Voting Rights Roundup: Arkansas GOP tries to block liberal ballot measures—but not conservative ones

Meanwhile, with Republicans largely in favor and Democrats divided on the issue, Arkansas legislators have also voted to put a state constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot that would loosen the state’s legislative term-limit system if voters approve it. Currently, legislators face a lifetime limit of no more than 16 combined years across both chambers. This amendment would instead establish a 12-year limit that would only require legislators to wait four years before being eligible for another 12 years.

Voter Registration and Voting Access

Colorado: Colorado Democrats have introduced a bill to establish a far-reaching system of automatic voter registration, and there’s a good chance it will become law since Democrats control all the levers of state government. The proposal would automatically register voters who conduct a driver’s license transaction with the state Department of Revenue, and it would also include transactions with numerous other state agencies and services, such as when eligible voters apply for Medicaid.

Similarly to Oregon’s first-in-the-nation system of automatic registration, Colorado’s proposal would give eligible voters a chance to opt out of registering after the fact by sending them a follow-up mailing at a later date, rather than at the point they conduct business with the state. Proponents of this “back-end” version of automatic registration have argued it will lead to greater registration rates, although given how new such systems are in other states, studies have yet to conclusively show the impact of each option.

Meanwhile, Colorado Democrats have proposed another bill that contains several smaller measures to further improve voting access in a state that is already a national leader on that front. One provision in particular would let 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the general election. More than a dozen states already allow that practice.

Delaware: Democrats and about half of the Republicans in Delaware’s legislature have passed a bill to create a 10-day period for in-person early voting starting in 2022, and Democratic Gov. John Carney says he’ll sign the measure. Delaware is currently one of the few remaining states that has no early-voting period and requires an excuse to vote absentee, so this change will make it much easier to cast a ballot for those who don’t have an opportunity to do so on Election Day.

Hawaii: With just three weeks left in 2019’s legislative session, both chambers of Hawaii’s heavily Democratic legislature have been busy advancing several election reform bills. Lawmakers in both houses have passed a bill to establish automatic voter registration via the state’s driver’s licensing agency and another bill to automatically “pre-register” eligible 16- and 17-year-olds via their schools, which would put them on the voter rolls when they turn 18. The Senate and House will have to reconcile their different versions of both bills before they can go to Democratic Gov. David Ige for his signature.

Meanwhile, Democrats have also passed a bill to implement instant-runoff voting (also called ranked-choice voting) in all special elections; that bill is separate from a more expansive measure Democrats passed only in the House to apply instant-runoff voting to all primaries and nonpartisan elections. That other instant-runoff bill would have a much bigger impact, but it hasn’t made it out of committee yet in the state Senate and appears less likely to pass.

Finally, Democrats passed a bill to implement universal vote-by-mail starting in 2022. However, as they have for the past several years, each chamber passed a different version, and it’s unclear if 2019 will be the year they can finally reconcile any differences and at long last send this bill to the governor.

Kansas: Members of Kansas’ Republican-run legislature have passed a bill with near-unanimous support that could make voting easier by giving county election officials the option of establishing “vote centers,” where voters would be able to cast a ballot at any polling place in their home county instead of at just their local precinct. The bill also requires election officials to notify voters if their signature on mail ballots do not match those on file and gives them a chance to correct any problems. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is likely to sign the bill into law.

New York: New York Democrats continue to build on the historic progress they’ve made this session on protecting and expanding the right to vote. Their latest bill, which has passed in committee, would set up a state-level version of “preclearance,” modeled after a key part of the federal Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. This bill would require all localities in the state seeking to change their voting procedures to first obtain approval from the state attorney general to ensure they don’t infringe on voting rights based on race, language, or other minority status.

While the Supreme Court effectively struck down the VRA’s preclearance regime in 2013 by invalidating the provision that determined which states and localities were covered, this state-level replacement could serve as a model way forward to protect voting rights. That’s because the U.S. Constitution gives states broad authority to run their own elections, and the proposal would apply to every jurisdiction in New York.

Automatic Voter Registration: New York University Law School’s Brennan Center has released a new report on the impact of automatic voter registration in the states that have adopted it since Oregon became the first to do so four years ago, finding a widespread increase in new registration rates in each jurisdiction they examined, with growth ranging from 9% to 94%. The extensive report looks at the different variations states have adopted in their automatic registration systems and uses statistical analysis to estimate the impact of these laws in isolation from other factors.

Voter Suppression

Arizona: Republicans have passed a bill in the state House that imposes new restrictions on early voting. Arizona’s in-person early-voting period normally ends the Friday before Election Day, but voters who have an unexpected emergency that prevents them from voting on Election Day are currently allowed to vote at a limited number of “emergency” voting centers in the days between Election Day and the cutoff for regular early voting. This bill would require such voters to sign a sworn statement that they have an emergency and would penalize any false claims as a felony, punishable by up to three years in prison.

