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Matt DeRienzo
Matt DeRienzo

541. Shutting people out of democracy: What it looks like

Raise your hand if you’re surprised to hear that voter disenfranchisement is on the rise? 

The Center for Public Integrity dedicated a team of 15 reporters across the country, plus a few editors, to studying ways in which voting is getting more challenging, which states are trying to help more people have access to voting, and which states are trying to restrict it. The result of this investigation is a new report, Who Counts?, laying out the ways in which voting access has become less equitable in just the past two years alone. 

“Voting rights and access to democracy, in larger framing, is the right that protects all other rights. What we set out to do, ahead of the midterm elections where a lot is at stake, is we saw existing patterns but definitely an unprecedented cycle of the past two years where there was attack after attack on voting rights and access to voting in ways that would never have gotten to that stage because of the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of civil rights, which have changed pretty drastically in recent years,” explains Matt DeRienzo, editor in chief for the Center for Public Integrity. 

DeRienzo points out two dramatically different approaches to voting and protecting and helping people access their ability to vote. 

“In Vermont, everyone is mailed a ballot,” he says. “They can return it, postage paid, but there’s also 10 drop boxes in their town and they have all month to do it. There’s weekend and night voting hours. If they were convicted of felony theft when they were 20, no worries, because they never take away voting rights. If you speak a different language, there’s language assistance.”

On the other hand, in Mississippi, hardly any of that accessibility is available.

“If you want to vote absentee, or if you have a disability, or more likely you work a job where you can’t get time off, plus you have to get your kids from daycare, or you’re out of gas in your car and the polling place is 15 miles away instead of 5 miles, all of those factors, everything about Mississippi requires you to be there on election day,” DeRienzo says. “With limited restrictions, they’re not mailing you a ballot. If they do, you have to have a notary public sign it and seal it. There’s nothing like drop boxes. A huge percentage of the population can never vote because their votes have been taken away because of a felony conviction. That’s off-the-charts disproportionately affecting Black voters. All of those factors make it difficult. When you do show up, you have to have a certain kind of state issued government ID, and you have to pay money to get that if you can get someone to take you.” 

Vermont, he notes, is predominately white, while Mississippi is “the Blackest state in the country.” 

There were 12 areas of focus in the report, including whether the state allows people to register to vote on election day, the ability to vote by mail-in ballot and what efforts are made to accept a mailed-in ballot if a mistake is made (the ballot is unsigned, a date is missing, etc.). “This is a known disenfranchisement technique,” DeRienzo says. 

The goal of the report, in addition to showing the disparities in access across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., is to get people thinking about what’s happening in their own states and why that might be. “Delaware State Supreme Court just said voting by mail can’t happen this year, and late registration can’t happen, because it’s really written into the (state) constitution, which was written originally by white men and they made it really hard to change.” 

Matt DeRienzo discusses the Center for Public Integrity’s new 50-state plus D.C. investigation of how voting access has become less equitable since the 2020 election and what that bodes for next Tuesday’s mid-term elections.

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