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  • Michalina Kubicka

Barriers to Access: Rural Voters

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Happy VFP Blog Friday!*

*(we’re trying out some new branding, we’ll see if it sticks)

Today, we’re going to be sharing the latest installment of our series on barriers to voting access. We’ve taken a look at the barriers facing young, older, Native, and disabled voters, and today, we’re going to examine the barriers to voting faced by America’s rural voters.

(Justin Wan, Journal Star)

According to the Census Bureau, about one in five Americans (that’s about 60 million people) live in rural areas. Rural America is far from a monolith, but there are a series of set criteria that determine whether a place can be considered rural, including population density, land use, and distance from urbanized areas. Though each community is different, those living in rural areas tend to face similar challenges relating to transportation (difficult), mail delivery (slow), and public resourcing (poor) that make voting difficult in ways that don’t affect voters living in urban or suburban areas.

Polling Place Consolidation

Rural communities often bear the brunt of state budget cuts, especially when it comes to funding for election administration. For rural communities facing the pressures of shrinking state budgets, consolidation of polling places has become a popular (though ineffective) solution: in 2021 alone, three states (Montana, Iowa, and Georgia) have already passed laws reducing the availability of polling places.

The consolidation of polling places took on a rapid pace after the Supreme Court pared back sections of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Between 2012 and 2018, The Leadership Conference Education Fund identified a shocking 1,688 polling place closures across 13 states, all in jurisdictions that had previously been subject to preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That means that these closures likely would have been prevented by the Voting Rights Act as a discriminatory practice had it not been for the Shelby v. Holder decision.

It only makes sense that when the number of available polling places is reduced, the distance one has to travel to access a polling place increases. And accessing these polling places has indeed become an issue of distance: the size of rural districts can make transportation a challenge for voters trying to access their polling place (or to obtain the ID necessary to vote, an issue that is extremely prevalent in rural Native communities). Study after study has shown that distance to a polling place directly affects voter turnout: small distances can have huge detrimental impacts on a potential voter’s likelihood of showing up on Election Day.

Vote by Mail Restrictions

Rural communities have long relied on mail voting as a safe, secure, and effective means of casting a ballot when polling places are distant and inaccessible. Unfortunately, following an unprecedented expansion of mail-in voting in 2020, 2021 has seen state legislatures across the country sharply roll back the accessibility of vote by mail- much to the detriment of America’s rural voters.

According to a survey of voting restrictive laws by the Brennan Center, 2021 has seen at least 16 laws restricting mail voting passed in 12 states. These laws will make it more difficult for voters to cast mail ballots in a rather creative myriad of ways: six laws will shorten the time frame for voters to request a mail ballot, nine laws will make it more difficult for voters to return their mail ballots, three laws will impose stricter signature requirements for mail ballots, and three others will impose stricter or new voter ID laws for mail voting. Further, mail ballot drop boxes, which are a crucial resource for those rural communities where mail service is slow or unreliable (read: most) have been restricted by another four laws.

The assault on mail voting has affected the ability (and desire) of voters across the political spectrum to access mail balloting measures that were previously considered to be a reliable voting method, and is likely to continue to depress the use of mail balloting so long as the politically-motivated attacks continue.


What We Can Do

There are a number of organizations that provide transportation to the polls for rural voters: Souls to the Polls is an effort organized by Black churches that provides door-to-door transportation to the polls for voters across the country; similarly, Rideshare2Vote, provides free rides to voters, both to the polls and to their county ballot box.

But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there’s one real solution to the barriers to ballot access that rural voters face: the For the People Act. The For the People Act would ensure that rural voters in all 50 states have access to early voting centers that are convenient and accessible, accounting for the specific conditions faced by rural voters.

Thanks for reading, y’all! Talk soon.

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin

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