Voting Rights Roundup: Virginia Dems pass state voting rights act and many other voting protections

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With the addition of the bills that Northam signed this week, Virginia Democrats have adopted a number of voting access reforms during this year’s legislative session, including legislation that will:

These reforms build on the successful expansion of voting access policies in 2020 after Democrats regained full control of state government in 2019 for the first time in two decades, which included laws to:

Under Republican control, Virginia had long ranked among the worst states for voting access, but the adoption of all of these policies will go a long way toward making it one of the better states for voting.

Redistricting

New York: After a member of New York’s bipartisan redistricting commission recently filed a lawsuit seeking to compel Democratic lawmakers to adequately fund the commission, Democratic legislators added a provision to the state budget bill currently under consideration that would allocate $4 million for the commission, which would likely render the lawsuit moot if it becomes law.

Campaign Action

Virginia Beach, VA: A federal district court has struck down the electoral system that Virginia Beach uses to elect its City Council, finding that it illegally diluted the strength of Black, Latino, and Asian American voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Under the invalidated system, every voter citywide was allowed to vote in every council district’s race, regardless of where they live, as well as for three at-large seats. The decision did not mandate any specific remedy, and council members said they are waiting before deciding on their next step. Prior to this ruling, Virginia Beach was already facing a new requirement to adopt a district-based system for electing its local government under a law that state Democrats enacted last month.

Since the VRA’s adoption, a large number of local governments across the country have been required to switch from winner-take-all at-large elections to district-based elections. Doing so in Virginia Beach, the largest city in the state, could result in some districts being drawn to guarantee that Black voters, who make up about a fifth of the electorate, are able to elect their preferred candidates in some seats.

Voting Access Expansions

Colorado: State House Democrats have passed a bill that would increase the availability of Spanish-language voting materials by lowering the threshold for determining which jurisdictions have language-minority populations large enough to require multilingual voting materials. The measure now goes to the Democratic-run state Senate.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, counties with at least 10,000 adult citizens or 5% of the total adult population who speak another language and lack sufficient proficiency in English are required to offer multilingual voting materials. The Colorado bill would implement a lower threshold of 2,000 adult citizens or 2.5% of the total adult population. If enacted, 22 of Colorado’s 64 counties, including many of its largest, would be required to offer Spanish voting materials instead of the current four.

Delaware: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill along party lines that would establish automatic voter registration through Delaware’s driver’s licensing agency. The measure also gives the state election commissioner the power to extend automatic registration to other agencies. However, the bill wouldn’t take effect until either two years after it becomes law or five days after the election commissioner certifies that the systems needed to implement it are operational, whichever comes first.

Iowa: Iowa’s Republican-run state Senate has failed to advance a constitutional amendment ahead of a key deadline that would have automatically restored voting rights to most people with felony convictions once they had served their sentences. The failure marks the third year in a row that Republicans senators have refused to pass the measure despite winning bipartisan approval in the GOP-run state House.

Kentucky: With its approval in the state House, Kentucky’s Republican-run state legislature has passed a compromise election reform bill almost unanimously that would implement several major changes to voting, sending it to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear for his expected signature. The bill would:

  • Establish three days of in-person early voting;
  • Authorize counties to set up “vote centers” where any voter in the county may cast their ballot instead of just at traditional local polling places;
  • Allow absentee ballot drop boxes;
  • Notify voters and let them fix problems with their absentee ballot signatures;
  • Allow voters to request absentee ballots online;
  • Require routine audits of election results;
  • Mandate that new voting machines produce a paper trail record; and
  • Ban voters from collecting and submitting an absentee ballot on behalf of another voter, with limited exceptions for family members, election officials, and postal workers.

Maryland: Both chambers of Maryland’s Democratic-run legislature have passed a bill largely along party lines to expand the number of countywide early voting centers, where any voter within a county may vote. The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who does not appear to have indicated whether he supports it, but Democrats can override a potential veto.

Under current law, every county is required to have at least one early voting center, while counties with at least 125,000 registered voters must have three. More are required in larger counties, with a minimum as high as 11 in counties with 450,000 or more voters. The proposed bill would change that formula by requiring two voting centers for counties with more 50,000 or more voters, with the highest tier set at 13 vote centers in counties with 600,000 or more voters.

Mississippi: Following Mississippi Republicans’ refusal to take up a bill to establish early voting, along with GOP Gov. Tate Reeves’ promise to veto an early voting bill if one ever reaches his desk, voting advocates have announced they will try to put an initiative on the 2023 ballot to create a minimum 10-day early voting period that includes two Saturdays. The proposal also requires one early voting location per every 30,000 registered voters in a given county or one for every 10,000 voters in a municipality. Proponents would need to gather roughly 106,000 signatures within a one-year period to qualify for the ballot.

