Legislative Threats and Opportunities Update

By Erin Ferns Lee January 21, 2016

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Last week, in his final State of the Union Address, President Obama indicated his interest in modernizing our election system so that more Americans can vote, implying—correctly—that some states are doing the exact opposite today.

“We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder,” he said, later promising to “travel the country [and] push for reforms that do just that.”

While the President did not state which types of policies he would endorse, his Presidential Commission on Election Administration—established in 2014 to assess best practices to improve Americans’ voting experience—might be a clue. The PCEA recommends states adopt popular policies like online voter registration and early voting, which are important policies to help more citizens register and vote. But, at the start of the year, several states are still intent on restricting access to the ballot with the proposal of voter ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements.

Project Vote has been monitoring the state legislatures to see exactly what kind of voting rights policy trends are emerging. More than half of all states are convening in the first month of the new year and we’re already seeing a hint of the threats and opportunities in voting rights to come.

Opportunities in Voting Rights

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Automatic voter registration, which gained significant attention in 2015, is by far the most popular policy that lawmakers pushed to consider in 2016. Illinois lawmakers recently expressed interest in becoming the third state to enact AVR with the purpose of improving voter participation in the state. New York is also looking at being the next AVR state: Gov. Cuomo announced his support for automatically enrolling voters when they apply for driver’s licenses.

“The key to reforming our government is engaging people in the democratic process,” he said. “We already know government is of the people, by the people, for the people. So why do we make it so difficult for the people to participate?”

As of mid-January, at least 28 bills are under consideration in 13 states.

Learn more about best practices for automatic voter registration here.

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Online voter registration is actively pending in Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Washington. Ohio’s 2015 Senate Bill 63 may soon be picked up again at the urging of Secretary of State Jon Husted. Project Vote submitted testimony in support of OVR in Ohio Tuesday.

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Restoration of voting rights continues to gain momentum as the broader issue of criminal justice reform gets the national spotlight. New bills are pending in Florida, New Hampshire, New York, and Virginia. Notably, advocates in Maryland are pushing the General Assembly to override Governor Hogan’s veto of a 2015 bill that would have restored voting rights to 40,000 Marylanders. Project Vote stands with national and Maryland groups in support of expanding voting rights to more citizens.

Threats to Voting Rights

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Considering the xenophobic rhetoric heard in today’s presidential debates, Proof-of-citizenship is the subject of new bills in at least two states, Florida and Massachusetts. Florida Republicans are pushing bills that they hope would alter federal voter registration rules: the bills, among other provisions, urge Congress to require voter applicants to submit documentary proof-of-citizenship with their federal voter registration forms, which currently require applicants to affirm citizenship under penalty of perjury.

Proof-of-citizenship policies have been challenged in courts across the country in recent years. Just this month, a Kansas court struck down the state’s “two-tiered” voter registration system, which required documentary proof of citizenship to vote, and prevented voters who registered with the federal form from voting in state and local elections. Project Vote also has a long history of fighting problematic voter registration laws in Kansas and Arizona: the most recent ruling upheld the usage of federal voter registration forms in those states.

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Voter ID is under consideration in Massachusetts, Missouri, New York and West Virginia. Although Missouri once had a voter ID rule struck down as unconstitutional, lawmakers keep pushing voter ID in the state. This time, a constitutional amendment, which would later require voter approval, is advancing in the Missouri House.

Conclusion

In just the first month of January, it’s clear that the trend toward modernizing the voting process continues to capture the attention of lawmakers: in addition to the above policies, we are also seeing preregistration, early voting, and same day registration bills being filed and introduced in the states. But the same old restrictive voting law battles keep cropping up and getting public attention as we head into the 2016 elections. The President’s statement that “we’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder” is one to consider as we push forward in this major election year.

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