Q&A: Before US midterms, advocate warns of voting barriers

Former Arkansas election official Joshua Ang Price tells Al Jazeera voting access curbs are ‘weakening democracy’ in US.

A sign posted above the check-in station at an early voting precinct in Little Rock, Arkansas, warns voters that they will be asked to show an identification card during the 2018 midterms [File: Kelly P Kissel/AP Photo]

As the United States prepares for critical midterm elections in early November, experts have warned that a wave of unprecedented and baseless voter fraud claims during the 2020 presidential campaign continues to resonate.

Continually pushed by former President Donald Trump, the allegations have taken hold among state officials and legislatures across the country over the last two years.

Several states have moved to shore up restrictions on voting, passing a deluge of laws decried by rights advocates as furthering a racially charged legacy of voter disenfranchisement.

In Arkansas, ranked as having the third-highest barriers to voting of any state in the US by the 2022 Cost of Voting Index, efforts to curtail access to the ballot box have had a stark effect, said Joshua Ang Price, a former election commissioner of the state’s largest district.

Price, also a former Democratic candidate for Arkansas secretary of state, is now the deputy director of Arkansas United, a non-partisan, immigrants’ rights group. Here, Al Jazeera speaks to him about what these laws mean for voters in the state.

Al Jazeera: What is the state of voting access in Arkansas?

Price: I would say there’s a strong case that [Arkansas] is the worst state in the country for voters.

Josh Price
Price says there is a strong case Arkansas is the ‘worst state in the country for voters’ [Courtesy Josh Ang Price]

I was a former election commissioner in our largest county here in Arkansas. So I’ve seen a lot of these issues play out firsthand and how the lack of policies, or how certain policies, affect voters.

We are dead last in voter registration in the country … Voter turnout was at 54 percent [in Arkansas in 2020] and the national average was 67 percent … So half the state’s not voting.

Arkansas is also the first in the country for rejection of mail-in ballots, at 6.4 percent – the national average is 0.8 percent.

Note: In this interview, the terms “mail-in ballots” and “absentee ballots” are used interchangeably. Some US states make a distinction between “absentee ballots”, for which only some voters are eligible, and “mail-in ballots”, which can be sent by mail in lieu of in-person voting and are typically available to all voters. In Arkansas, only absentee ballots are available to voters.

Al Jazeera: What are the main barriers voters face?

Price: [October 11] was the last day to register to vote in the state of Arkansas. So right there, we really have a problem. You can only register to vote [up to] 30 days before the election.

We also are one of eight states that doesn’t have online voter registration … So that creates a lot of barriers, especially for under-served communities and folks living in rural areas.

When it comes to mail-in ballots, the vast number of mail-in ballots that are being rejected are for what I see as nitpicky reasons.

There’s a voter statement form you have to fill out when you turn in your absentee ballot and it’s checked against the information you have on file with the clerk’s office … And if anything is incorrect or missing on that form, your ballot is automatically rejected.

For example: You forgot to put your zip code, but everything else is correct. It’s rejected. You put today’s date instead of your birthday, just not thinking, and bear in mind a photocopy of your ID has to be included with the ballot – it’s rejected.

There’s also signature mismatch … If your signature doesn’t match the one on file with the county clerk’s office it can be rejected. This is very subjective and different election commissions are more strict than others.

Some states have a cure period where if you make a minor mistake on your absentee ballot, you get a call, you can correct it. We don’t have that ability in Arkansas.

Al Jazeera: What has happened to polling sites in the state?

Price: In the last two years, a lot of polling locations have closed in both urban and rural locations.

I worked with a local newspaper here to track how many polling locations have been closed in the last two years … We called all 75 counties and got the numbers from them.

To the best of our knowledge, they’ve closed 237 polling locations in the last two years. That’s probably underreported because some counties we couldn’t get a hold of, and some counties haven’t decided yet if they’re going to close them.

So that’s 1167 in 2020, down to 930 in 2022 – so 20 percent of the polling locations in the state have been closed down.

