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OUR VOTING RIGHTS – A State by State Analysis

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In an off handed comment made after the 2012 election, President Barack Obama said we need to fix our election process.  This is a welcome suggestion.  Our election process is badly broken and we need to take a good look at it.  We should start by asking:

What voting rights do I have in my state? 

This is not a commonly asked question, but it should be.  Most of us believe voting rights are guaranteed under the federal constitution. This isn’t exactly true.  The Constitution contains several amendments to prevented states from disenfranchising certain categories of voters. For example, states cannot use race, religion, gender or the age of anyone 18 or older as a means to disqualify a “citizen” from voting.  The actual right of suffrage, however, isn’t a federal guarantee. This is up to the states.  Fixing our voting system will be a state by state effort.

In all our public discussions about elections there is rarely mention of how voting rights differ in various states. When you look at state constitutional language on voting rights, however, you quickly learn that many of the rights we take as granted, such as a right to secret ballots, are nowhere to be found in most state constitutions.  In fact, state constitutional voting rights differ widely from one state to the next.

The wide variation in voting rights are not immediately evident because state laws, administrative regulation and voting practices over time have created consensual frameworks for elections that appear similar from state to state.  For example, the vote counting process is open for public view in most states, but only the constitutions of Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia guarantee public vote counting.  California is the only state guaranteeing that  votes will even be counted.  After candidates concede defeat based on vote projections, the states are not constitutionally obligated to finish counting every ballot.

When elections run smoothly and no questions are raised, everyone consents to the will of the majority. This is true because in a representative democracy, elected officials are expected to represent everyone’s interests and not just the interests of those who voted for them. But when elections are very close and the process seems flawed, explicit constitutional language is essential to protect the democratic process and win over the consent of the minority.  Elections have consequences.  Flawed elections or overtly partisan representation can have dire consequences. Faith in our democracy begins with faith in our voting systems.

I am not a lawyer or constitution expert, but curiosity about state voting rights caused me to survey all fifty state constitutions and document the articulated rights in each.  Some results of this exercise are presented in the tables below.  Keep in mind that some constitutions have very archaic language or formats that make them difficult to interpret.  The information below represents my best effort to classify and document basic voting rights as articulated in state constitutions.  It is followed by a brief discussion for each of the categories presented below.

