What Kind of Year Has It Been for Election Laws?

By Project Vote October 6, 2014
New report shows support for reform is growing,  but not fast enough to help most voters this November.
New Project Vote report shows support for reform is growing, but not fast enough to help most voters this November.

WASHINGTON, DC — With Americans heading to the polls in just four weeks, a new report from voting rights group Project Vote shows that many beneficial election reforms were proposed in 2014, but few voters will find it easier to cast a ballot on November 4.

“The state of voting in America is far from peaceful,” Erin Ferns Lee writes in Election Legislation 2014: Legislative Threats and Opportunities. “To get to the polls this November, voters will have to clear new hurdles from election laws and court rulings that went into effect in 2014, proving that the fight for equal and unencumbered access to the ballot remains as vital as ever.”

The year began with the January report of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), which recommended several common-sense reforms designed to make voting more convenient, including early voting and online registration.

Many states did introduce legislation in 2014 to implement these and other voting improvements, but these proposals were met with strong partisan resistance, and few of the bills passed.

Meanwhile, 20 states proposed more restrictive voting policies, and a few states actually went backwards, eliminating or curtailing convenience voting policies that were already in place.

Some key findings from the report include:

  • In 2014, 33 states introduced bills that could help make voting more accessible for eligible Americans; only eight states passed beneficial new laws or resolutions, however.
  • Early voting, one of the key reforms recommended by the PCEA, was proposed in seven states; only two states (MA and MO) passed bills into law.
  • Eleven states introduced legislation to implement online registration, another of the PCEA’s recommendations, with bills passing in MA, MN, and NE.
  • Twelve states proposed same-day registration policies, to allow an eligible citizen to register and cast a ballot at the same time, but only Hawaii passed a new law.
  • Twenty states introduced more restrictive voting bills, and six passed laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote. These include cutbacks to early voting in Wisconsin and Ohio.
  • Partisan lawmakers continue to push strict voter ID laws, with 11 states proposing new photo ID requirements. None of these passed in 2014, but legal battles continue in NC and TX, and WI reinstated its controversial law just in time for the November election.

“In this election year there were many proposals to improve voting, but the political climate in most states appears to make it difficult to pass pro-voting reforms,” said Lee, who monitors election legislation in all 50 states for Project Vote.

There are some positive signs coming out of the 2014 legislative sessions, including increased interest in encouraging young people to vote, and a growing consensus on the need to restore voting rights to former felons. But there is also growing concern over the erosion of voting rights that has resulted from last year’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, which weakened the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The Voting Rights Amendment Act was proposed in Congress to put back some of the civil rights protections of the VRA, but it has yet to pass. A number of states proposed initiatives to urge Congress to take action on this issue, and four states proposed bills and resolutions to adopt their own voting rights protections. Illinois residents will vote in November on adding an explicit right to vote to the state constitution.

According to Lee, the debate in legislatures largely comes down to a battle between the exaggerated concerns over “voter fraud”—the pretext for more restrictive laws— versus concerns over the very real threat of discrimination and disenfranchisement.

“While maintaining the integrity of elections is an important element of our elections system, the reality is that politicians are only focused on preventing the least common fraud: voter impersonation,” Lee says in the report.

Unlike “voter fraud,” however, “voter discrimination is known to persist in modern-day America, and speaks to why federal voting protection is the top issue in voting rights,” writes Lee.

In Election Legislation 2014: Legislative Threats and Opportunities, Lee summarizes the content, status, and potential impact of bills introduced in 2014. You can read and download this new report here.
For more information and interviews, please contact Michael McDunnah at 202-905-1397 or mmcdunnah@projectvote.org.