Election reformers were expecting big things from this year’s State of the Union address. They knew that President Barack Obama had invited 102-year-old Desiline Victor, a Floridian who’d waited three hours to cast her ballot. They had heard him acknowledge the many folks who stood in long lines when he ad-libbed in his election-night speech, “We have to fix that.” They were encouraged when he subsequently acknowledged the need for a broad range of fixes to the broken system. Hopes for an ambitious reform package were high. But Obama’s big reveal seemed less than inspiring: a bipartisan commission to study the problem.
This is indeed a promising moment for bipartisan election reform, but that reform isn’t likely to come from Washington. Instead, it’s likely to emerge from the states where party lines on election reform are beginning to blur. This year, new laws to improve elections and expand voting may pass not only in blue states like New York but also on Republican-controlled turf.
It’s a stunning turn of events. After all, GOP lawmakers spent the last two years doing everything they could to make voting harder for people who lean Democratic. Republicans introduced about 200 bills in 41 states to restrict the right to vote. In Ohio, they tried to cut back on early voting. In Colorado and Texas, purges of the voter rolls eliminated sizable numbers of minority voters. Six states passed laws requiring state-issued photo ID at the polls, which disproportionately affect minority, young, and elderly voters.
Now some of the same folks are changing their tune. Take Florida, where in 2012 GOP lawmakers reduced the number of days for early voting—and where, despite a national outcry, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, refused to open the polls for extra hours when long lines during early voting created havoc. But soon after the election, Scott promised to support expanded early voting; his secretary of state, who was accused of partisan manipulation of the election, has issued a report formally recommending the change. It’s not just Florida. Eleven states—including Montana, Arizona, Indiana, and Nebraska—are considering measures to create or expand early voting.
What explains Republicans’ newfound openness? The headlines from Florida and Ohio, along with the stories of legitimate voters getting “purged” from the rolls in Colorado and Texas, certainly didn’t make the GOP look good. In the end, suppression efforts faced an emphatic backlash. Minnesota voters killed a voter-ID measure the GOP-controlled legislature was pushing. Most important, Latinos, African Americans, and people under age 30 voted at higher rates than they had in 2008. They also voted more Democratic.
If Republicans now want to show support for fair elections—and for, you know, democracy—they should join efforts to reform the states’ hopelessly antiquated voter--registration systems. The voter rolls are riddled with errors; a study by the Pew Center found that one in eight voter’s information is inaccurate. People often fill out registration forms by hand, and when election workers enter that information, typos create all sorts of problems. People rarely know how to update their registration when they move, and deceased voters linger on the rolls. “If you improve voter registration,” says David Becker, director of Election Initiatives at Pew, “there’s virtually no factor that won’t be positively affected.” Wait times will go down. Voters will have an easier time finding the right polling place. Fewer voters will need to use provisional ballots, which often go uncounted. And conservatives can rest assured that the dead and ineligible won’t vote.
Conservatives should especially love online registration, which not only increases accessibility and accuracy but saves taxpayer dollars. Maricopa County, Arizona, reports that each registration costs 80 cents less when it’s done online instead of on paper. Seven states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, are looking at creating online registration. Others are seeking to make registering easier and more automatic. Already in 22 states, the information you fill out to get a driver’s license can automatically put you on the voter rolls. Now states like Michigan, led by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, are looking to further integrate that automation, so that when you update your address with one government agency, your voter registration can be updated too.
The GOP hasn’t done a complete about-face, of course. Republican lawmakers in nearly a dozen states—including some with promising reform bills—have proposed new voter-ID laws, along with other legislation designed to create barriers to the ballot box. Still, after two years of assaults on voting rights, the political tide seems to be turning toward reform.
But this could change if the Supreme Court decides in the spring to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the single most important—and successful—election reform in American history. Section 5, the provision under review, requires states with a history of voter suppression, almost all in the South, to have any change to their election laws “precleared” by the Department of Justice. Last year, the law undid voter-ID measures in Texas and Mississippi. It also encourages states not to sanction the most overtly partisan—or racialized—kinds of electioneering. If Section 5 is overturned or weakened, some Republicans will be tempted to game the system once again.