This piece is co-authored with Jonathan Brater, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
State legislatures across the country are hard at work expanding the right to vote. Already, more than 200 bills to improve voting access have been introduced in 45 states in 2013. Friday in Denver, Gov. John Hickenlooper made Colorado the latest to expand rights, joining Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia. More legislation is awaiting signature in Florida. To be sure, some states continue to push needless restrictions on the ability of citizens to participate in elections, and voters and their advocates must remain vigilant against any such efforts. Still, the trend is unmistakable: After years of backsliding, states are embracing free, fair, and accessible elections.
In many cases, the bills have enjoyed broad bipartisan support, another encouraging trend. Legislators are expanding access to the ballot in a variety of ways, from reducing the burden of voter identification requirements, to modernizing voter registration, to expanding early voting.
Colorado provides a great example. The Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act includes a number of provisions that would make it easier to register and vote. With the governor’s signature Friday, Colorado is now the 11th state to enact Election-Day registration, which leads to higher registration rates and turnout. The bill institutes a system of portable registration, so that when voters move they can still cast a ballot which will count. It also establishes a bipartisan election modernization task force, paving the way for future reforms. Further, the bill eliminates the problematic “inactive – failed to vote” status that led to voters being denied ballots in certain elections simply because they had failed to vote a single time.
The Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act is truly a comprehensive election reform bill. And the most promising development is the bipartisan way it was conceived. The Colorado County Clerks Association — the officials who actually run elections, and come from both political parties — worked with lawmakers, community groups, and election officials to hammer out a compromise that expands voting access and works for election administrators as well.
The Colorado example and the broader trend of expansive legislation are a welcome change from the 2011-12 legislative session, when partisan state legislatures across the country passed a wave of restrictive voting laws. Before the 2012 election, 19 states passed 25 laws and 2 executive actions that would make it more difficult to register and vote. But despite this effort to restrict voting rights, voters and civil rights advocates eventually prevailed. Thanks to the actions of citizens, courts, and the Department of Justice, by November 2012, all the worst measures had been reversed, blocked, or blunted.
Yet problems persisted on Election Day. Our outdated voter registration system, insufficient safeguards for voter access, and inadequate standards for voting machines and poll workers led to hours-long lines in many polling places. Commenting on the voters still waiting in line to vote as he gave his victory speech on election night, President Obama remarked, “we have to fix that.”
The positive developments in 2013 show this message is getting through. Even in Florida, which saw some of the worst voting restrictions and the longest voting lines, legislators passed a bipartisan bill aimed at decreasing wait times. Better than merely stemming the tide of restrictive laws, voters and election officials are now enjoying a positive wave of their own as more and more states move to expand voting access.
Unfortunately, some states legislatures continue to insist on making it harder for people to vote. Among these dubious outliers is North Carolina, which is considering bills that would reduce the early voting period, end same-day registration, make it harder for citizens who have completed their criminal sentences to regain their voting rights, and increase the powers of untrained “challengers” to try to prevent registered voters from casting ballots. Others would make the state’s voter ID law more restrictive by limiting the types of acceptable IDs and impose a tax penalty for parents of students voting in their college communities. These suppressive voting laws are exactly the type of backward-looking, partisan, and anti-participation moves that were rejected in 2012.
North Carolina is out of step with the times, and if it does not reverse course, it risks finding itself on the wrong side of history. The story of 2013, at least thus far, has been one of lawmakers moving to make it easier, not harder, for voters to participate in our democracy. Hopefully, the states not yet part of that story will start moving in the right direction.