THE BUZZ 3: Voting Barriers

By on October 18, 2016

How alleged snafus in state databases are discouraging Latinos from voting.

161019buzz3_origJACKSON HOLE, WY – Some Latinos and other naturalized citizens are facing hurdles at the voting booths in Teton County, which could impact local elections where margins are particularly slim. In an October 16 letter to Wyoming State Secretary Ed Murray, written on behalf of three U.S. citizens, Teton County resident Sharon Isabel Zumel alleged some registered Latino voters are being asked at the polls to prove their citizenship through multiple forms of identification. In Wyoming, a registered voter does not need to show an ID to vote.

“The most disconcerting consequence of this situation is that two of the three individuals who are qualified to and desired to vote did not do so in the August 2016 primary because of an additional burden of proof,” Zumel wrote.

According to Teton County clerk Sherry Daigle, the problem arose because Wyoming’s voter laws are now based on identity, not on residency. “You used to be able to get a driver’s license in Wyoming without proving you are a citizen,” Daigle explained.

The federal REAL ID Act of 2005 established new standards for state-issued driver’s licenses. Since that time, drivers must provide proof of their identity, birth date, legal status in the U.S., social security number and address of residence.

However, the individuals Zumel wrote about had all either renewed or obtained their driver’s licenses since 2005. Why their names were on a list of people who needed to provide identification at the voting booth raises unanswered questions.

In 2016, the Wyoming Department of Transportation updated its database of drivers registered in the state to align with new laws.

Daigle estimated that 20 to 30 Teton County residents were identified by the state as having not yet proved their citizenship with WYDOT. The clerk’s office sent a letter to these residents notifying them that they would need to bring in a passport or other form of identification in addition to their driver’s license when it came time to vote.

It’s possible, Daigle said, that some drivers may not have updated their license to show that they are citizens. “Some of those folks had come in to the polls with Wyoming driver’s licenses, and WYDOT was saying they hadn’t yet proved citizenship with them,” Daigle said. “It upset a lot of people. But it was just a matter of WYDOT changing and updating their database.”

Zumel, however, thinks the databases are not accurate because the voters in question are citizens. “I don’t understand the request to show verification again if citizenship information has already been captured, especially for individuals who have voted in past elections in Wyoming,” she said.

In her letter to the secretary of state, Zumel noted: “The additional burden of proof is not being consistently asked of and required as a condition to vote by others who are qualified to vote.”

In Wyoming, a state with a small population, outcomes of local elections might have margins as slim as 10 or fewer votes, Zumel said. “Anything that impedes qualified voters from registering and voting is significant and can ultimately affect the outcome of local elections,” she wrote.

Zumel says she hopes Murray will inform the affected individuals of their eligibility to vote with enough time to vote in the November election.

“Our office has received the letter in question and are preparing a response to the letter’s questions and its contents,” said Will Dinneen, public information officer for Wyoming Secretary of State.

Local activists working with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance have made a concerted effort to register Latino voters in Teton County. The Alliance’s voter registration campaign succeeded in registering dozens of Latino voters.

According to the Alliance’s voter fellow, Maggie Shipley, being intimidated by the process of registering to vote has been the biggest hurdle for Latino voters.

“There are a lot of Latinos who are eligible to vote but may not be registered,” she said. “It’s not as accessible if you’re not a native English speaker.”

Housing activist and translator Jorge Moreno is one of several volunteer ambassadors for the Alliance’s #YoVotoPorMiFamilia campaign to register Latino voters. The campaign has registered at least 15 Latinos in Teton County. Among them is Moreno’s sister, Elena Moreno.

He says he was overcome with emotion watching Elena fill out the voter registration paperwork. “She told me I was more excited for her to vote than she was,” Moreno said. “It’s true, I was.  I was imagining myself registering to vote.”

Moreno is not a U.S. citizen and is unable to vote here, but that hasn’t dampened his passion for the cause. He noted that Mayor Sara Flitner won in 2014 by a margin of 40 votes. “I have my responsibility as a member of this community,” he said. “Voting is everybody’s responsibility. We can make a difference.”

Political engagement, he noted, is new for Jackson’s Latino population. “Many never talked about this kind of political stuff at the local level. Now it is a topic of conversation at the dinner table. People are asking their kids what they want for their future.”

The June Shelter JH rally was a turning point, Moreno said. The rally on the town square and subsequent attendance at a town council meeting marked a watershed moment when Jackson’s Latino community came out in force to talk about housing. “I think the desperation helped drive people to share their stories,” Moreno said.

Affordable, stable rental housing is the number one issue for Latinos, according to Moreno. “We have no security of housing,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We don’t know if a landlord will raise our rent 40 percent or put the property up for sale. We are given horrible rental contracts, or no contracts at all. There are no regulations to protect us.”

In Teton County, Latinos make up 15 percent of the total population, according to the 2015 U.S. Census. If local demographics correspond to state demographics compiled by the Pew Research Center, Latinos comprise 7 percent of the total eligible voters in the county, or approximately 1,600 voters, a sizeable voting bloc.

These numbers will soon rise as a crop of younger Teton County Latinos reach voting age, Moreno noted. “They want a place they can come back to after college. They love Jackson.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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