The Week in Politics: A Bipartisan Approach to Voter Registration and the Latest Election Results

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | April 8, 2016

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A Bipartisan Approach to Voting Registration

West Virginia legislators have accomplished something unusual. They managed to come up with a compromise on voting rights legislation.

West Virginia is now the third state to adopt an automatic voter registration system. Unlike California and Oregon, however, West Virginia also established voter identification requirements to ensure that only eligible voters are signed up.

The idea of coupling universal voter registration with some kind of eligibility check has been around at least since the 2005 recommendations made by a federal election commission that was headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker. It's a notion that has been floated more recently by liberal bloggers as well.

"That's a tradeoff we think makes sense," said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, which promotes voting rights.

West Virginia Republicans were willing to accept Democratic calls for automatic voter registration in order to push through a bill with voter ID requirements -- which, as it turns out, are less stringent than those in other states such as Texas and Wisconsin. Why would Republicans in such states embrace universal registration when they already have voter ID requirements in place?

Lack of agreement about voting issues is the reason West Virginia's approach may turn out to be a one-time deal. In Maryland and Vermont, where Democratic-dominated legislatures are considering automatic voter registration, there doesn't seem to be much talk about voter ID requirements.

"The trade-off wouldn't work politically in this blue state," said David Ammons, communications director for Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, one of the few Republicans who favors automatic voter registration.

What Stubborn Men Can Accomplish (or Try To)

Democrat Susan Deschambault won a Maine Senate seat last week in a special election. She wasn't immediately sworn in, though. Republican Gov. Paul LePage initially refused to do the honors, angry that Democrats had blocked his pick for an unemployment insurance board.

"LePage’s move made Deschambault the pawn in yet another tussle between the Republican governor and legislative Democrats," the Portland Press-Herald wrote.

But enmity between LePage and the legislature has become bipartisan in nature. Republicans control the state Senate and refused to hold votes until LePage relented, which he did on Tuesday.

In Missouri, Rex Sinquefield, the state's leading political donor, tried to eliminate the earnings tax. Both Kansas City and St. Louis collect a 1 percent tax on earnings from people who live or work within city boundaries.

In 2010, Sinquefield spent $11 million backing a successful statewide ballot initiative that blocked other municipalities from imposing such a tax. The initiative also required voters to reapprove the earnings tax in Kansas City and St. Louis every five years, which they did for a second time on Tuesday. It won the approval of 77 percent of voters in Kansas City and 72 percent in St. Louis.

That's despite the fact that Sinquefield spent more than $2 million in recent weeks seeking the tax's defeat. In fact, Sinquefield parceled out his donations in an attention-getting manner: He wrote checks for amounts based on the city's population in subsequent decades, seeming to blame the tax for St. Louis' declining numbers -- $618,306 to reflect the city's population in 1970, $452,804 for 1980 and so on.

Officials in both cities were able to convince voters that the earnings tax is an essential source of revenue, making up 40 percent of general fund revenues in Kansas City and roughly a third in St. Louis. But the earnings tax remains under attack, with state legislators considering proposals this year to eliminate it.

Election Results From Around the Country

Rebecca Bradley, a controversial ally of GOP Gov. Scott Walker, won a 10-year term to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Shortly after Walker appointed Bradley to the court last October, she drew criticism for writings during her college days that, among other things, condemned AIDS patients as "degenerates" and "queers." Bradley subsequently apologized and said such statements had nothing to do with who she is now.

Bradley benefits from more than $3 million spent on her behalf by the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform and other conservative groups. All told, spending in the nominally nonpartisan campaign between Bradley and JoAnne Kloppenburg topped $5 million. Bradley prevailed, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Two other prominent incumbents in Wisconsin won re-election Tuesday. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who faced criticism due to the city's rising homicide rate, won the February primary by a fairly narrow margin, but won his fourth term by a landslide, with 70 percent of the vote. And Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who actually finished second in his February primary, beat state Sen. Chris Larson, 56 percent to 44 percent, after spending some $4 million of his own money.

California Republicans believed they had their best chance in 40 years to win an Assembly seat in Fresno County in Tuesday's special election. But traditional voting patterns held, with Democrat Joaquin Arambula, an emergency room physician, taking 52 percent of the vote.

In South Carolina, Republican state Rep. Mike Gambrell won the runoff for a state Senate seat. No Democrat had bothered filing for the contest.

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