You’re kind of creating these voting deserts, as I like to call them, throughout the state.

For an urban example, Pulaski County is the most populous county in the state, with nearly 400,000 people and home to the capital city, Little Rock. They’ve closed 24 and they’ve closed them predominantly in communities of colour that are “not getting high traffic”.

In rural areas, and most of these are in the Delta region, which is a predominantly African-American population, we also saw closings.

Since 2018, Van Buren County went from 21 polling locations down to four. They told me in that county that now approximately 20 percent of the voters have to drive 30 miles [48km] one way, which is about a 45-minute drive on bad roads to vote. So that’s definitely an obstacle.

Al Jazeera: What do these barriers mean for voters in practice?

Price: [As an election commissioner], I had an 85-year-old woman who had a massive stroke – this is during the pandemic – she provides a letter from her doctor and her husband … saying that her right side of her body is partially paralysed and her signature is shaky and will not match. Both of these letters were notarised. I was the only Democrat on the election commission with two Republicans and the two Republicans rejected it. Her ballot was discarded.

In a more personal example, my mom is an immigrant from the Philippines. In 2019, I went to go vote with my mom in a local election. We went in two separate lines.

I look over at my mom, and she waves me over. And I said, ‘Well, what’s going on?’ And she said, ‘Well, Josh, I’ve shown my driver’s license. My name is in the poll book as a registered voter, but the poll worker said she needs to see my passport to prove I’m a real American.’ That’s not legal.

Now anecdotally, we’re talking to our immigrant communities, and this is happening all the time. I told this story to members of different Asian communities, Hispanic communities, and they’re like, ‘The same thing happened to me.’

If you think about someone who’s coming from a country maybe that has some political instability, like my mom left the Philippines during martial law … and a poll worker who you see as an official government worker is telling you, you can’t vote here, you’re not going to push back.

So it’s clear there’s a lack of cultural competency in training for poll workers.

Al Jazeera: How do voting rights groups combat these issues?

Price: We have some long-term and short-term strategies.

[In the last two years], we have challenged several laws. There was a law that was passed here in Arkansas that someone can only assist six people at the polls per day.

We have large Hispanic communities, as well places like Springdale where there’s nearly 20,000 Marshallese population, and Fort Smith, where there’s 10,000 Vietnamese population, [and] volunteers from Arkansas United would normally go to these high traffic areas and have translators there to assist them. But once one volunteer hits that six-person cut-off, they are exhausted for the day. That’s a huge challenge because we don’t have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers.

We said that law was unconstitutional. We actually won that case [in August 2022]. But then, unfortunately, there was an appeal. And so while it’s being appealed, the secretary of state said that [the state’s] gonna go with the original rule for this election until we get the result of that appeal.

We were also part of a lawsuit last year with the League of Women voters against four voter suppression bills … The bills were initially tossed out by a circuit judge, but upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

They included a law relating to Arkansas’s photo ID requirements. You need a photo ID to vote in the state, but there was kind of a workaround. You could vote provisionally under penalty of perjury. You fill out a form … and that would be checked against the county clerk’s office. And if everything checked out, your vote would be counted. Now, they’ve taken that away. If you don’t have your ID the day you vote, you’re not going to be able to vote.

We’re going to keep up efforts like that, but in the short term, we’re trying to work with election officials to train more bilingual poll workers, who unlike volunteers, can help an unlimited amount of people.

We also canvas in immigrant communities and provide translated material with tips on voting.

Al Jazeera: What do these barriers in Arkansas mean to you in the context of wider voting issues in the US?

I think they’re weakening our democracy.

We have a lot of folks in our immigrant populations that are Republicans, so this is not a Democrat-versus-Republican thing. This is not a partisan issue.

This can affect someone of colour just as easily as someone that’s white, and it can affect people in rural areas and affect people in urban areas. So this is not a race issue.

This is [about] making sure that everyone in our state has equal and fair access to go vote and make their voices heard, and they don’t have barrier after barrier that’s stopping them from being able to exercise that American right.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Source: Al Jazeera