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PSN 2013 Election Reform Roundup: Wins and Losses in the Fight for Democracy
Leila Pedersen on June 13, 2013 - 2:03pm
With 2013 legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this is the first in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different policy areas across the fifty states.
Following last year’s devastating attacks on voters’ access to democracy, conservatives have held true to their mission to make voting harder in a number of states. Thankfully, in response to previous threats, progressive advocates and legislators came together this year to support a proactive, positive agenda for reform. As a result of coordinated campaigns, many states were successful in passing legislation that protects the right of eligible citizens to register and vote.
Below are some of the highlights of 2013 state legislative sessions, including both positive legislation that expanded voting rights and could serve as models for other states, as well as attacks on voters that will set states back in the fight for an inclusive and representative democracy.
2013 Victories: Modernizing Registration, Expanding Early Voting, and Restoring Voting Rights
In 2013, legislators from both sides of the aisle came together to support legislation to modernize election and enhance voter access. A total of 45 states introduced 195 laws to make voting easier, a number of which are still pending. At least 10 states introduced bills that would relax existing voter ID or proof of citizenship laws, but only Oklahoma was successful in passing such legislation, including military IDs as acceptable proof of identity for voting purposes.
In a coordinated effort to bring elections into the 21st century, three states (Colorado, Nevada, and New York) introduced omnibus bills that mimic reforms found in the federal Voter Empowerment Act introduced by U.S. Rep. John Lewis (GA) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY). In one of the most celebrated wins of the session, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Colorado Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act which includes a number of provisions that will make it easier for state residents to register and vote. After years of advocacy on this issue, strong bipartisan support ultimately gave this bill the strength it needed to make it to the governor’s desk. The legislation will allow Colorado to join other states by expanding access to mail ballots and allowing voters to register on Election Day. Additional reforms include portable registration, which makes it easier to move, cast a ballot, and have it count; the elimination of the state’s “inactive” voter rule, which labels voters inactive after missing just one election; and allowing 16 and 17 year olds to preregister to vote. County clerks — election administrators from both parties — compromised with lawmakers and advocates in order to pass reforms that work for voters and help administrators conduct elections fairly and efficiently. Colorado’s bipartisan, comprehensive election reform package and the manner in which advocates organized to get it passed should be seen as a model for other states.
Two states (Virginia and West Virginia) joined the 15 states that already have laws allowing eligible citizens to register to vote online. Online registration also passed both chambers of the Illinois legislature and now sits on Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk, where he is expected to sign the bill into law. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also signed legislation that allows voters to update existing registration records electronically. Texas came close to passing online voter registration, but the legislation ultimately died due to procedural issues.
Early voting has been widely praised for reducing long lines on Election Day and granting voters the flexibility to cast their ballot in person before Election Day. The number of voters who cast their ballot before Election Day at early voting centers in-person rose dramatically in 2012. In response, lawmakers in more than 20 states introduced legislation to enact or expand in-person early voting. Legislation championed and signed by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley will expand early voting and allows eligible citizens to register and vote on the same day at early voting centers. Florida also expanded early voting, after having seen it cut so drastically that voters waited in line for hours on Election Day in 2012. After an early voting measure passed both chambers in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the measure calling it “hasty, counterproductive” and, at a cost of $25 million, too burdensome for taxpayers. (In a blatant abuse of political power, Gov. Christie later turned around and scheduled a $24 million special election to replace deceased U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg.) Although Minnesota fell short of enacting in-person early voting, the state did pass no-excuse absentee voting, which allows all registered voters to access and cast a ballot by mail prior to Election Day.
Although felons in Vermont and Maine never lose their right to vote, the other 48 states and District of Columbia have widely divergent rules about when and how felons regain the right to vote. In a surprising move by conservative Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginia resolved to streamline the process by restoring voting rights for felons who have completed their sentence and satisfied state conditions.
