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States Push to Make Voting More Convenient

State legislatures have seen dozens of bills related to election reform so far in 2014. And unlike recent years, most of them are trying to make it easier to vote.

In Ohio this year, the general assembly decided to cut the state's early voting period by six days. In Wisconsin, a new law narrowed the days and times for early voting, making it harder to vote on weekends and after normal business hours.

Both laws are tucked under a section titled “threats to voting rights” in a May 29 report by Project Vote, a national nonprofit that advocates for expanded access to U.S. elections. They fit with a dominant national narrative over the past four years about states, especially ones under Republican control, limiting people's ability to vote. To be sure, that narrative is based on state laws passed in recent years adding requirements to vote, such as proof of citizenship and photo identification. Yet in 2014, state legislatures considered almost four times as many proposals that eliminate barriers to voting as ones that create them.  

Project Vote collected information on legislative proposals in 46 states and Congress that would impact Americans’ ability to vote in a convenient manner. In all, the report lists 33 bills in 19 states from the first five months of 2014 that the group categorizes as “restrictive election legislation.” Virtually none of them became law.

Instead, much of the state legislative activity in 2014 so far has focused on establishing online voter registration, same-day voter registration and early voting. In all, the report details 114 bills in 33 states that would expand access to voting in some way.

For example:

  • Lawmakers in Massachusetts gave residents who are 16 or 17 the ability to preregister to vote
  • The Utah legislature allowed early voting 15 days or more before an election and allowed residents to register to vote up to 7 days before an election
  • Nebraska lawmakers established an online voter registration system
“There is indeed a growing bipartisan effort to make voting more accessible and better suited for 21st century American elections,” writes Erin Ferns Lee, the report’s author, “but old habits die hard.”

Some of the most significant election reforms proposed in 2014 are still alive in the legislative process, Lee said in a phone interview. For example, a bill in California would restore the preclearance requirements that used to guard against the disenfranchisement of minorities in three California couties (Kings, Monterey and Yuba) under the federal Voting Rights Act.

In Shelby County, Ala. vs. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to eliminate the federal law’s existing formula for selecting which places can't make changes to their elections laws or procedures without approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. The formula has remained in place since the law’s passing in 1965.

Although the court left in place Section 5, a provision that requires states (or parts of states) to ask permission from the federal government before making changes to their elections, that part of the law has no effect without the formula. Congress would need to enact a new statute to determine which places today should be covered by the preclearance requirements in Section 5. In lieu of action by Congress, California lawmakers want to reinstate the preemption that attempts to prevent discriminatory election reforms, except the state attorney general would review and approve proposed changes, not the U.S. Department of Justice. 

A similar proposal in Illinois seeks to protect the voting rights of minorities -- racial, ethnic, religious, or otherwise -- through an amendment to the state constitution that will appear on the ballot in November.

Likewise, a November ballot question in Missouri -- put forward by the legislature -- asks whether voters want to amend the state constitution to allow for six business days of early voting, either by mail or in person.

Lee also pointed to a bill already passed by Hawaii's legislature that would allow for voters in 2018 to cast ballots the same day that they register to vote. Justin Fujioka, a spokesman for Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, said the governor hasn't taken a public position on the legislation and had two weeks to review remaining bills from the 2014 legislative session. However, "he’s always been a supporter of getting people out to vote,” Fujioka said.

Despite the raft of proposals in state capitals this year, only a handful of bills related to elections became law. The high volume of bills -- enacted, failed and pending -- reflects a desire among public officials to restore voting protections undone by the Shelby decision last year, Lee said. Several members of Congress have introduced bills this year that would revive protections in the Voting Rights Act. Several state legislatures have also introduced bills urging Congress to restore those protections.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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