Remember last year when we all cared about voting policies? Back then, newspapers were filled with updates on different states’ legal battles over strict voter ID—the laws that require photo identification to cast a ballot. Republicans pushed the laws, ostensibly to combat fraud, but Democrats and voting-rights advocates argued that the actual goal was to suppress likely Democratic voters, since poor and nonwhite communities disproportionately lack ID. With Republicans controlling an unprecedented number of state legislatures in the wake of the 2010 Tea Party wave, voter-ID bills began popping up across the country in 2011 and 2012. Similar battles emerged when some states tried to remove names from voter rolls too close to an election. Then there was early voting; Republicans, most notably in Florida and Ohio, cut back early voting days and hours, and voters in several Florida counties faced hours-long lines.
Then Obama won, created a commission to find solutions and everyone stopped paying attention.
But while the efforts to make voting more difficult have slowed, the overall fights on voting rights have continued this year. This year, however, it’s not just Republicans pushing measures—Democrats, who now control seven additional state legislatures and made significant gains in several more, are pushing through their own legislative agenda in places like Colorado and Maryland, while in Florida, there’s been an honest-to-goodness bipartisan effort to repeal some of the changes passed in 2011. Perhaps most exciting, there are now even areas where Republicans and Democrats agree. The next election cycle may seem a long ways off, but the laws being passed right now will likely have a major impact on just how fair, accessible, and trusted our future elections will be.
Here’s a look at what’s at stake across the states:
1. Voter ID
Voter ID laws didn’t fare well in 2012—four of the six strict voter-ID laws passed in 2011 and 2012 for the November elections were either held up by the courts or the feds. The arguments were usually the same; while conservatives argued that the laws guarded against fraud (though there’s no evidence in-person voter fraud is a widespread problem), voting-rights advocates said such measures would particularly hurt nonwhite voters. The numbers of who did or didn’t have ID were almost always controversial, and in Minnesota, voters actually struck down a ballot measure to implement a photo-ID requirement.
But the GOP isn’t giving up on the policy. In some states, it’s intensifying the push. Virginia passed a law last year that required some form of identification, though it included by photo- and non-photo options. But the state legislature passed a measure this year to make the law much stricter, eliminating the non-photo options. The Arkansas legislature similarly passed a strict voter-ID law, and then overrode Democratic Governor Mike Beebe’s veto. Perhaps most significant is North Carolina, once lauded for its voting policies. The GOP won both legislative chambers in the state in 2012 for the first time since Reconstruction, and promptly set about changing state election law. Voter ID has already passed the state House, and just about everyone expects the bill to become law.
2. Same Day Registration
Same day registration, which allows voters to register to vote on the same day they cast a ballot, has long been a popular reform among liberals. Most people who use the measure are already registered but neglected to update their information after moving. To many Republicans, however, the policy opens the door to more claims of fraud. Much like voter ID, there’s almost no compromising on the issue—but this year, Democrats aren’t holding back.
In Colorado, where they enjoy both a legislative majority and the governor’s office, Democrats pushed through a reform package that, in addition to offering vote-by-mail and early voting days, allowed people to vote on the same day they register. Maryland is also considering legislation to allow same day registration, prompting similarly partisan responses.
Meanwhile, in other states, Republicans are trying to get rid of the policy. The Montana legislature passed a law to get rid of same-day registration, and while the measure was vetoed, Republicans are putting the policy up for a popular vote in 2014. North Carolina’s legislature is also considering a bill to repeal the state’s current same-day registration policy during early voting.
3. Early Voting
For a long time, early voting seemed like a win-win to everyone. Giving people multiple opportunities to vote before Election Tuesday, seemed like a good idea, and 32 states, including plenty of conservative ones, put it into law. In states where the early voting included Sundays, African American voters in a number of states began organizing very successful “Souls to the Polls” trips after church. But as elections policy has become more partisan, the issue has become more fraught—and during the 2012 election, Republicans in Ohio and Florida took different routes to decreasing early-voting options. This year, we’re seeing that push continue: Nebraska’s GOP legislature successfully shortened the state’s early-voting period by five days and North Carolina’s new Republican majority is also trying to decrease early-voting options. When New Jersey’s Democratic legislature passed a law to allow early voting, Republican Governor Chris Christie promptly vetoed it.
