Politics

States Press Ahead on Bills Expanding Voter Access

Amid the legal battles over Voter ID laws and the Voting Rights Act, legislation to expand voter access and decrease election day lines is active in 21 states.
April 24, 2013

By Jake Grovum

With little hope for a federal fix to widespread elections administration problems, nearly half the states are pressing ahead with measures to ease voting access and counteract more restrictive measures passed recently.

According to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, nearly 200 bills to expand access to voting were introduced in 45 states this year. Just 41 of those measures in 21 states are considered to still be viable. But voting rights advocates say the fact that some have bipartisan support and gained traction in key states means lawmakers have gotten the message that long lines and barriers to ballot access are no longer acceptable to voters.

“Although states continue to push restrictions, others have gotten the message from the 2012 election,” Wendy Weiser, Brennan’s democracy program director, said in a statement. “Americans deserve better and want a higher functioning, more modern voting system.”

With little hope for a federal fix to widespread elections administration problems, nearly half the states are pressing ahead with measures to ease voting access and counteract more restrictive measures passed recently.

A few key measures stand out as particularly significant. For example, in Florida, a perennial battleground over elections administration, the House voted overwhelmingly 118-1 to reinstate early voting days that were eliminated before Election Day 2012. Losing those days was a source of controversy ahead of last year’s vote, and some blamed the fewer days of early voting for Florida’s extraordinarily long lines on Election Day. The measure is under consideration in the Senate.

Other measures are more technical, but no less significant in the eyes of advocates. New Mexico enacted a law to allow people to register to vote electronically at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Similar measures have been credited with increasing registration and turnout in other states. Nevada lawmakers have also approved a measure that would use technology to ease registration at state agencies, expand online registration and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote.

Even some Republican-controlled states, many of which have drawn fire from the Brennan Center and other groups for voter ID and other restrictive measures, are considering or have enacted expansive new legislation this year. In Oklahoma, for example, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed a measure easing the state’s photo ID requirement.

But the new measures in some states have a long way to go before they’ll provide a counterweight to a raft of restrictions enacted in many others in recent years. More and more states have enacted tough voter ID laws recently, and another analysis from the Brennan Center found 25 still-active bills in 12 states that the center found “restrictive.”

Three such measures have become law, including a pair of laws in Virginia to curb registration drives and a voter ID requirement. Arkansas also became the latest state to enact a voter ID measure this year. Republican-controlled North Carolina is considering a raft of similar proposals as well.

The diverging elections administration philosophy in states come as voting access — and in particular the voter ID requirement — have become increasingly politicized in recent years, with Democrats mobilizing to ease access and Republicans generally supporting stricter requirements.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has vowed to work on measures to ease long lines and other elections problems across the country. Many doubt, however, whether those efforts will produce the overhaul advocates say the country needs.

The White House created an elections commission designed to offer possible solutions to long lines and other issues, but it’s not intended to endorse legislation. Most question whether it will ultimately usher any significant changes.

Democratic-backed legislation introduced on Capitol Hill designed to ease access and address long lines has also failed to gain traction.

Elections administration is also before the Supreme Court, which is considering a challenge to the landmark Voting Rights Act brought by states that are subject to its “preclearance” requirement. That provision applies in all or part of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination at the ballot box and requires federal approval for any elections changes. Virginia, for instance, is covered under the provision and therefore its voter ID measure will be subject to such scrutiny.

The suit, brought by officials in Shelby County, Alabama, but backed by many GOP-controlled states, has pitted Republicans against the Obama administration’s Justice Department in the battle over voting access and, in particular, voter ID requirements.

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