Tammy Ljungblad/The Kansas City Star via AP

I'm The Mayor Of Kansas City, And I Know Firsthand That We Need To Prioritize Voter Access

Mayor Quinton Lucas reflects on the temporary confusion, and why fighting for voter access is crucial on every level

By Mayor Quinton Lucas

My mom didn’t vote for the first time until the 2000 presidential election — when, as a teenager, I pressed her to cast her first ballot. She was 40 years old. She was also a single mother to my older sisters and me, relied on public transit to get to and from work every day, and even with two jobs, couldn’t always make rent.

She told me she’d never voted because she didn’t think it mattered, because she’d seen election after election, and politician after politician, come and go without feeling any substantial improvement had been made for families like ours.

Early yesterday morning, I arrived at my polling place to vote — the same place I’ve voted for the past 11 years, including several times for myself. After handing the poll worker my required form of identification, I was told that they “could not locate me in the system,” thus, I could not submit my ballot.

Luckily, this ended up being a minor, resolvable error. Within minutes, our local Election Board called to inform me that that someone had inadvertently entered my name incorrectly in the system. I don’t begrudge the poll worker for making a minor mistake — frankly, I’m tremendously grateful to all who woke up early and stayed late yesterday to volunteer at the polls. We need to continue encouraging public engagement like this.

Still, this experience underlined a significant problem in America’s election system, which extends much beyond rectifiable human error. So much of the partisan and inflammatory national discourse surrounding our election systems neglects to acknowledge the barriers that impact good, hardworking Americans who simply want to exercise their right to participate in our democratic elections.

To create a fairer and more accessible election infrastructure, we must look to the following:

Automatic voter registration. 16 states and the District of Columbia have implemented automatic voter registration. This policy allows states to automatically register individuals to vote each time they interact with a state agency, such as a DMV, unless they affirmatively decline to have their information updated. It also has been shown to reduce the likelihood of registration error, which reduces waiting times at polls and makes it less likely that what happened yesterday happens to others in the future. And it saves taxpayers money, since it allows states to synthesize voter registration systems with other identification systems like driver licenses and ID issuance, saving money on unnecessary paperwork, mailings and other updates.

Same day voter registration. While automatic voter registration would ensure that most people will be able to register, there will always be individuals who may not be registered because they have yet to interact with a government agency — for example, young people who may not have a driver’s license or who have not otherwise interacted with the state. In Missouri, potential voters are required to register to vote almost a month before an upcoming election. Many folks who want to vote may not realize an election is coming up until the deadline, and they shouldn’t be penalized for that. Missouri is one of 29 states that does not allow for same day voter registration, which, in turn, has been shown to reduce turnout by up to 14 percent, as compared to states that do.

Early voting. Missouri is one of only 10 states that does not allow some form of early voting, which enables individuals to either mail in ballots or stop at dedicated polling locations in advance of election day. This helps reduce long polling lines by spreading voting out over multiple days and provides more flexibility for those with rigid schedules — including hourly workers, parents, those without driver’s licenses or who need assistance getting to the polls, and more. It also would help folks caught in situations like I found myself in yesterday: If all voters had the option to vote early, it would give them time to resolve any issues and come back to the polls another day to cast their ballots.

Enfranchisement of all voters. 11 states currently ban convicted felons from voting, and Missouri is one of 22 states that ban those convicted of a crime from voting until after they have completed probation or parole. A major challenge we face in Kansas City, and in many communities across the country, is helping individuals successfully transition out of incarceration. Restricting these individuals from voting sends a harmful, discouraging message: That society will never welcome them back and they’ll never have the chance to redeem themselves, even after they’ve served their time. This is personal for me — I’ve volunteered in prisons since I was a law student because I believe that everyone has the chance to become a meaningful contributor to our communities. Our failures as a society to help people transition leads directly to cycles of crime, poverty, and violence in many of our cities, and is something I face every day as mayor.

We’ll continue advocating to our state and federal officials to implement policies that will help make it easier for Kansas Citians and all Americans vote. On the municipal level, we’ll continue urging all residents to make their voices heard at the polls.

Voting does matter. Last year, Kansas Citians went to the polls and voted in a new mayor — me — and a new slate of City Council members. The decision our voters made is why we’re able to make all public buses fare-free in Kansas City. It’s why we’re able to pardon misdemeanor marijuana convictions in Kansas City. And it’s why we’re able to ensure that renters don’t have to live in filth and with mold in Kansas City.

I hope our work, which prioritizes the very issues that would’ve helped families like mine when we relied on public transit and experienced bouts of homelessness, encourages all — especially young moms like mine when she first voted 20 years ago — to show up and make their voices heard.

As I returned to my polling place yesterday afternoon to cast my ballot (successfully, this time!), I thought back to the events that had transpired earlier that morning. Not so much what happened inside the polling station, but what happened after.

On my way out of my polling station the first time I tried to vote, I accidentally bumped into a woman on her way in to vote.

It was my mom — at the polls, before sunrise.

Courtesy Kansas City Mayor's Office

Quinton Lucas, 35, is the 55th mayor of Kansas City and the youngest Kansas City mayor in more than 100 years. Follow him on Twitter: @QuintonLucasKC