News Politics

Registering to Vote in a Technological Desert

India Amos

Online voter registration is not universally available across Appalachia.

From western New York to northern Mississippi, the Appalachian region is united by a variety of attributes, including a hilly terrain and a consistently low voter turnout during election season.

With voter registration periods drawing closer, structural barriers that permeate the region may once again stop Appalachians from casting their ballot before they can even manage to register.

On a national scale, voter registration methods have been updated and diversified in recent years. As of January 2017, 34 states offer local residents the option to register to vote via online voter registration (OVR), a paperless option for individuals who would like to complete the process from a computer. The accompanying table shows compiled information pertaining to online voter registration accessibility throughout Appalachia, and of the 13 states that comprise the region, all but Mississippi and North Carolina present residents with the option to register online. Online registration was designed to increase voter participation by making it more accessible, but this particular avenue remains inaccessible for a sizable portion of Appalachians.

Online voter registration is not universally available across Appalachia for two major reasons. The first pertains to the identification requirements that an individual must present in order to fill out the online application. As shown in the table, the majority of states in Appalachia require voters to register with a state-issued identification number, which can be found on a driver’s license or a non-driver state identification card.

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The documentation needed to procure a state-issued photo-identification card is statistically more difficult for Black, Latino, elderly, and low-income individuals to produce. Elderly and low-income individuals make up a substantial portion of the rural demographic, making these populations particularly unlikely to be able to utilize the online voter registration system.

The second major obstacle for Appalachians hoping to utilize the online system comes from infrastructure issues that exist throughout the region. National surveys indicate that rural residents are less likely to use the internet than their urban or suburban counterparts, and Appalachian areas are no exception. While 78 percent of rural communities across the country use online networks, Appalachia lags behind the rest of the country in terms of internet speed and overall accessibility. More than two million people in the Ohio Valley alone live without a quick, consistent internet connection.

This digital isolation does not come from a lack of wanting. Due to Appalachia’s “mountainous topography,” it can be difficult to install cell towers and DSL options that can connect rural communities to an online network.

Entrepreneurs and community members have noticed this technological disparity and are taking independent steps to extend internet access into the farthest corners of Appalachia. National and regional internet providers have not devoted many resources to these local regions, giving individuals such as North Carolina-based entrepreneur Travis Lewis ample space to install their own wireless towers. Similar local efforts have surfaced in other parts of Appalachia, such as the movement in Letcher County, Kentucky. In this county, local residents are working to bring broadband internet access to their own community by filling in the technological gaps left by government subsidies.

While these local efforts are working to improve internet access to specific Appalachian communities, there have been no region-wide efforts to improve access, making it difficult to predict which rural communities would have access to internet and could utilize the online voter registration system.

For individuals who live in these technological deserts, the only ways to register to vote would be to submit a paper application—a process that oftentimes requires individuals to print and mail in a form. Some states, such as Maryland, recognize how this could be a difficult feat to accomplish for those who have limited internet access; individuals who struggle to have an internet connection may not own their own printer. As a way to redirect some of the burden from the voters, Maryland offers a system in which people can call and request to have paper applications mailed to them, and the voter then receives a blank form in the mail.

Voters who cannot register via the online voter registration system or traditional mail must register in-person at government offices and public libraries, which is the most time-intensive option. While the approved registration locations are extensive and vary from state to state, individuals must coordinate their own transportation to and from these registration sites. In rural communities throughout Appalachia, public transportation options are scarce, leaving people to rely on personal transportation if they wish to register to vote. Not everyone can afford a car, though, and Appalachia’s transportation system has suffered due to the region’s uneven terrain and general unreachability, rendering certain neighborhoods and communities disconnected.

In West Virginia, the only state located entirely within Appalachia, the Secretary of State’s Office noticed in 2016 a gap in voter participation and encouraged residents to register. However, this type of verbal encouragement is the extent of formal action that has been done to motivate individuals to register. While in many parts of the country there are grassroots efforts to get out the vote, in the Appalachian region, that’s largely not been the case. Without addressing the region’s physical and technological unreachability, Appalachian voters will continue to encounter difficulties when trying to register to vote in upcoming elections.

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