This post was originally published at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy’s blog, ACS Blog.
The year before a major election has brought about a flurry of legislative activity impacting voter eligibility and election procedures. Each week, Project Vote tracks such legislation and voting-related news throughout the country. Our biannual Legislative Threats and Opportunities report summarizes and highlights the information obtained from three areas: our ongoing bill tracking effort, our work with local advocates and officials, and a compilation of information on related factors like the partisan makeup of legislatures and state election officials. The report provides an important snapshot of activity by issue area and by state so we can reflect on current trends and prepare for the future.
The good news: Recent policy trends favor voting rights expansion and election modernization over unnecessary restrictions that limit access to our democracy. Comparing the rates of both bill introduction and successful bill passage, proposals expanding voter access far outpaced those seeking to limit and restrict the right to vote. While positive legislation covered many areas, from restoring voting rights for disenfranchised felons to providing early voting, online registration and automatic registration dominated the year.
Automatic registration leaped atop the priority list for many advocates and lawmakers. Oregon passed a law enabling the automatic registration of eligible residents using information collected by the state’s motor vehicle agency. An avalanche of registration modernization legislation followed, with California passing a similar law. While proposals vary in name and substance, automatic registration and electronic transfer policies seek to improve outdated processes and shift the burden now on citizens to proactively opt-in and maintain records in order to exercise a fundamental right.
If automatic registration is trendy, online registration is becoming the norm. This year, online registration laws passed in three states, while two states launched online registration sites through administrative action. More states are expected to bring registration online in the coming year. Efficient and convenient, paperless registration sites are now available in a majority of states.
The bad news: While good laws were favored in 2015, restrictive policies still impede our progress. All points of election administration continue to face attacks and restrictions. Some areas appear neutral but could be problematic. For example, lawmakers contemplated bills to clean up voter rolls. Accurate rolls are important, but deliberate abuse and unintentional bad procedures can lead to the removal of eligible voters. Elected officials also promoted clearly harmful bills, such as those reducing early voting opportunities or revoking same day registration, despite the importance and popularity of such measures.
Lawmakers continued to introduce bills that require documentary proof of citizenship in 2015. Perhaps because similar laws are involved in legal battles, new bills did not advance. However, we anticipate further legislative activity as concerns about immigration policy and noncitizens are increasingly imbedded in political discourse. These laws are problematic because, like photo ID, people from underserved poor and minority communities are less likely to have the specific documents required. And, like photo ID, they are a solution in search of a problem. A noncitizen has virtually no incentive to cast a single illegal vote considering the severe penalties that could result, including losing the chance to naturalize and deportation.
Lawmakers also promoted bills requiring voter photo ID or narrowing the types of accepted ID. These measures gained less traction than in prior years and related legal challenges continue to wind through the courts. In one case, a judge found that 600,000 registered voters in Texas alone lacked the forms of ID required to vote. Given that there is almost no evidence of voter impersonation, it may be increasingly difficult to justify such laws.
The ugly? This year, we honored the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, but next year’s presidential elections will be the first without important VRA protections in place. In 2013, the Supreme Court dismantled a section of the VRA used to stop policies that unfairly target or impact minorities in advance instead of through long court battles after the damage is already done. Because elections laws are intrinsically linked to political participation, 2016 looms large with the possibility of increasing legislative activity. While recent trends supporting voting rights are promising, we must be prepared to fight for fair access to the ballot box next year and beyond.