But unlike voter ID and same-day registration, where there’s rarely bipartisan compromise, this year Republican legislators in Florida have reversed many of the restrictions they put in place for the 2012 election. After coming under fire for the long lines and harrowing experiences, lawmakers in Florida are actually adding back early-voting days and increasing the number of buildings that can serve as polling places. While the changes don’t go as far as many Democrats want, and for instance make Sunday hours optional rather than required, Democrats and Republicans did negotiate on the new legislation—a rare feat. Democrats are trying all they can to accomplish something similar in Minnesota, where Governor Mark Dayton has said he will only sign an early voting law that shows bipartisan support. Last week, a number of electoral changes passed the state House with a few Republican votes, and possibly more to come.
4. Online Registration
Because it’s so rare to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans on elections issues, online voter registration has become a favorite topic for advocates—and this year, even more states are adding the policy, and doing so along bipartisan lines. Going into the year, 15 states had approved online registration and Virginia and West Virginia have since joined the ranks. (Not all of those states have implemented systems yet.) New Mexico also passed a law allowing voters to update their voter information online, a significant move towards full online registration. Both liberals and conservatives supported these measures.
Republicans like that the policy saves money and cuts down on errors in the voting rolls. Democrats like how the policy increases access for people who move or need to get signed up for the first time. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state policy, there are currently 12 states still considering measures. In Pennsylvania, where the legislators warred over voter ID, the online registration passed unanimously through the Senate. GOP-dominated states like Texas and North Carolina are considering similar legislation, while liberal California debates expanding its online program.
5. Partisan Wars
The bipartisan enthusiasm for online registration offers a glimmer of hope for those tired of a political approach to election administration. David Becker, director of elections initiatives at Pew Charitable Trusts, hopes the move to embrace technology will grow to include data-sharing between states, so that a voter’s information can be easily transferred when he or she moves across state lines. Currently voter rolls are riddled with errors—individuals’ names linger on the lists long after they’ve died or moved. It opens the door to concerns about fraud, and also makes it harder to contact voters with necessary information. “Everyone regardless of where they fall [politically], cares about the integrity of the voter list,” says Becker. “We can document that these reforms do that. They can improve the system, satisfy voters more, create a more efficient process while actually saving money.”
Doug Chapin, who runs the Elections Academy at the University of Minnesota, says if the voter rolls can get more accurate, concerns about fraud and the need for voter ID may begin to ebb. “I’m not ready to say yet that online voter registration is going to make voter ID go away in the long term,” he says, but “it will give folks looking for a way out of the voter ID battle sort of a workable solution.”
Chapin also argues that the battle lines are no longer just between Democrats and Republicans, but also about issues that separate local elections officials from their statewide counterparts. For instance, in Colorado, the election reform bill passed on party lines, but Chapin points out it was supported overwhelmingly by county clerks, which includes Republicans. Those clerks went up against Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, an outspoken opponent of the bill. Similarly, in Arkansas and Florida, lawmakers have debated measures that would give state officials the ability to punish local elections administrators for poor performance.
Bipartisanship may be seriously lacking, and both sides may push policies that appear to benefit their odds at the ballot box, but there’s a major difference between the nature of the policies Democrats and Republicans are advocating. The Republican push for voter ID and fewer early voting days makes it more difficult for some legitimate voters to cast ballots. Democratic-backed initiatives, like same-day registration, meanwhile, are meant to help more people vote. But nonetheless, the perception of partisanship on both sides isn’t good for the process and decreases public trust in elections. New sources of middle ground can help in restoring trust that election policies aren’t simply a matter of tilting the scales to one party’s advantage.