As more states move toward modernizing their registration and electoral processes, we expect that some will pass legislation piece by piece while others will opt for more comprehensive reforms as in Colorado. Regardless of the pace at which states implement reforms, every state can do something to improve the registration process by encouraging elections to keep pace with modern technology. Additionally, lawmakers should strive to champion policies that encourage civic engagement among disenfranchised communities, making their voices heard and represented on Election Day and beyond.
Conservative Attacks: Suppressing and Restricting the Vote
Even in the midst of extraordinary progress, the attacks to civic participation have anything but ceased. Voter ID legislation continued to propagate in states across the country in 2013. True the Vote, a conservative group “dedicated to eradicating voter fraud,” issued a report claiming that Voter ID laws actually increased turnout rates in 2012 – findings that were later debunked in a report by FairVote that revealed huge methodological flaws in the original study. Although polls show that most voters favor voter ID laws, they also show that voters do not think it should be a priority, and that public support drops the more the laws are explained. Despite the adverse impact such laws have on turnout, especially among historically disenfranchised voters, Virginia, North Dakota, and Tennessee passed laws in 2013 that require voters to show photo ID at the polls. Arkansas also passed a restrictive ID law after the legislature overrode the Governor’s veto. Strict ID laws in Missouri passed the House, but did not move to pass before the legislature adjourned.
States with Same Day Registration (registration during early voting periods) and Election Day Registration (registration on Election Day) lead the nation in voter turnout. Despite the reform’s direct link to expanding democracy, at least seven states introduced bills that would roll back registration opportunities this year. Montana’s legislature decided to leave the decision to the people, who will vote on a referendum to repeal Election Day Registration in 2014.
Early voting also took a hit in Nebraska, where the legislature reduced the number of days voters can vote early in person. And Indiana passed legislation that authorizes challengers to demand additional proof of identification beyond what is already required to register and access a ballot at the polls.
Many state legislatures have yet to adjourn and are still considering a wide variety of reforms that would result in the dramatic disenfranchisement of eligible voters. After solidifying itself as a battleground state in 2012, North Carolina is facing a coordinated assault led by conservatives in the state who put partisan politics above democracy. Extreme legislation has been introduced in the state that would undo years of progress: bills requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls, reducing the number of early voting days and eliminating Sunday voting, eliminating same day registration, getting rid of straight-ticket voting, and even levying a “democracy tax” that is nothing more than a poll tax that penalizes students and their parents if their student registers to vote in her college community. These policies, promoted by conservatives, target specific types of voters, such as young people and minorities, and make it harder for historically disenfranchised voters to get to the polls and cast a ballot. (To learn more about voter suppression efforts in North Carolina, read this fact sheet from our friends at Democracy North Carolina.)
Similarly, Wisconsin is currently fighting against an omnibus voter suppression bill that attempts to require voter ID, cut early voting, and generally make it more difficult for residents to vote. Thanks to some amazing work done by advocates, it appears that strategic amendments may succeed in eliminating the most egregious components of this bill.
On a brighter note, many states are still considering positive electoral reforms. Initially hesitant, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell is now supportive of a Same Day Registration bill that would allow voters to register through Election Day. The New York General Assembly passed early voting legislation but it is expected to face opposition in the Senate. Pennsylvania’s Senate also passed an online registration bill which, even if it doesn’t pass the House this year, has a good chance of being re-introduced next session. In an ambitious move toward automatic registration, Oregon is still considering HB 3521 which would work with public service agencies to send all eligible Oregonians a postcard notifying them that they are registered to vote. Voters may opt out of registration by simply mailing the postcard back. If passed, advocates expect registration rates for newly eligible voters to go from 7 percent to 93 percent.
Until Congress commits to doing the work of modernizing elections and protecting disenfranchised communities from suppression and deception, electoral reform will be left up to the states where voting laws are as diverse as the legislatures themselves. As legislatures adjourn, progressives are looking forward to 2014 to continue the fight for freer, fairer, and more accessible elections at the local, statewide, and national levels.