Basic Voting Right Articulated in Individual State Constitutions
RIGHT TO HAVE EVERY VOTE COUNTED  –  As mentioned above, California is alone in this protection. This right may seem obvious or implied,  but there are documented instances where absentee ballots have gone missing and uncounted.  One example took place back in 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when garbage bags believed to contain missing ballots were impounded by police but not opened because it was unclear if the missing ballots had to be counted.
GENERAL RIGHT OF SUFFRAGE –  Many state constitutions have high sounding language about how all power is derived by the people, but only nine state explicitly guarantee the right of suffrage.  Suffrage is the right to vote in a democratic process. It is the political franchise itself, not the right of any one individual. It says that elected officials do not have the power to suspending elections.  This seemingly essential right of the people is specifically named in only nine state constitutions.
RIGHT TO FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS – “In any State the authority of the government can only derive from the will of the people as expressed in genuine, free and fair elections held at regular intervals on the basis of universal, equal and secret suffrage.”  So said the Inter-Parliamentary Council at its 154th session in Paris, 26 March, 1994.  Here in the US, the State Department was actually very helpful in sharing their view on Free and Fair Elections with nations whose democracies are less advance than our own.  They provided third-world countries with the following guidelines:
Free and fair elections require:
– Universal suffrage for all eligible men and women to vote
– democracies do not restrict this right from minorities, the disabled, or give it only to those who are literate or who own property
– Freedom to register as a voter or run for public office.
– Freedom of speech for candidates and political parties
– democracies do not restrict candidates or political parties from criticizing the performance of the incumbent.
– Numerous opportunities for the electorate to receive objective information from a free press.
– Freedom to assemble for political rallies and campaigns.
– Rules that require party representatives to maintain a distance from polling places on election day
– election officials, volunteer poll workers, and international monitors may assist voters with the voting process but not the voting choice.
– An impartial or balanced system of conducting elections and verifying election results
– trained election officials must either be politically independent or those overseeing elections should be representative of the parties in the election.
– Accessible polling places, private voting space, secure ballot boxes, and transparent ballot counting.
– Secret ballots – voting by secret ballot ensures that an individual’s choice of party or candidate cannot be used against him or her.
– Legal prohibitions against election fraud
– enforceable laws must exist to prevent vote tampering (e.g. double counting, ghost voting).
– Recount and contestation procedures
– legal mechanisms and processes to review election processes must be established to ensure that elections were conducted properly.
Many states could learn a lot from the State Department.  Only 44% of Americans can claim that Free and Fair Elections are constitutionally protection in their state. It is ironic that the government Website from which the above information comes contains the following disclaimer: “NOTE: The America.gov website is no longer being updated.”
RIGHT TO VOTE BY BALLOT – There are many ways to vote, of course.  You can have a show of hands or call for an assembly to shout yea or nay.  You can even draw straws.  In democratic elections we prefer ballots.  They are discrete and unique to each voter. They allow for the possibility of secret voting.  Until recently they were also made of paper, not electrons.  The decision to redefine “ballot” to include patterns of electrons stored on memory cards was never publicly debated. As with all voting processes in this country, we never got to vote on whether we wanted this change.  Just 28 state constutions guarantee voting by ballot but none of them contain any language to define what is a “ballot”, so electronic voting cannot be easily challenged on constitutional ground.
RIGHT TO SECRET VOTING –  The secrecy of our vote is among our most cherished rights, except it isn’t a constitutional right at all for more than 146 million American citizens.  Secret voting prevents voter intimidation.  It assures us that how we vote can not be used against us later on.  Only 23 states guarantee secrecy in voting.  Several other states guarantee the right to vote in private, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?
RIGHT TO PUBLIC VOTE COUNTING – Stalin has been credited with saying, “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything”.  This speaks volumes for both the right to have our vote counted and the necessity to have all vote counting conducted in public view.  This is especially true when ballots are cast is secret or when they are electronically invisible.  Public vote counting is even more important as we rely more and more on private corporations to count our electronic ballots.  They claim that the software they use to count or votes is so proprietary that even state election officials are not allowed to peek.  Coupled with a trend among election officials to view with suspicion any voter who wants to observe the process, it is shocking that only 3 states constitutionally protect this essential right.
FREQUENCY OF ELECTIONS –  It is one thing to guarantee that the government will hold elections and another to assure they are regularly scheduled.  Ask anyone from a parliamentary democracy about this and they can tell you how the timing of elections can be manipulated to benefit incumbents.  We need clear guidance on when elections should be held. Fifteen states have clear constitutional language about this.  The rest don’t.  While we know when to expect elections in our state only 30% of us have these expectations guaranteed.
PRIVILEGE FROM ARREST AND EXCEPTIONS –  Imagine heading out to vote knowing you have a few outstanding parking tickets.  You show up at your polling place and notice a police presence out front.  Maybe they even appear to be question some voters. Do you try to walk past them to vote or do you turn around and play it safe?
This is the predicament that a privilege from arrest is designed to resolve.  You should not see a uniformed police presence at polling sites or feel any intimidation at all.  A uniformed police officer at a polling site can be especially intimidating to minorities and economically disadvantaged voters. It can suppress the vote.  Unless a voter is wanted for  serious crimes or treasonous, or unless they cause a public disturbance, the privilege from arrest while voting should be guaranteed.  Just 23 states have this guaranteed. Only a third of our citizens are covered by this protection.
RIGHT TO ACCESSIBLE POLLING PLACES –  “… polling places shall be easily accessible to all persons including disabled and elderly persons who are otherwise qualified to vote,” says the New Hampshire State Constitution.  You might think that the “Americans with Disabilities Act” covers this right, but voting doesn’t always take place in buildings covered by the act.  More broadly speaking, a guaranteed access to polling places means adequate numbers of voting machines voting locations that people can  get to without a significant expense of time or money.  This has been a particular problem in “battle states” such as Florida where the lines to vote were many hours long.  It turns out that onlyNew Hampshire and Oklahoma are the only states providing this constitutional protection.
 Here below is a summary voter rights and the percentage of American citizens who are covered under those right.



Num. of States



Percent of  Population

 w/this  Right



Right to Have Every Vote Counted
General Right of Suffrage
Right to Free and Fair Election
Right to voting by ballot
Right to secret vote
Right to Public Vote Counting
Frequency of Elections Right
Privilege from Arrest during voting
Privilege from Arrest Exceptions
Right to accessible polling place
Num. of 
 w/This Right
Percent of Population 
 w/This Right
Must be A US Citizen
Must be Registered to vote
State’s Deployed Solders Can Vote
Felony Exception
Treason Exception
Incarceration Exception
Mental Capacity Exception
Moral Conduct or other Exception
Restoration from Exception
No quartered solders
Right to Appeal Voter Ineligibility 


  1. Reblogged this on Civil Rights Clinic and commented:
    An interesting look at the voting rights we actually have, and issues we as citizens should look to address in relation to those rights.

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