Legislative Threats and Opportunities Update

By Erin Ferns Lee March 14, 2016

Photo- BU Interactive News via Creative Commons

A lot has happened in the world of voting rights since our last update in January. Hundreds of election bills have been introduced, with some already passing or failing; primary elections are underway; and a federal election official bizarrely (and illegally) altered voter registration rules in three states. All the while, the drumbeat for making voting more accessible continues as we head into what looks to be an extraordinary election in November.

Following up on the messaging in his final State of the Union, President Obama went to Illinois to expand on his promise to support reforms that “make it easier to vote, not harder.” He told the Illinois General Assembly that modernizing voting with same day registration and automatic voter registration would “make our politics better.”

Unfortunately, politics and access to voting are related. It appears this election year is contentious, and not just because of the array of hateful rhetoric from leading candidates. Last month, voters faced new restrictions at the primary polls, raising concerns about voters’ access in what is the first presidential race without voting protections under the Voting Rights Act. And right now, some states are trying to upend voter registration and voting rules before November. But, many more are considering new rules to modernize voter registration or expand voting rights to people with past felony convictions.

Project Vote has been keeping an eye on voting rights policy trends in the state legislatures in 2016. And now, voters and advocates can easily monitor these bills. Our new bill tracking tool, in which we curate, analyze, and summarize voting rights legislation, is accessible to anyone who is concerned about making it easier or harder to vote in American elections.

Opportunities in Voting Rights

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Automatic voter registration is enjoying a significant surge in popularity following California and Oregon’s adoption of new laws in 2015. Since January, 23 states have introduced an astounding 80 bills that would, in some capacity, register to vote eligible citizens who interact with agencies like local motor vehicles offices. Project Vote is working actively in several states to support automatic registration efforts and advise on key legislative components.

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Increasing voter registration and turnout among underrepresented voters, especially young people, is always a topic of discussion in an election year. Preregistration, in particular, is known to increase the likelihood of voter turnout. Thirteen states have introduced 25 bills to allow 16- or 17-year-olds to preregister, so that they become automatically eligible to vote upon turning 18. Bills of note include Washington’s HB 1294, for which Project Vote submitted testimony.

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Criminal Justice Reform and voter disenfranchisement laws are major civil rights issues, as both issues disproportionately harm communities of color. Bills to restore voting rights to persons with past felony convictions have been introduced in 14 states.

In a victory for voting rights last month, Maryland lawmakers voted to override Governor Hogan’s veto of a 2015 restoration bill to restore the voting rights of 44,000 Marylanders. While the issue has generally picked up more bipartisan support in recent years, some Maryland voters reportedly didn’t take kindly to the new rules, a reaction likely sparked by high emotions in an election year.

Threats to Voting Rights

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Vocal anti-immigrant sentiments from several American politicians seem to be propelling the legislative trend to impose documentary proof-of-citizenship when registering to vote. Currently, all voter applicants must affirm citizenship under penalty of perjury, but a few states go further and a few more propose to follow suit. To date, four states have proposed the same types of strict documentary requirements that have been challenged in courts across the country in recent years.

In January, a Kansas court struck down the state’s “two-tiered” voter registration system, which required documentary proof-of-citizenship to register to vote, and prevented voters who registered with the federal form from voting in state and local elections. In February, the executive director of the federal Election Assistance Commission unilaterally permitted Kansas—as well as Georgia and Alabama—to require proof-of-citizenship from all voter applicants. This decision has been condemned by the Justice Department, and is facing legal battles from civil rights groups, including Project Vote.

In recent years, a slow-growing effort to undo the damage of restrictive laws, like proof-of-citizenship, have been cropping up in the states. This year, Arizona and Kansas have proposed to repeal or reduce the hardship of current proof-of-citizenship laws.

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Ever popular and contentious, voter ID is currently required in 33 states. This year, lawmakers in seven states propose to join the strictest of the voter ID states by requiring photographic, government-issued ID to vote in any election. Notably, Missouri—which once had a voter ID law that was struck down as unconstitutional—has a pending Senate bill to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The voter ID issue has also gained attention this year outside of the legislatures. Last month, a University of San Diego study was released, finding that strict voter ID laws could disproportionately suppress voters of color. Strict voter ID laws in Alabama, Texas, and Virginia all have been heard or will be heard in court before November. And, although the New Mexico legislature failed to pass ID this year, it didn’t stop another New Mexican municipality from adopting its own voter ID policy.

Conclusion

In this election year, we have seen an overwhelming surge of voting rights legislation that would improve voters’ experience. In addition to the beneficial policies outlined above, dozens of states have proposed to make the first step to voting—voter registration—more accessible to more citizens with same day registration and online voter registration.

Still, the effort to undermine our democracy with restrictive voting laws gains momentum. In addition to the burdensome voter ID and citizenship policies, we are seeing other rules that hamper the administration of elections in states like Virginia and Florida, where lawmakers attempt to pass sneaky laws that alter state voter registration forms. Meanwhile, Colorado and Wisconsin look to hamper or effectively end voter registration drives.

As we move further into the election cycle, there’s still opportunity to pass laws that help make our politics better, and hopefully, our democracy stronger.