Voting rights roundup: Proposed Ohio ballot measure would enact sweeping expansion of voting rights
● Ohio: Voting rights advocates in Ohio have filed a proposed ballot initiative that would amend Ohio's constitution to implement a massive expansion of voting accessibility if it qualifies for the ballot and passes.
The initiative would enact same-day voter registration; automatic registration through Ohio's driver's licensing agency; a guarantee of four weeks of early voting including the two weekends before Election Day; a ban on tightening Ohio's voter ID law to exclude non-photo IDs; and a requirement to conduct routine audits of election results.
Ohio currently requires voters to be registered 30 days before Election Day, which is the longest deadline allowed by federal law. Furthermore, successive Republican secretaries of state have made Ohio ground zero for voter registration purges over the past decade, leading to a major 2018 Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for Republicans in Ohio and other states to effectively purge eligible voters for simply exercising their right not to vote. Voters who aren't informed that their registration was invalidated would have no recourse if they show up to vote on Election Day, but adopting same-day registration would ensure they could still vote.
The initiative is being spearheaded by the ACLU and its allies. A similar coalition spearheaded a comparable ballot initiative that Michigan voters approved by a 2-1 landslide in 2018. If the proposed Ohio amendment is approved by Republican state Attorney General Dave Yost's office for circulation, proponents would need to gather roughly 443,000 signatures to get on the ballot and then win support from a majority of voters in November.
● Maryland: Democrats have introduced a bill to require the state to inform citizens with a felony conviction of their voting rights when they are released from prison and give them a registration form. Maryland currently disenfranchises voters with felony convictions while they are incarcerated, but those citizens automatically regain their voting rights upon release (except for people convicted of buying or selling votes, who remain permanently disenfranchised). However, some of these citizens may not be aware of their voting eligibility status, which this bill aims to fix.
State Senate Democrats passed a similar bill last year, but House Democrats failed to approve it.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Illinois: Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed a new law requiring that high school students who are of voting age be given two hours off from school to be able to vote in any election, including primaries and special elections. This provision is similar to another state law that mandates that employers must give employees two hours time off to vote, a practice that a number of other states have also adopted.
The second law will fix New Jersey's permanent absentee voting list by allocating several million dollars of funding to local governments so that they can handle the higher volume of mail ballots. Under this system, election officials must mail an absentee ballot in all future elections to any voter who cast an absentee ballot in recent elections, unless they opt out. New Jersey's Council on Local Mandates blocked the law shortly after Election Day last year on the grounds that it did not provide funding to local governments to implement the measure, making the new funding necessary.
● New York: Democratic lawmakers have unveiled a bill that they're calling a state-level version of the federal Voting Rights Act, intended to restore some of the protections that the Supreme Court's conservative majority stripped away in its infamous 2013 ruling gutting a key part of the federal VRA.
That decision did away with the system known as "preclearance," whereby states and local governments with a history of discriminatory voting practices (mostly in the South) had to obtain approval from the Justice Department to enact any changes to voting laws or procedures.
The New York bill would revive that preclearance regime by mandating that all localities in the state obtain approval from the state attorney general for any changes to elections or voting, with a requirement that they demonstrate such changes won't have a discriminatory impact on any racial, ethnic, or language minority groups.
The bill also makes it easier to wage litigation against "at-large" voting systems in local governments that dilute minority voting power. Such litigation would prompt those localities to switch from electing bodies such as city council on a citywide basis to electing them by district, which would give minority groups a better chance to elect their preferred candidates.
Democrats hold full control over state government, meaning there is a good chance this proposal will become law.
● Virginia: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill to remove the excuse requirement to vote absentee, which would significantly expand opportunities to vote before Election Day in one of the few states that lacks extensive early voting or excuse-free absentee voting provisions. Notably, half of the Republican caucus voted for the bill despite the fact that the GOP had previously blocked such proposals from consideration when they were in the majority. With Democrats now in control of both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office, this bill appears very likely to become law.
Democrats have also voted to make Election Day a state holiday by replacing an infamous holiday that honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. However, while eliminating a holiday that honors those who committed treason in defense of slavery is laudable, substituting an Election Day holiday isn't guaranteed to make it easier to vote and could have unintended negative consequences.