Mississippi has long been a contender for the worst state in the country when it comes to voting access, and it was the only one last November that both didn’t allow early voting and required an excuse to vote by mail. However, while voters in many states have turned to ballot initiatives to pass democracy reforms like this one in the last decade, Mississippi had been absent from that list until now.

Montana: Montana’s Republican-run state House has reversed course and narrowly rejected a bill expanding Native American voting access that it had previously given preliminary approval to just days earlier, with some of the Republicans who had originally sided with Democrats to support the legislation flipping their votes. The bill would have codified a 2014 legal settlement by requiring elections offices on Native reservations within one month of Election Day, among other provisions.

New Jersey: Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has signed a bill passed by Democrats in the legislature to create an in-person early voting period. Currently, New Jersey voters may request and cast an absentee ballot in-person, which is somewhat akin to early voting, but this bill will make early voting even easier by making it similar to Election Day voting. The newly adopted law establishes 10 early voting days for November general elections, six days for presidential primaries, and four days for other primaries.

Murphy also said that he wants lawmakers to pass same-day voter registration, which may be the most important voting reform that Democrats have yet to pass since regaining full control of state government in 2017. However, state Senate leader Steve Sweeney and his allied bloc of moderate-to-conservative Democrats who hold significant power in the upper chamber are sharply resistant to same-day registration, with Sweeney saying it would “never” pass.

North Dakota: North Dakota’s Republican-run state Senate has unanimously voted to send a bill to GOP Gov. Doug Burgum that would make it easier for college students to obtain the documents needed to vote by enabling public colleges to issue students a document containing “the institution’s letterhead or seal.” Under the state’s voter ID law, voters who have a valid driver’s license but whose address may not be up-to-date may vote if they have a supplemental ID such as a utility bill, but students don’t always have access to such documents, something this bill seeks to remedy.

Voter Suppression

Arizona: Republicans have passed a bill in a second state House committee that would require voter ID for absentee voting, following the measure’s earlier passage in the state Senate. Republicans in the Senate have also passed another bill in a committee that was previously approved by their House counterparts that would ban officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballots to all voters.

However, Republicans in the lower chamber unexpectedly cut off debate on Thursday and stalled a bill that would purge voters from the state’s ostensibly permanent mail voting list if they don’t vote in a four-year period and respond to a single mailer notification. Roughly 75% of Arizonans are on the list, which automatically mails them a ballot in every election, but a recent analysis by the progressive group Arizona Wins found that 127,000 people voted in 2020 after not voting in 2016 and 2018, one-fifth of whom were Latino. Those voters would have been at risk of being purged had this bill been law in 2020.

State House Republicans only enjoy a 31-29 majority, meaning they can’t afford any defections in order to pass the mail voting purge bill, though the measure could yet be revived.

Arkansas: Republicans have passed a bill in the state Senate that restricts who may linger near polling place entrances, which opponents say would mean banning the distribution of food and drink to voters waiting in line to vote. Separately, Republicans in a Senate committee voted against eliminating the last Monday of early voting, though that bill could be brought up again at a later date.

Meanwhile, in the state House, Republicans passed a bill along party lines that would ban election officials from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications to all voters. The measure would also require absentee ballot signatures to be matched against each voter’s signature on file, which could increase the chance that officials might make subjective decisions that wrongly disenfranchise voters.

Georgia: Georgia Republicans’ passage of a major new voting restriction law last week has continued to generate more fallout this week as the number of federal lawsuits against it swelled from the one filed last week to four in total now. These newest lawsuits (here, here, and here) were filed by several advocacy groups, including those working on behalf of Black and Asian American voting rights, and they are challenging a number of the law’s provisions as discriminatory in violation of federal law.

The backlash wasn’t just limited to voting rights advocates and litigation, and Major League Baseball announced on Friday that it was withdrawing its summer all-star game from the Braves’ stadium in the Atlanta suburbs in protest of the new law’s passage, depriving the region of the economic activity that comes with hosting such major sporting events. Calls for major businesses to boycott Georgia have divided voting advocates, with Democrats such as Georgia Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff plus 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams opposing the MLB’s withdrawal but nonetheless praising them for taking a stand against voter suppression.

Kansas: Republican legislators have given their preliminary approval to bills that would strip state judges and executive branch officials such as Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of some of their powers over election procedures and impose new restrictions on absentee voting.

