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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Voting laws differ by state, affecting the shape of Congressional districts and how easy it is to cast a ballot

A Lincoln County ballot drop box in Harrington, Wash., is pictured on Friday.  (Jonathan Brunt/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jayce Carral For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Who elects members of the House of Representatives?

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are elected by voters in their respective congressional districts, but geography and barriers to voting can affect how those representatives are elected.

Voter regulations determine who votes and who does not, said Mark Stephan, associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver. States have the power to implement their own voter qualifications, including when and how registration is possible. In Louisiana, citizens can register to vote starting at the age of 16 – although they cannot vote until 18 – but they must be registered 20 or 30 days before an election, depending on which voting method they will use.

States like New Hampshire and Mississippi were found to be some of the hardest in which to vote, according to the 2022 edition of the Cost of Voting Index. Those states are two out of only four that do not allow pre-Election Day in-person voting for all voters. Meanwhile, Washington was found to be one of the easiest states in which to vote. Along with in-person voting, Washingtonians can drop off their ballot, which is mailed to them a few weeks before an election, before or on Election Day. Washingtonians can register online or through mail at least eight days before an election or in person at any time, including Election Day.

There are also state-by-state laws that can restrict a person from voting, like those that do not allow felons to vote. In Virginia and Kentucky, felons permanently lose their right to vote. The ACLU’s Right to Vote campaign calls overly restrictive felon voting laws a relic of Jim Crow, as people of color are more likely to be arrested and convicted of felonies than white people. In Washington, people who were convicted of a felony are able to vote as long as they are “not in total confinement” under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections, according to a law signed in 2021 by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Launched after an attack on activists who were marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects a citizen’s right to vote and made the obstructions of voter registration illegal, including poll taxes and literacy tests.

In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that made it illegal to collect and deliver another person’s ballot in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. Those against the law argued that it discriminated against voters, specifically minority voters, who used third-party voting systems.

A state’s regulations determine how and when a person can vote, but geography can also have a big impact, Stephan said. The U.S. House of Representatives consists of 435 representatives, which is dictated by the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929. Each state must have at least one representative, and the number of representatives a state has depends on its population.

On the smaller side of the scale, states like Delaware and Vermont have one representative each, and as the most populous state, California has 52. Washington has 10 representatives, each representing their own district in the state. States with more than one representative can gain or lose a seat depending on how fast their population is growing, or shrinking, in comparison to other states. As a result of the last census in 2020, Texas gained two seats and Florida, Colorado, Montana, Oregon and North Carolina each gained one. Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and Illinois lost one each.

Each state draws its congressional districts every 10 years based on population information provided by the U.S. Census. Redrawing boundaries is meant to ensure each district has a similar number of residents. In Washington, redistricting is bipartisan, with two Democrats and two Republicans chosen by caucus leaders in the House and Senate. The Washington State Redistricting Commission is rounded out with a fifth nonvoting chairperson chosen, according to the state’s redistricting website.

When redrawing districts, there should be some coherence to it, Stephan said. Ideally, cities and towns should not be split into two districts, and rural areas with shared interests should also stay together. Famously, Chicago’s 4th congressional district is shaped like earmuffs that created a “super-majority Latino congressional district,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Partisan redistricting is legal and practiced by most states unless they have a nonpartisan redistricting committee, said Travis Ridout, professor at the WSU School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs. Twenty-one states use nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commissions. Washington uses a bipartisan commission.

Gerrymandering is the act of manipulating congressional boundaries to favor one party or class of people. But successful legal cases for proving gerrymandering usually include race, where districts were gerrymandered to suppress voters of color. Famous court cases finding commissions in violation of gerrymandering include Thornburg v. Gingles in 1986 and Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama in 2015.

Even in districts that are not gerrymandered, however, some voters can still feel like their vote does not matter, Stephan said. This usually occurs in districts that have a 70-80% majority with Democrats or Republicans and a small 20-30% of the other party.

“Here where I live … my congressperson will win his seat as long as he wants his seat,” Stephan said. “Mentally, you’re like, ‘I’ll vote but I’ll never win,’ or ‘I won’t even bother voting.’ ”

Ridout said he thinks there has been a rise of partisanship intensity, especially in the past 40-50 years. In 2020, the Pew Research Center issued a report finding that only 4% of registered voters planned on voting across party lines.

Stephan said there have recently been talks about ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference. This means voters would submit ballots with their first-choice candidate as well as their second and third. As of now, only Maine and Alaska have implemented ranked-choice voting for state and federal elections.

“Then we can better see what people think. Who they don’t want to vote for at all versus what they could find acceptable,” he said. “When you start to add in acceptability, it can change the whole dynamic of the race process.”