Around 1 PM on Tuesday, Sarah — a black woman in Jefferson County, Colorado — was almost a victim of voter suppression despite playing by all the rules.
In Colorado (which hasn’t gone red since 2004), voters are mailed ballots in advance of the election. Sarah (who asked to remain anonymous for this article) recently changed addresses, but stayed within Jefferson County. When the ballot sent to her previous address was returned, Sarah made sure to update her voter registration information on the county’s official elections website, and even printed the confirmation screen the site gave her, saying they had received the updated information and that her voter registration was valid.
However, Sarah never received a mail-in ballot at her new address, despite going through the process roughly two weeks before the election. She had no choice but to take time off of work to go vote in person.
“I was already registered in the same county after last year’s election, so I didn’t expect to run into any problems,” Sarah told Grit Post. “But something told me I needed to bring every last document with me. I even grabbed a piece of mail with my name on it just in case they tried to suppress my vote.”
Last year, Sarah voted in Colorado for the first time after relocating from out of state, but overzealous poll workers tried to prevent her from casting her ballot, citing, among other things, the state’s voter ID law that became official in 2011. Despite bringing a driver’s license, utility bill, her passport, her Social Security card, and two pieces of mail proving she resided in the county, a poll worker at the public library where she voted in 2016 told Sarah that she was ineligible to vote, accusing her of not having the documents she had just provided.
However, her husband Jake, who is white (Jake also asked for anonymity for this article), moved seamlessly through the registration process despite also not having a Colorado driver’s license and only bringing one piece of mail with him.
“When I pointed out the discrepancy in how I was being treated compared to how easily my husband was registered and given a ballot, the poll worker suddenly decided the documents I brought with me were sufficient to vote,” Sarah said. “I don’t know if they would have allowed me to vote if he wasn’t there insisting they give me a ballot.”
Both Sarah and her husband have held onto their out-of-state licenses out of convenience, as their work schedules prevent them from taking several hours off during a weekday between 8 AM and 5 PM to update their licenses. However, both of them used their lunch break on Tuesday to visit the Jefferson County Elections Division, make sure their registrations were up to date, and cast their votes for their preferred candidates.
Sarah told Grit Post she and Jake were determined to make the time to vote, due to the incredibly low participation typical of post-presidential, local and county elections. The Denver Post recently reported that out of more than 3.2 million ballots mailed out to voters statewide, only an estimated 810,000 ballots were returned as of Monday — just under 20 percent turnout.
“We both did our research and paid attention to the people running and what issues they cared about,” Sarah told Grit Post. “Ironically, I thought I would have an easier time voting since I had actually gone online ahead of time and confirmed my voter registration.”
However, once she got to the polling station, a poll worker named Ruth immediately told Sarah she needed to fill out an additional registration form, despite Sarah providing a printout from the county website proving she was registered to vote in Jefferson County.
“I kept asking, ‘Why do I need to register again if I’m already registered from last year, and my new address is already in your systems?’ She never gave me a straight answer,” Sarah said. “I showed her the printed confirmation and said, ‘This is from your website.’ Despite being a poll worker, Ruth said she didn’t trust the voter confirmation from Jefferson County’s own website and refused to accept the document.”
Sarah eventually relented and completed the form. Then, after handing it over to Ruth, she was then told that she wouldn’t be able to get a ballot due to having an out-of-state driver’s license.
“I kept telling her, ‘I’m already registered! Why are you denying me my ballot?'” Sarah recalled.
Meanwhile, Jake — who hadn’t updated his address on the county’s website — filled out a change of address form on the spot, provided a utility bill with his name on the front, and was given a ballot by the same poll worker who had tried to prevent Sarah from voting. Ruth finally gave Sarah a ballot after Jake told her she had a bank statement with her name on it.
“I’d say from start to finish, it took maybe 30 seconds in between when Jake handed in his form and when he was allowed to vote,” Sarah told Grit Post. “The question remains, if I was already registered to vote, which they acknowledged, why was I required to re-submit all of the information and documents required for new voters?”
Following a wave of Republican victories in state legislatures and governorships across the country after the 2010 elections, a slew of legislation requiring voters to provide photo identification became part and parcel of the Republican agenda. In 2013, when the United States Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even more states pushed for voter ID laws.
Sarah pointed out that all of the poll workers and county officials present at her polling place were white, and that when attempting to file a complaint with the Jefferson County Elections Division, she was stonewalled by a county employee named “Liz.”
“I asked Liz to identify herself and her role with the elections division, but she refused and said she didn’t trust me and was only willing to give her first name,” Sarah recalled. “I then proceeded to explain to her the obstacles I faced in attempting to vote in 2016 and today. Liz began to talk over me, expressing empty rhetoric that had nothing to do with my situation.”
When I asked her why she wouldn’t listen, she would interrupt me to say that she was listening and wouldn’t let me finish any of my sentences,” Sarah added. “I finally decided to leave because it was made clear to me that Liz had no interest in protecting my right to vote.”
A study recently published by the Center for American Progress confirmed that voter ID laws in various swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin deterred tens of thousands of would-be voters from casting ballots due to stringent voter ID laws passed by Republican-controlled statehouses. In Wisconsin alone, black voter turnout was almost 20 percent lower in 2016 than in 2012.
What makes Sarah’s experience all the more insidious was that she was already registered, had all the documentation required to comply with the laws in her state, and was still being refused her constitutional right to vote.
“Many Americans fought and died so that I would have the freedom to vote in this country,” Sarah said. “I think the presidential election emboldened a lot of bigots and racists. They romanticize about going back to an earlier time in history as a way of hiding their racism and hatred for those who have done nothing to them but who are simply guilty of looking different.”
“These same people who spew hatred at those who don’t look like them will still show up for church, call themselves law abiding, and profess to believe in the ideals America stands for,” she continued. “They don’t realize that they couldn’t be more wrong and that they are, in fact, the opposite of America.”
Scott Alden is a freelance contributor covering national politics, education, and environmental issues. He is a proud Toledo University graduate, and lives in the suburbs of Detroit.