Colorado Democrats considered but ultimately abandoned a similar bill last year after hearing from voting rights advocates that it could impose a burden on some individuals. Notably, low-income voters often face a harder time voting, and they're more likely to rely on public transportation that may not run on a normal schedule during a state holiday. Retail workers also often can't take off work during holidays, and working parents with children may need to find childcare options if schools are closed.
In Colorado's case, the state had already made voting much easier by adopting universal voting-by-mail, automatic and same-day voter registration, and early voting. Virginia Democrats should adopt these reforms—and in fact, they're already pursuing some of these policies and are holding a hearing on automatic registration this coming Tuesday—since they would avoid creating unintentional disruptions for working people on Election Day.
● Colorado: Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill that would end the practice of "prison gerrymandering" by counting incarcerated people for redistricting purposes at their last address. Colorado Politics reports that the state has "more than 20,000 people incarcerated," meaning the impact would likely be most consequential at the local level in jurisdictions that house a prison. Democrats hold full control of state government, but it's unclear if there is support for passing this bill into law.
● New Jersey: Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has signed a new law will end the practice of "prison gerrymandering" by counting incarcerated people at their last address for redistricting purposes instead of where they are imprisoned (and can't even vote). The change will likely shift representation from less-urban places with prisons to urban areas with large communities of color.
The law's scope, however, is limited, as it only applies to legislative redistricting and not congressional or local redistricting. The impact on congressional redistricting would have likely been minimal, but the impact on local elections could have been considerable in localities with prisons, given the smaller size of such districts.
● Kentucky: Republicans have passed a bill out of the state Senate along party lines to make the state's voter ID law more stringent by requiring a photo ID in order to vote. After a public outcry, Republicans dropped two key provisions from the bill, the first of which would have required eligible IDs to have an expiration date, effectively banning most college student IDs because they lack such dates.
The second provision would have required a voter lacking photo ID to cast a provisional ballot and follow up with election officials for it to count. Instead, voters who don't possess an ID can sign a sworn affidavit and be able to vote a regular ballot.
Proponents of the bill have, however, refused to delay the implementation date beyond November's elections. Voting advocates have warned that a hasty implementation could spawn confusion that deters eligible voters from casting ballots.
● Michigan: The Democratic Party organizations suing Michigan in part over a Republican-backed law restricting same-day voter registration have announced that they are dropping that portion of their lawsuit after the state issued new guidelines that would let local clerks effectively circumvent much of the restriction.
The law in question only allows same-day voter registration on Election Day and two weeks prior to take place at a local clerk's office instead of each polling place. However, the state's new guidelines give clerks the option to designate temporary satellite offices that may be used for same-day registration, effectively opening up more locations, including at polling places themselves.
Democrats are continuing to sue in state court over Michigan's policy of refusing to automatically pre-register citizens when they obtain a driver's license if they are younger than 17-and-a-half, which would mean they would be added to the rolls once they reach voting age. The suit is also challenging what the type of documentation voters must produce for same-day registration during that final two-week period up to and including Election Day.
● Minnesota: National Democratic Party organizations have filed a lawsuit in state court challenging Minnesota's restrictions on who can assist voters with completing or submitting their absentee ballots. State law prohibits a person from aiding more than three voters with these tasks, which Democrats argue is a violation of both the state constitution and federal law.
Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon warned a state House committee earlier this month that these restrictions were likely to get struck down if they weren't repealed. With Democratic appointees holding a majority on Minnesota's Supreme Court, there's a good likelihood that he'll be proven right if the case proceeds that far.
● Missouri: Following a recent state Supreme Court ruling that gutted most of the GOP's voter ID law, a Republican legislator has introduced a bill to implement what would possibly be the most restrictive state voter ID requirement in the country.
Under the law that was just struck down, voters could sign a sworn affidavit if they lacked photo ID, but the court invalidated that option because the affidavit was "contradictory" and "misleading." Voters can now simply present a non-photo ID such as a bank statement or utility bill.
However, this latest proposal would scrap that alternative altogether by mandating that voters present an unexpired Missouri driver's license, non-driver ID card, or a federal government-issued photo ID such as a military ID. If they don't have one, they can vote a provisional ballot that would only be counted if the voter returns with a valid photo ID the same day at the same polling place.
The bill also ends a requirement for the secretary of state, a post held by Republican Jay Ashcroft, to notify the public about changes to voter ID requirements, exacerbating voter confusion and potentially deterring some voters from voting.
