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Check Your Polling Place: Redistricting Confused Some Voters

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Check Your Polling Place: Redistricting Confused Some Voters
election official helping local
An election official, right, in Lincoln, Neb., helps a voter locate their precinct. After redistricting, some voters have been confused by changed polling places and new voting rules.
Kenneth Ferriera Lincoln Journal Star via The Associated Press

After sporadic reports of voter confusion in the early months of the primary season, local election officials and voting rights advocates are urging voters to double-check polling place locations and other critical election information before they try to vote this year.

Some voters around the country have shown up only to learn their polling places changed after redistricting, forcing them either to vote provisionally or leave and go to their new precinct. Others were unaware of changes to rules governing ballot drop boxes and mail-in voting since the 2020 presidential election, leading to high ballot rejection rates.

There is ample opportunity for voter confusion this year, said Jeanette Senecal, senior director of mission impact for the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan voter education organization.

“Even experienced voters could face more uncertainty,” she said. “Voters can’t assume they know what the rules are—they’ve changed so much in the last three election cycles. Every voter is like a new voter with all these changes.”

It is crucial for state and local election officials to provide up-to-date information to both voters and nonprofits, such as the League of Women Voters, she said. The league relies on that information to operate VOTE411, a website where voters can check their registration status, polling place location and what’s on their ballot in both English and Spanish.

Harris County election worker Jose Vasquez prepares mail-in ballots to be sent to voters Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Houston.
Harris County election worker Jose Vasquez prepares mail-in ballots to be sent to voters Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Houston.
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Having the right information could make the difference between having your voice heard or having your voice silenced, Senecal warned, pointing to several cases across the United States.

Voters in three Atlanta-area counties received ballots that included the wrong local races. Election officials said the problems stemmed from confusion over jurisdictional changes after redistricting, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

North Little Rock voters and local officials said they were “blindsided” when Pulaski County, Arkansas, reduced the number of polling places in the community by 19 to 89, and some worried they now will have to travel farther to vote, a local CBS affiliate reported.

McHenry County Board members in Illinois warned in an op-ed that voters received postcards from the county with incorrect polling place information, which they said did not account for redistricting.

State lawmakers in Florida and New Hampshire have yet to approve new redistricting maps, which could mean voters would cast their ballots at different polling places for the general election in November than they did for the primary earlier in the year. Voters in New Jersey already have voted in two elections this year that used different political maps.

Additionally, Republican officials in several Pennsylvania counties began removing ballot drop boxes just days before the state’s May primary, while changes to mail-in voting rules in Texas prompted officials to reject more than 12% of ballots in the March primary.

Still, the level of confusion during this primary season pales in comparison with 2020, said Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania state director for All Voting is Local, a voting rights organization. Early in the pandemic, and before vaccines were available to fight the coronavirus, U.S. elections faced a poll worker shortage, a reduction in polling places and an unprecedented expansion in voting by mail—a method that increased voting access for millions of Americans, but led to logistical hurdles for local election officials not used to the high volume of absentee ballots.

But despite the easing of pandemic obstacles, there has been “a waterfall of misinformation” over the past two years, he said, saturating voters with myths about widespread voter fraud and a rigged electoral system. Now is the time for local election officials to emphasize that they are trusted sources for election information.

“What we need to do is trust our election officials, because they have our backs,” he said.

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In Sarpy County, Nebraska’s fastest growing community, Election Commissioner Emily Ethington wanted to ensure voters knew their polling places likely had changed after redistricting redrew precincts following the 2020 census. The county added 29 precincts after the population increased by 20% since 2010.

In addition to sending every voter a postcard with their new polling place location—a common practice nationally—she worked with the county’s communications team to share the message online. The county made a major push on Twitter, reminding voters almost daily to check their polling place in the weeks ahead of the primary. Additionally, the county put up signs outside of polling places with a QR code, directing voters to the county’s polling place locator app.

“It was just one of those big pushes that I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned,” she said. “I wanted to reach all of our voters.”

The effort was successful, she said. Her county issued only 200 provisional ballots during the state’s primary earlier this month, which she said is lower than she expected in the first post-redistricting election for her community of over 120,000 registered voters.

It is important that local election officials don’t simply rely on postcards to get polling place and voter registration information to voters, said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan association that supports lawmakers.

The level of confusion that Underhill has observed this year from primary voters is normal, she said, especially considering redistricting. The trick, she said, is for state and local election officials to find ways to reduce it through better designed postcards, text messaging, robocalls, email campaigns and traditional and social media strategies.

“Election officials do all they can to make the election process easy for voters,” she said. “At the same time, it’s good for voters to check that information before they head out to the polls.”

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