Responding to actions by Democratic executive officials in other states during the pandemic last year to improve voting access by extending key deadlines, altering election procedures, and agreeing to legal settlements, one of the Kansas GOP’s bills would prevent the judicial and executive branches of state government from altering election laws or entering into legal agreements known as “consent decrees” without legislative approval. The bill additionally imposes disclosure requirements for groups sending information about mail voting to voters.

Another Republican-backed bill would restrict who may collect and submit a completed absentee ballot on behalf of another voter, including making it a felony for anyone to return more than five ballots. That bill also bans the secretary of state (currently Republican Scott Schwab) from extending deadlines for absentee voting; requires absentee ballot signatures to match the one officials have on file, which could mean officials who lack formal handwriting-analysis training could arbitrarily disqualify voters; and bans local officials from accepting private money for election funding from groups such as philanthropic organizations.

Finally, Republicans in a state Senate committee have advanced a bill that would impose a tighter deadline for returning absentee ballots, requiring that they be received by election officials by Election Day rather than merely postmarked by Election Day and received up to three days afterward, which is the current law. Had this bill been in place in 2020, 32,000 such voters would have been disqualified, meaning thousands of those voters may not have been able to vote another way.

Minnesota: A federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by voting rights advocates that challenges Minnesota’s absentee ballot witness signature requirement as it pertains to the pandemic can proceed, though in his decision, he sided with Republican defendants to narrow the plaintiffs’ claims. A state court in a separate lawsuit had previously suspended the witness requirement last year due to the coronavirus, but it remains in effect for future elections.

Montana: State House Republicans have passed a bill that eliminates Election Day voter registration by setting the registration deadline at noon on the day before, sending the bill to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte for his expected signature. State Senate Republicans also voted to send Gianforte a bill that enacts a stricter voter ID requirement, including a provision that disallows the use of college student IDs unless students have a supplemental form of identification such as a bank statement.

North Dakota: State Senate Republicans have, by a wide margin, rejected a bill that their House counterparts previously passed that would have cut North Dakota’s early voting period from 15 days down to nine days.

Texas: Texas’ Republican-run state Senate has passed a bill over Democratic opposition that seeks to restrict voting access and undermine the integrity of the voting process by allowing partisan poll watchers, including those motivated by Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories, to more easily intimidate voters.

The bill, which now goes to the House, would cut extended early voting hours such as the 24-hour early voting location used in Houston’s Harris County last year, ban drive-thru voting, and prohibit local officials from mailing absentee ballot applications to all voters—efforts that Democratic-run jurisdictions used or tried to implement to promote access to voting during the pandemic last year.

Republicans removed some of the more extreme proposals from the bill, such as requiring people with disabilities to provide documentary proof of their disability before being able to qualify for an absentee ballot, but its remaining provisions on partisan poll watchers are especially troubling.

The bill would grant party-appointed “poll watchers” wide freedom to move about polling sites as well as the power to record video of any voters they “suspect” of unlawful activity, enabling white poll watchers to harass voters of color. Poll workers and voters, however, would be restricted from recording the supposed poll watchers.

While the voting restrictions were the main purpose of this bill, it did include two provisions that won bipartisan support: a requirement that counties replace their paperless voting machines with paper ballots or machines that produce paper records, and a system for letting voters electronically track their absentee ballots.

Wyoming: Republican state senators have passed a bill to create a voter ID requirement, sending the bill to GOP Gov. Mark Gordon for his expected signature.

Ballot Measures

North Dakota: State House Republicans have rejected by a wide margin a constitutional amendment that would have raised the threshold needed for voters to pass ballot initiatives to 60% from the current simple majority. Republicans in the Senate had previously passed the amendment, which is part of the GOP’s years-long quest to make ballot initiatives harder after voters used them to establish a state ethics commission in 2018.

Senate Elections

Kentucky: Republican lawmakers, with the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have overridden Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a bill that will require the governor to fill future U.S. Senate vacancies with an appointee from the same party as the departing senator. Currently, Kentucky’s governor is a Democrat while both of its senators are Republicans, meaning this new law would prevent Beshear from replacing either McConnell or fellow Sen. Rand Paul with a Democrat if either were to leave office.

The bill would allow the party committee of the departing lawmaker to send a list of three names to the governor, who would be required to pick a replacement from that list.

Ever since Beshear’s narrow 2019 win, Kentucky Republicans have advanced a series of moves to strip him of his executive power, and this new law is part of the same partisan effort to constrain Beshear’s authority. However, despite the GOP’s self-interested motives, this new system is already used in many states for legislative vacancies and a handful of states for Senate vacancies and better ensures the will of voters is respected.

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