Ashcroft advocated for the new legislation in a recent hearing, and with Republicans firmly in control of state government, there's a strong possibility that it could become law. However, the recent Supreme Court ruling was 5-2, with one of the court's three Republican appointees siding with the four Democratic appointees who make up a majority on the bench. A further legal challenge could therefore have a chance to succeed once again if Republicans pass a stricter ID requirement into law.
● Wisconsin: As expected, the conservative group trying to require Wisconsin to purge 200,000 voter registrations has appealed a recent Court of Appeals decision to the state Supreme Court. The plaintiffs are seeking to overturn the appellate court's ruling that had temporarily blocked a lower court order to initiate the purge while the appeals process remains ongoing. The high court has a 5-2 conservative majority, but one of the conservatives recused himself and another sided with the court's two liberals earlier this month after the plaintiffs asked the justices to fast-track the case, leading to a 3-3 deadlock that resulted in a denial of the request to expedite the matter.
Voting Rights Expansions
● New York City, NY: Democrats, who hold nearly every seat on New York's City Council, have introduced a bill that would grant voting rights in local elections to noncitizens with lawful permanent resident status, which could give between 500,000 and 1 million people voting rights if it passes, according to proponents. With a majority of council members sponsoring the bill, it stands a good chance of becoming law.
A handful of small localities across the country have granted voting rights in local elections to noncitizens with permanent resident status, but a similar move by New York City would dwarf all the others in terms of impact. Furthermore, because of its prominence in the media, a successful implementation of this policy could influence other jurisdictions to adopt it as well.
Proposals like this have a long history in U.S. politics. For much of the 19th century and up until around 1920, many states granted a measure of voting rights to noncitizens who had permanently immigrated to the country. It's also the norm in many European democracies: In the European Union, EU citizens have the right to vote in elections for local government and the European Parliament in whichever member country they reside, and noncitizen residents have some degree of local voting rights in more than a dozen European nations.
● North Carolina: A bipartisan panel of three judges on the North Carolina Court of Appeals has unanimously rejected a legal challenge by the good government group Common Cause that sought to invalidate power-grabbing legislation that Republicans passed in a 2016 lame-duck session less than two days after the measures were introduced. The plaintiffs had argued that the GOP's legislative blitzkrieg was executed so quickly that it violated the state constitution's guarantee of the people's right to instruct their legislature, but the court rejected that argument.
The case has its origins in the 2016 elections, when Democratic Roy Cooper ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and broke the GOP's grip on state government. In response, Republicans passed a law that removed the governor’s power to appoint a majority on the state Board of Elections and its county-level counterparts. McCrory’s administration had used its control over the boards to cut early voting and remove polling places from college campuses and heavily black communities. Removing Cooper’s power to appoint new majorities blocked Democrats from reversing those cuts.
Republicans also passed another law subjecting Cooper's cabinet appointees to confirmation by the GOP-dominated state Senate, a burden they had not placed on McCrory. Furthermore, they slashed the number of executive branch appointees from 1,500 to just 425, a reversal from the increase in such positions Republicans had pushed through after McCrory replaced his Democratic predecessor in 2012.
This madcap legislative session also saw the GOP transfer powers from the state Board of Education, whose members are chosen by the governor, to the state's superintendent of public instruction, a Republican elected official.
In addition, they eliminated the governor’s ability to appoint members to the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees, instead granting that power to the legislature itself. The new GOP-appointed UNC board, which manages a 17-campus system that educates 240,000 students, recently found itself embroiled in a major scandal over its decision to give a white nationalist group $2.5 million to take custody of a Confederate monument that was toppled by protestors on the flagship UNC campus.
The Board of Elections power grab was eventually struck down, passed by the GOP once more and then struck down yet again multiple times, but Cooper finally was able to appoint a Democratic majority after the 2018 elections. However, most of the GOP's other power grabs are still in effect, as is another provision of the lame-duck legislation that made elections for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals elections partisan again after a period during which they were nonpartisan (a move that backfired on Republicans in 2018).
Had this lawsuit prevailed, all of these other changes would have also been struck down. The plaintiffs are still considering whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. The high court has a 6-1 Democratic majority, though that does not offer a guarantee of a different outcome.