How does the ACLU of Utah protect ballot access?
Our Voting Rights Coordinator Nikila Venugopal explains.
On the day of Utah’s presidential primary election, March 3, I found myself standing in the chilly morning air outside an empty library with just a clipboard, pen, and a couple of homemade signs. And I was several miles from the nearest polling place.
Was I in the wrong place? No, but over the next 12 hours I would meet many frustrated Utah voters who were.
Four weeks earlier, the ACLU of Utah had learned that the Weber County Clerk planned to open only one of the usual six in-person polling places for the primary election. Despite the county’s emphasis on mail-in ballots, we were concerned this change would disenfranchise many Weber County residents, especially rural and low-income voters, people needing language assistance or disability accommodations to cast a ballot, and those wanting to register to vote on Election Day.
In response, I recruited a team of volunteers to stand in front of every library where Weber County residents had previously been able to cast an in-person ballot. Starting early in the morning, our teams re-directed hundreds of confused voters while tallying their frustrations. Sadly, we also encountered many Weber County residents who were unable to vote because they lacked the time to drive to the county’s one remaining polling center located in downtown Ogden.
By the end of the day, our team of thirteen volunteers staked out five libraries, monitored the lines at the main Ogden vote center, and spoke to over 300 frustrated voters. I drove back and forth across the county to deliver supplies, fill schedule slots, and conduct media interviews. When I got home late that night, I had put over 130 miles on my car. Thanks to our volunteer-driven effort, we were able to compile many stories from people who could not vote in the primary election because they lacked the time, money, or gas to get to the county’s single vote center. We submitted our findings in a report to the Weber County Clerk and will continue to advocate for more accessible polling places for the general election in November.
Our March 3 deployment to Weber County, however, was not the first time our Voting Rights Campaign has mobilized to protect fair and straightforward ballot access for all Utah voters. Last November, I led a team of volunteer attorneys and community members to monitor a special election in San Juan County. In addition to monitoring the terms of our settlement agreement to assist voters living on the Navajo Nation, our poll watchers also discovered the county clerk inappropriately distributing partisan election materials inside the polling places.
A vote cast in Garfield County or San Juan County matters just as much as a vote cast in Salt Lake City. But the unique power held by county clerks over the mechanics of voter registration and ballot access often means that rights violations remain unseen and uncorrected by watchdog groups. To guard against any infringements, the ACLU and our partners must be on the ground across the state to uncover problems and dismantle barriers as they arise. We will also focus more attention on the influence of county clerks over the voting process and the importance of these positions for promoting fair and accessible ballot access.
For the pivotal election in November, we will need even more volunteers to protect voting rights in Utah. If you believe that voting should be accessible, I invite you to join us by signing up as a volunteer at the website below.
Join the ACLU of Utah Voting Rights Project www.acluutah.org/votingvolunteer
…from the Spring 2020 Liberty Reporter