Eric and Ivanka Trump learned this week they won’t be able to vote for their dad, Donald, in New York’s primary Tuesday. They didn’t register as Republicans in time. Trump was philosophical. “They were, you know, unaware of the rules,” he ruefully told Fox News. The story prompted chuckles in some political and media circles. But it also helped illustrate an ongoing truth: In 2016, America’s state-based election laws can confuse even the most interested voters. From a federal courthouse in Kansas City, Kan., Thursday, to Arizona and beyond, lawyers are arguing over how and when we vote. Voting rules are a confusing, contradictory hodgepodge from state to state and sometimes county to county, many experts say, often based more on perceived political advantage than fair exercise of the franchise. Consider: You can cast an early ballot in Kansas, but not in Missouri. You need a picture ID to vote in Texas, but not in California. In Colorado you can register on Election Day; in Arkansas, you must be on the registrar’s books 30 days before going to the polls.
In Oregon, starting this year, voters are automatically registered when they get a driver’s license or a state-issued identification card, a law that could make 500,000 additional citizens eligible to cast ballots. Voters in Oregon will be mailed a ballot, which they can fill out and mail back.
New York, on the other hand, requires primary voters to register by party months ahead of time — that’s what caused the Trumps’ headache. If the siblings lived in nearby New Hampshire they could have easily cast ballots for the GOP front-runner in that state’s primary. “It is a patchwork,” said Jonathan Brater, an election expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Voting requirements are even more confusing because state lawmakers can’t resist the urge to tweak the rules in election years, often to enhance the chances of electoral success for the party in power. Last year, more than 100 bills were introduced across the country to restrict access to registration or voting. At the same time, more than 400 bills were filed to enhance voter access.