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Do you know your voting rights?: ACLU Voting Rights Project Director talks equity and participation


Visiting West Michigan on May 16 as the keynote speaker of the ACLU Standing Together for Justice Luncheon at Frederik Meijer Gardens, Ho aims to spread a message of increased voting rights through systems reform, encouraging states like Michigan to implement modern, equitable practices that make voting simple and accessible for all.
"Most of our voting systems are pretty antiquated at this point," says Dale Ho, Director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU. Working for the past five years to push against laws that make it difficult for people to register or cast their ballots, Ho has made it his mission to "not just play defense, but play offense going forward." Visiting West Michigan on May 16 as the keynote speaker of the ACLU Standing Together for Justice Luncheon at Frederik Meijer Gardens, Ho aims to spread a message of increased voting rights through systems reform, encouraging states like Michigan to implement modern, equitable practices that make voting simple and accessible for all.

Despite revolutionary changes in technology that have increased the ease of voter registration and polling, many states in the U.S. are currently utilizing voter registration deadlines up to four weeks in advance of the November polling date. In the state of Michigan, voters are required to register at least 30 days in advance, a tie for the longest registration cutoff period in the country (Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Alaska also maintain the 30-day cutoff). Currently, no option is available to register online.

Many states like Colorado, Idaho, and Illinois have much shorter cutoff periods and allow registration in person on election day, allowing those without the time or means to register beforehand to simply show up, register, and cast their vote.

Barriers like these inspire Ho to increase and better facilitate voter participation in the U.S. He believes the following three tasks can achieve this:
  1. Implement automatic voter registration for every state, which puts the burden on the government to register qualified voters. More than a dozen states have this, but the majority require registration at the Secretary of State or Department of Motor Vehicles.
  2. Allow registration at any time, up to and on election day. According to Ho, this practice typically results in a 5 percent higher turnout rate than those who cut off registration 20 to 30 days before election day.
  3. Create a system of "no excuse absentee voting" that does not require a legitimate reason to vote via absentee ballot. "It also takes a lot of pressure off of election day itself," says Ho.
Implementing processes like these, according to Ho, will modernize states like Michigan with outdated voting practices.

Recent talk of voter fraud, social media influence and "hacking," security is also an issue for the ACLU. As part of the Promote the Vote campaign in Michigan, Ho is working to better secure voting by protecting the right to a secret ballot and by implementing a post-vote auditing system, among other initiatives.

Though "There's no evidence at this point that anyone has successfully penetrated voting machines themselves," says Ho, "There's no need to wait until something like that has happened."

And the ACLU is working on reforms like this across the country. In Maryland, voters this year will be asked to vote to allow election-day registration. In Utah, he, the ACLU, and local activists are working on a ballot initiative to shift to non-partisan redistricting reform, in which the lines for election districts will be drawn by an independent party instead of by the legislature (much like Michigan's own Voters Not Politicians). "Sometimes, politicians who are incumbents are resistant to reform," says Ho, who adds that the desire to maintain their position can be a powerful motivator for voting against redistricting reform.

In Florida, an initiative already on this year's ballot involves restoring lost voting rights for those that have completed their prison sentence for a criminal offense. Unlike in most states where criminal offenders' voting rights are restored after a certain period of time, in Florida, criminal offenders are banned for life from voting, regardless of their sentence.

"It's really out of step with the rest of the country," says Ho, who adds that 6 million people across the country are unable to vote due to a past criminal offense, and more than a quarter of those live in Florida.

All of these efforts feed Ho's primary passion: civil rights. "I went to law school because I wanted to protect and defend people's civil rights," says Ho. "Voting rights is the one right that preserves all other rights."

Working in voting rights and election law for 10 years—he is now in his fifth year at the ACLU and before that worked on the same issues at the NAACP legal defense fund—Ho is dedicated to a "free and fair election process that is accountable to the electorate," he says.

And for him, the rights and actions of the individual is the most important aspect of his work. "[Thinking that] voting doesn't really matter because the system is inevitably corrupt is really damaging to civil engagement and to our democracy," Ho says. "It's critical for voters to take power into their own hands."

Photo courtesy of ACLU.
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