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When It Comes To Not Voting, Some Americans Want To But Face Legal Barriers


In recent midterm elections, about 60 percent of eligible voters did not cast ballots. Some said they don't vote because they're too busy or don't think their vote matters. Others want to vote but can't. They face a range of obstacles from voter ID laws to their own criminal records. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Back in the year 2000, Jagada Chambers was sent to prison for attempted second-degree murder. He was released four years later. This all happened in Florida, which bars citizens with felony convictions from voting unless they receive clemency from a state board led by the governor.

JAGADA CHAMBERS: I assume that I committed my crime in Florida so therefore I thought I'd been disenfranchised forever.

KHALID: An estimated 10 percent of adults in Florida cannot vote because of a felony record. But Chambers was not a Floridian, and so those strict rules didn't apply to him.

CHAMBERS: I was free over a decade not knowing that I was able to vote.

KHALID: Chambers was not legally barred from voting in California and later in Nevada where he now lives. But he was confused. Other people don't vote because they're inconvenienced, and legal barriers can contribute to that. In 2016, 4 percent of registered voters did not vote because of registration problems, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. One of those problems is tied to an upsurge in voter purging. States routinely clean up the voting rolls to ensure their records are accurate, and they remove people who've moved or died. But according to a report from the Brennan Center published this summer, 4 million more people were purged between 2014 and 2016 than in the equivalent period between 2006 and 2008. Jonathan Brater is one of the authors of this report.

JONATHAN BRATER: Voter purges can have the effect of making it more difficult for people who are not necessarily the most regular voters.

KHALID: Some Southern states have seen a particular uptick.

BRATER: Georgia has had a number of problematic and controversial voter registration and purging practices over the last few years.

KHALID: Georgia takes people off the voting rolls if they don't vote in four consecutive federal elections and do not respond to a letter in the mail. Georgia also allows neighbors to challenge one another's eligibility. Supporters of this law say it helps root out voter fraud. Back in 2015, these voter challenges were used in mass in Hancock County, a rural area about 100 miles east of Atlanta. Approximately 17 percent of all registered voters in Sparta, the largest town in the county, had their voting eligibility challenged, and most of the people on that list were black, like Merritt Hubert. He and his brother were accused of not living at the address on file.

MERRITT HUBERT: Basically, they just wanted to scratch our name off the list, you know, period, that we don't live in Hancock County.

KHALID: Hubert gestures to the yellow mobile home behind him. It's off a dusty side road, and he says he's lived here the whole time. Even the letter accusing him of not living here came in the mail to this address.

Why do you think this happened?

HUBERT: Basically, I think it's a racism thing, that they want white - whites to run the town.

KHALID: The goal, he thinks, was voter suppression. In a settlement, the board of elections denied its motive was racial discrimination. The county attorney, Barry Fleming, told The New York Times it was about restoring order to an electoral process tainted by corruption and incompetence. Still, the board agreed to change how it reviews challenges, and most people's names, including Hubert's, were added back to the voting rolls. But Jonathan Brater with the Brennan Center says that may not fix everything.

BRATER: When people have bad experiences with the voting system, I think, you know, a lot of people react to that by saying, well, you know, forget about it. I'm not going to do this again.

KHALID: Some people, though, are like Merritt Hubert. He says this whole experience has made him more determined to vote. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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