As the United States prepares for pivotal midterm elections in early November, experts have warned that a wave of unprecedented and baseless allegations of electoral fraud during the 2020 presidential campaign continues to rage.
The allegations, which were constantly pressured by former President Donald Trump, have gained a foothold among state officials and lawmakers across the country over the past two years.
Several states have taken steps to strengthen voting restrictions, passing a plethora of laws labeled by rights advocates as promoting a racially charged legacy of voter resignation.
In Arkansas, ranked as the third highest barriers to voting of any state in the US by 2022 Cost of Voting Indexattempts to restrict access to the ballot box have had a strong effect, said Joshua Ang Price, a former election commissioner for the state’s largest district.
Price, also a former Democratic candidate for Arkansas Secretary of State, is now the deputy director of Arkansas United, a nonpartisan, immigrant rights group. Here Al Jazeera talks to him about what these laws mean for voters in the state.
Al Jazeera: What about voting access in Arkansas?
Price: I would say there is a strong argument that [Arkansas] is the worst state in the country for voters.
I was a former election commissioner in our largest county here in Arkansas. So I’ve seen a lot of these issues first hand and how the lack of policies, or how certain policies affect voters.
We are the last in the voter registry in the country… Election turnout was 54 percent [in Arkansas in 2020] and the national average was 67 percent… So half the state doesn’t vote.
Arkansas is also the first in the country to reject ballots, at 6.4 percent — the national average is 0.8 percent.
Note: In this interview, the terms “mail ballots” and “absence ballots” are used interchangeably. Some US states distinguish between “absent ballots,” for which only a few voters are eligible, and “mail-in ballots,” which can be mailed rather than in person and are generally available to all voters. In Arkansas, only ballots are available to voters.
Al Jazeera: What are the main barriers that voters face?
Price: [October 11] was the last day to register to vote in the state of Arkansas. So that’s where we really have a problem. You can only register to vote [up to] 30 days before the election.
We’re also one of eight states that don’t have online voter registration… So that creates a lot of barriers, especially for underserved communities and people living in rural areas.
When it comes to ballot entries, the sheer number of ballot entries that are rejected is for what I consider nitpicky reasons.
There is a voter’s declaration form that you must complete when you hand in your ballot and it will be checked against the information you have registered with the registry… And if something is wrong or missing from that form, your ballot will be automatically rejected.
For example: You forgot to enter your zip code, but everything else is correct. It has been rejected. You put today’s date in place of your birthday, just don’t think, and remember that a photocopy of your ID must be attached to the ballot – it will be rejected.
There is also a mismatch of signatures… If your signature does not match the one on the district office file, it may be rejected. This is highly subjective and different election commissions are stricter than others.
Some states have a recovery period where if you make a minor mistake in your out of office vote, you will be called and can correct it. We don’t have that option in Arkansas.
Al Jazeera: What happened to polling stations in the state?
Price: In the past two years, many polling stations in both urban and rural locations have closed.
I’ve been working here with a local newspaper to keep track of how many polling stations have closed in the past two years… We called all 75 counties and got the numbers from them.
As far as we know, they have closed 237 polling stations in the past two years. That’s probably underreported because we couldn’t get our hands on some provinces, and some provinces haven’t decided whether to close them yet.
So that’s 1,167 in 2020, up to 930 in 2022 — so 20 percent of polling stations in the state are closed.
You’re creating a kind of voice deserts, as I like to call them, across the state.
For an urban example, Pulaski County is the most populous county in the state, with nearly 400,000 people and home to the state capital, Little Rock. They’ve closed 24 and they’ve closed them mostly in communities of color that “don’t get a lot of traffic”.
We also saw closures in rural areas, most of them in the Delta region, which are predominantly African-American.
Since 2018, Van Buren County went from 21 polling stations to four. They told me in that county that about 20 percent of voters now have to drive 30 miles [48km] one way street, which is about a 45 minute drive on bad roads to vote. So that’s definitely an obstacle.
Al Jazeera: What do these barriers mean for voters in practice?
Price: [As an election commissioner], I had an 85 year old woman who had a massive stroke – this is during the pandemic – she gives a letter from her doctor and her husband… stating that her right side of her body is partially paralyzed and her signature is wobbly and will not match . Both letters are notarized. I was the only Democrat on the Election Commission with two Republicans and the two Republicans rejected it. Her ballot was thrown away.
In a more personal example, my mother is an immigrant from the Philippines. In 2019 I went to vote with my mother in local elections. We went in two separate rows.
I look at my mother and she waves to me. And I said, ‘Well, what’s going on?’ And she said, ‘Well, Josh, I showed my driver’s license. My name is on the ballot as a registered voter, but the polling officer said she needed to see my passport to prove I’m a real American.” That’s not legal.
Now anecdotally we talk to our immigrant communities, and this happens all the time. I told this story to members of different Asian communities, Latin American communities, and they said, ‘The same thing happened to me.’
When you think of someone coming from a country that may have some political instability, like my mother who left the Philippines during martial law… you’re not going to push back.
So it is clear that there is a lack of cultural competence in the training of pollsters.
Al Jazeera: How are voting rights groups combating these problems?
Price: We have a number of long-term and short-term strategies.
[In the last two years], we have challenged several laws. There was a law passed here in Arkansas that one person can only help six people a day at the polls.
We have large Hispanic communities, as well as places like Springdale with nearly 20,000 Marshallese population, and Fort Smith, which has 10,000 Vietnamese population, [and] Arkansas United volunteers would normally go to these busy areas and have translators to assist them. But once a volunteer reaches the six-person mark, they’re exhausted for the day. That is a huge challenge, because we don’t have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers.
We said the law was unconstitutional. We actually won that case [in August 2022]. But then unfortunately there was one appeal. And while an appeal is being filed, the Secretary of State said: [the state’s] go with the original rule for this election until we get the outcome of that appeal.
We were also part of a lawsuit last year with League of Women voters against four voter suppression bills… The bills were initially thrown out by a circuit judge, but upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
They contain a law regarding photo ID requirements in Arkansas. You need a photo ID to vote in the state, but there was some sort of solution. You could vote for the time being under penalty of perjury. You fill in a form… and it is checked at the municipal office. And if everything was right, your vote would be counted. Now they’ve taken that away. If you don’t have your ID on the day you vote, you won’t be able to vote.
We are going to continue this kind of effort, but in the short term we are trying to work with election officials to train more bilingual pollsters, who, unlike volunteers, can help an unlimited number of people.
We also look for immigrant communities and provide translated material with tips on voting.
Al Jazeera: What do these barriers in Arkansas mean to you in the context of wider voting issues in the US?
I think they weaken our democracy.
We have a lot of people in our immigrant populations who are Republican, so this is not a Democrat-versus-Republican thing. This is not a partisan issue.
This can affect someone of color just as easily as someone who is white, and it can affect people in rural areas and people in urban areas. So this is not a race issue.
This is [about] ensure that everyone in our state has equal and fair access to vote and have their voices heard, and that they have no barrier after barrier preventing them from exercising that American right.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.