid the polls entirely and that uninformed poll workers may turn others away. It’s why his group, spearheaded by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is making a late push to spread the word about its new smartphone app. We asked Marshall about the app and what the group is planning for Election Day.
C&E: What’s the greatest concern you have for this November?
Marshall: There’s this great fear out there about the existence of voter fraud. While voter fraud does exist, and we should stop it, the supposed solutions that have come out have actually done more harm than good. Of course, the restrictive voter ID laws are front and center in that, and so we’ve been fighting hard against them and we’ve gotten a string of victories—whether it’s the court case in Pennsylvania recently, the court case in Texas on the Section 5 pre-clearance or the court case in Wisconsin. Every time these laws have come before the courts this year, they’ve been deemed illegitimate, which just shows that they’re the wrong way of going about ensuring that people identify themselves at the polls.
But the fact that these laws have been debated, the fact that they passed and the fact that they’ve been blocked by the courts has sown a lot of confusion. Voters and poll workers really need to understand what ID voters need on Election Day to identify themselves. We always get calls to the hotline every year from voters who don’t have to show an ID, but poll workers are demanding it anyways. And you have MSNBC, CNN, FOX, Twitter and Facebook—all this communication—talking about it. Poll workers, who in a lot of areas are undertrained and under-resourced, might not fully understand what’s required.
C&E: What exactly does your app do?
Marshall: We developed an Election Protection smartphone app. The app allows voters to look up their registration status. If they need to update their registration they can do so online through a tool that Rock the Vote has or fill out an online registration form. They can see what polling place they vote at and get directions through the mapping software on their phone. They can see what kind of voting system they’re going to vote on. They can access an FAQ for their state, so they can get key information about voting rules, early absentee voting laws, hours, locations, and what ID is required. If they still have questions or problems they can call us or email us, so we can respond and give them the information they need. It’s got really everything voters need at their fingertips.
More Americans are primarily accessing the internet through their smartphone, and it’s a diverse pool of people that are doing so. Communities of color—African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans—are actually adopting smartphone technology at a higher rate than the rest of the population. There’s also an empowerment factor with the app. The app is designed for me to look up my information, but there’s no reason that once I do that I can’t take the app and go out in my community and verify the registration status of my grandmother or tell my friend around the corner what polling place she needs to vote at. The app allows people to go out into their community as voting rights organizers.
C&E: What will your group look to tackle before the next election cycle gets underway?
Marshall: It’s a real problem with our system of elections that in most states it’s not unambiguously illegal to deceive voters with the time, place and manner of elections. Traditionally, it took the form of fliers informing voters from certain parties to vote the day after Election Day to trick them into not showing up, telling them that picking a candidate means it’s a straight ticket vote when it isn’t, that you can’t vote if you have unpaid parking tickets, and there were robocalls saying the same things. Now we’re seeing Twitter messages, Facebook posts and emails that are looking like they come from the government doing the same things and trusted email accounts being hacked to send out deceptive information. Unfortunately, technology’s also been used to send destructive information, and I expect that we’ll see a continuation of those tactics.