It's a Big Year for Voting Rights at the Ballot Box
There is an "unprecedented" number of measures this fall designed to make voting and registration easier. There are also some that would make voting harder.
- Voters in Arkansas and North Carolina will decide whether to enact voter ID requirements.
- Meanwhile, ballots in Florida, Maryland, Michigan and Nevada have measures that aim to make it easier for people to vote and register.
- The marquee measure is Florida's Amendment 4, which would automatically restore felons' voting rights.
- The state is home to 1.4 million disenfranchised felons.
States have spent much of the past decade enacting restrictive voting and voter registration laws, such as voter identification requirements. Voters in several states will decide whether to approve such measures, but the closest-watched voting initiatives this fall would expand voting rights.
In Arkansas and North Carolina, voter ID laws have been struck down by courts. But if both states pass a voter ID ballot amendment, voter ID requirements would become kosher because they would be enshrined in the state constitutions. Meanwhile, Montana voters could make it a crime -- with exceptions for people like mail carriers -- to collect and turn in ballots cast by others.
The rest of the voting-related measures on state ballots this year are designed to make registration easier or restore voting rights to felons.
"This year, we're seeing an unprecedented number of democracy reform and voting rights access measures on the ballot," says Dana Laurent, director of strategic initiatives at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a group that promotes progressive ballot measures.
Advocates see the voting rights and restoration initiatives as part of a broader movement this fall that also includes measures in several states regarding redistricting, ethics and campaign finance.
In Maryland, a referendum would allow citizens to register to vote as late as Election Day. Nevada could signal its support for joining the 13 states and District of Columbia that have created automatic voter registration systems. In Michigan, voters will decide on a measure called "Promote the Vote," which would launch automatic voter registration as well as allowing people to vote absentee for any reason and to register as late as Election Day.
"In our view, people who are eligible to vote should be able to register and vote conveniently," says Max Feldman, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which favors expansive voting rights.
The voting measure that is attracting the most attention this year is in Florida. Amendment 4 would restore voting rights to former felons, except those convicted of murder or sex crimes.
Florida is one of only three states that doesn't restore voting rights to felons unless they receive a pardon or clemency. Only a limited number of Florida felons are eligible, and they must appeal personally at occasional hearings in Tallahassee. Due to the state's restrictive nature, one out of every four felons who are disenfranchised nationwide live in Florida. That's 1.4 million potential voters unable to participate in the state's elections.
To pass, Florida's Amendment 4 needs support from 60 percent of the population. Recent polls suggest it has support from more than 70 percent of voters.
"I'm almost hesitant to say that we have not seen a lot of opposition," says Nancy Abudu, legal director for the ACLU of Florida. "I don't want to jinx it."
That's true for many of these voting measures on state ballots. Although voting rights debates can be contentious in legislatures, the public appears to have less resistance to expanding voting rights or making registration easier and more convenient.
Still, in Florida, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of making restoration of voting rights for felons essentially automatic. Opponents argue that voting should be earned as part of a rehabilitative process and that felons, having broken the law, shouldn't have a say in shaping laws by voting.
In Nevada, the automatic voter registration (AVR) measure, which would sign people up to vote unless they opt out, would have to be approved by voters twice before it could become law. The legislature referred the question to the ballot after Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the idea last year.
In his veto message, Sandoval warned that AVR "would create an unnecessary risk that people who are not qualified voters may unintentionally apply to vote." Evidence for such potential problems seems to be at hand in neighboring California. On Monday, the state Department of Motor Vehicles announced that some 1,500 individuals, including non-citizens, had been wrongly registered to vote through the AVR process, on top of 23,000 registration mistakes announced last month. Secretary of State Alex Padilla has called for an audit.
But voting rights proponents believe they have the momentum when it comes to public support for expansive measures.
"In 2020, we expect more of the same," says Laurent, of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
For a summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.