Let’s say you’re an average voter who spends his life working multiple jobs, and have limited time to watch the news, so you ignore the fact that voter ID laws have changed in your state. Or maybe you’re an elderly voter who has difficulty making your monthly expenses, let alone paying the $20 or so dollars that will get you a state ID. Or perhaps you’re a new voter, and lack information about the ID requirements, so when you show up on polling day, you’re turned away. In either case, if you happen to live in a state where the voting restriction laws have been enacted, you may be out of luck… and out of the voting process.
None of these scenarios can seem very farfetched, given the slew of voter suppression laws popping up all over the country. Now, a coalition of organizations, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL), the National Association of Latino Appointed and Elected Officials Education Fund (NALEO), the New Organizing Institute (NOIEF), Rock the Vote and the Verified Voting Foundation have taken a brazen step in figthing these laws. The coalition just launched the Election Protection smartphone app, a dynamic smartphone application to educate and empower voters across the country.
The newly-launched app will allow voters to verify their registration status, look up their polling place, fill out a voter registration form and even contact Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, if they feel they have been a victim of voter suppression. “We are concerned about efforts throughout the country to make registering to vote and voting difficult and inaccessible,” said NALEO Executive Director Arturo Vargas. “A vibrant democracy requires full participation by its voters; many states, however, have taken steps to suppress and discourage voting.”
A whopping 25 laws and 2 executive actions passed since the beginning of 2011 in 19 states and 27 restrictive bills are currently pending in 6 states (see LCCRUL’s Map of Shame). All of these propose, in one way or another, to make it harder to get registered, by cracking down on voter registration drives, adding strict photo identification requirements or cutting back on early voting periods. Report after report, such as a recent one by the Brennan Center for Justice point to just how overwhelmingly these laws affect communities of color: 1 in 4 African-American eligible voters nationwide lack a government-issued photo ID. African-American and Latino voters in FL, OH and other states also used early voting at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts in 2008. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
So the timing for this app couldn’t be more auspicious, and that’s without counting the fact that the use of mobile technology is ubiquitous, especially among minorities. Chris Melody Fields, Election Protection Coordinator from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, cites a 2012 study by Pew that shows how African -Americans and Latinos have adopted smartphones at a higher rate than other Americans with 49 percent smartphone adoption compared to the national average of 46 percent. “We are meeting voters where they are-their smartphones. We need to fully educate voters about their rights and what they need to do to vote this November. Voters will be able to educate themselves about their rights and key voting information in their state so they will be prepared before they head to the polls,” says Fields.
This app can help people beyond mere awareness: empowerment, after all, comes from the feeling that you can take action, that you know what you need to do when you feel you have been wronged. Perhaps more importantly, it can help spread timely information to those who may not be as connected.
“Communities of color have a history of being disenfranchised and impacted by changes to election law,” adds Fields “It is incredibly important to focus on these communities that are often marginalized and left out of the process in order to empower them to participate in our democracy and make their voices heard.”
The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to protect Americans from exactly the types of laws that may dilute the voting strength or obstruct the ability of specific communities to elect candidates of their choice. It was a radical step to modernize a system plagued by outdated and bigoted statutes carried out from colonial times.
The fact that mobile and web-based apps like this one are starting to be developed is a sign that democracy is ready to join the 21st century. This means not only shedding the backwards thinking that seeks to disenfranchise entire segments of the population, but also to start adopting modern methods to make sure that everyone, regardless of color, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, race or political leaning, can have the right information and tools at hand to exercise what is a fundamental American right. In a world when we spend our lives surrounded by modern gadgetry, perhaps is now time for the whole voting process to step up with the times.
Elianne Ramos is Principal/CEO of Speak Hispanic Marketing and Vice-Chair, Marketing and PR for Latinos in Social Media (LATISM). Under LATISM, she is also Chief Editor of the LATISM blog, and hostess to weekly Twitter chats reaching over 18.8 million impressions. Follow her on Twitter @ergeekgoddess.