This measure likely is a retaliation against Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who runs election administration in Arizona’s most populous county, which covers three-fifths of the state. In 2018, Fontes opened several emergency early-voting centers where voters were taken at their word if they said they were unable to vote on Election Day. Democrats have attacked this bill as a measure that could intimidate voters into not casting a ballot out of fear of criminal prosecution.

Indiana: Indiana Republicans have passed a bill that would make it more difficult to cast an absentee ballot by mail by lengthening the deadline to request a mail ballot from eight to 12 days before Election Day. Democrats opposed this new restriction. Republicans also voted down a Democratic-backed amendment that would have required every mail ballot to include a tracking number so voters could track the status of their ballots and confirm that they’ve been accepted.

Tennessee: Tennessee Republicans are quickly advancing a bill that could intimidate civic groups into no longer conducting voter registration drives, with a committee in the state Senate recently approving the measure. As we recently explained, this bill could put those organizing voter registration drives in a classic Catch-22: They could face criminal penalties for failing to submit inaccurate voter registration forms and civil fines if they do submit them.

The bill also bans paying signature-gatherers for each registration form they collect, meaning a campaign or civic group could only pay hourly or would have to rely on volunteers. This change would eliminate the financial incentive for registration drive workers to register as many voters as they can within a given time frame. Republicans hold huge majorities in both chambers, so there’s a good chance this bill will become law.

Felony Disenfranchisement

Illinois: Illinois Democrats have passed a bill in the state Senate along party lines that aims to ensure that citizens in jail who are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of a crime can exercise their right to vote by providing them with the opportunity to vote by mail. In Cook County, which is home to Chicago and more than 5 million people, the county jail itself would house a temporary polling place.

The bill would also require that inmates who are released from prison be informed of their voting rights and be given a voter registration form. While Illinois and more than a dozen other states don’t disenfranchise those who have served time and are no longer incarcerated (including those who are on parole or probation), many citizens with past felony convictions don’t realize their rights are automatically restored in Illinois upon release from prison, a problem this bill would help mitigate.

Electoral College

Ohio: Organizers behind a dubious ballot initiative to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact have withdrawn their proposed constitutional amendment, claiming they would have been unable to gather enough signatures in time. However, as we recently detailed, the national group pushing for the popular vote compact was not affiliated with this secretive effort and had cautioned that the push may have in fact been an attempt to subvert the cause of electing the president by means of a national popular vote.

Oregon: Democrats in Oregon have finally passed a bill out of the state Senate to add Oregon’s seven Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Compact. Even though the state House had repeatedly passed bills to join the compact in prior years, it had never before come up for a vote in the upper chamber due to opposition by longtime Senate President Peter Courtney. This year, though, Courtney finally allowed the measure to come to the floor, and it passed with most Democrats and even a few Republicans voting in favor. Democrats in the state House and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown are expected to soon approve the bill.

Redistricting

Mississippi: Mississippi Republicans have appealed a recent ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down the GOP-held 22nd State Senate District for diluting black voters’ power in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans are asking that the whole 5th Circuit hear their case en banc, where all judges on the circuit participate. Given that conservatives dominate the 5th Circuit, there’s a reasonable chance Republicans will succeed.

Despite the pending appeal, Republicans in the legislature have also passed a new law that redraws the invalidated district and one of its neighbors, though the measure includes a provision that makes its implementation contingent on the outcome of the case. If the ruling survives, the new law would alter the 22nd District and the neighboring 13th District, which is currently held by Democrats and is heavily black. The proposed revisions would increase the black population in the 22nd while still ensuring the 13th maintains a significant black majority, which should ensure that the 22nd can elect a Democrat with black voters’ support.

North Carolina: North Carolina Republicans just can’t quit their addiction to gerrymandering. Two state House Republicans have introduced a bill that redraws the city council in Winston-Salem, a city of a quarter-million people, in what appears to be a classic racial gerrymander. The bill would replace the city’s eight council districts with five districts and three at-large seats and would also make the mayor a voting member of the body. But the proposed districts heavily concentrate black voters into just two districts, which would diminish their voting power.

North Carolina Republicans have repeatedly used their legislative majorities to gerrymander every political institution they can find, from Congress to state courts all the way down to school boards, but they have faced defeats in court at almost every level. In fact, Republicans tried to gerrymander the city council in nearby Greensboro back in 2015, but a federal court blocked that plan from ever going into effect in 2017 because of—and this will sound familiar—its discriminatory impact on black voters.

Republicans could pass this bill despite losing their veto-proof majorities in 2018, since Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper lacks the authority to veto redistricting laws such as this. However, if this gerrymander becomes law, yet another redistricting lawsuit is all but guaranteed.

Election Administration

Election Administration: Daily Kos Elections has published a list of proposed reforms that secretaries of state around the country should adopt in order to improve transparency and modernize election administration. These proposals, while smaller in scale than reforms such as automatic voter registration, are nevertheless important and, crucially, can generally be implemented without the need for new legislation. Not only would these measures make our democracy more accessible, but they can also help improve public confidence in the integrity of our elections.

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