Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Roadblocks to the Polls

I am very pleased to introduce Caitlin Endyke, Program Assistant at the The Building Movement Project.  Caitlin has recently moved to NYC from New Hampshire and is helping me with the commons work at BMP.  She will be writing for this blog every Tuesday and she begins today.  Welcome, Caitlin! 

Last week, I cast my first official ballot in New York City.  After living here for almost a year I finally had my registration switched from my small New Hampshire hometown, and this was the first election in which I was eligible to vote here in NYC.  I knew that my experiences voting here would be different from those in my hometown. For one, I was fairly certain no one I knew personally was in the running- a big change.    What I did not anticipate was how hard it would be to actually get to the polls.

I was about as proactive about switching my registration as, I think, most people are.  A few months after moving and getting settled I printed the form and proceeded to let it sit on my desk for another few months until I finally mailed it in.  I got my approval letter in the mail a few weeks ago, and I was looking forward to the day when I would be able to cast my first official vote as a New Yorker (thinking, wrongly, that day would be November 6th).

That was until I walked into my office last Thursday and was greeted by my colleague with a surprising question. “Did you vote?”, she asked.

“…Um…vote for what?”

I consider myself fairly informed.  I work in a community where politics are regularly discussed. I chastised my friends in 2010 for not voting in the midterm elections.  I try to follow local politics.  Yet I had no idea there was an election happening that day in my city (a local primary, but still).  I was used to driving through town at home, seeing the street corners slowly fill up with lawn signs from various candidates.  Usually, I was pushed toward the polls by people I knew who were running (though who were not necessarily people I voted for).  I was not used to Election Day simply passing me by. 

That was my first obstacle.  After I found out I needed to vote, I started looking up where my designated polling place was and checked to make sure my voter registration was active.  This part was less straightforward.  As a first time voter in the state my “identity had yet to be verified” (an intimidating phrase to find next to your name).  After some Googling and visits to various voter-help sites I still had little idea what this meant.  As someone without a government issued ID that showed my NYC address (I nostalgically have been holding on to my NH license), I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring something else to verify who I was and where I lived.  I settled on a trip home to gather a pay stub before I headed to the polls, unsure if that would be sufficient. 

Turns out I didn’t need any of it.  I showed up, gave my name, signed next to the image of my signature from the voter registration form (a high-tech surprise), and proceeded to fill out my ballot with no problems.  Every volunteer in the room was pleasant and helpful.  My polling place, “Camp Friendship Hall”, even had that small-town school gym feel.

But what troubles me is how difficult and unclear it was for me to get to that point, especially as a person who was determined to participate.  I didn’t receive anything from the city telling me it was Election Day or informing me of what I might need to bring with me, given my slightly special circumstance.    In the wake of all the new voter ID laws (including one in my home state) that are seemingly and unfortunately sweeping the nation, I am thinking of how much harder this process would have been with stricter requirements. What happens to the people who don't have the luxury of having a pay stub or photo ID on hand?  Isn’t the ability to vote the most basic of rights in a democratic society? Figuring out who to vote for should be the hard part, the thing that requires the most time and contemplation.  Getting to the polls should be easy.  Unfortunately, some states are making a concerted effort to make sure that is not the case. 

National Voter Registration Day is September 25th.  Let’s use this opportunity to help ensure that EVERYONE has access to the ballot box this fall. 

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