Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Voting Rights Debate Moves From Statehouses to Ballot Boxes

Voters will weigh in this fall on voter registration, campaign finance and redistricting.

Voting has become one of the most partisan issues in contemporary politics. Republicans have sought to make it more secure by requiring photo identification. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month to allow Ohio to purge inactive voters from the rolls is likely to open the door to similar efforts in other red states.

Democrats, conversely, are doing everything they can to make voting easier. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill in March implementing automatic voter registration. The following month, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a similar bill in New Jersey, bringing to 12 the number of states that sign people up, unless they opt out, when they interact with the department of motor vehicles or other state agencies. Democrats control the political branches of government in most of these states.

In states where the party is partially or wholly blocked from power, progressives are turning to the ballot to promote changes to election law. Maryland voters, for instance, will have the chance to allow registration on Election Day itself. Nevada will decide whether to adopt automatic voter registration. And a Michigan measure would combine both same-day and automatic voter registration, plus other changes. 

Meanwhile, several states will consider campaign finance or redistricting measures. Ohio voters in May already approved changes to that state’s redistricting process. New maps will have to earn support from three-fifths of legislators in both chambers, including support from more than half of the minority party members. Failing that, the job will be given to a bipartisan commission.

Sometimes the ballot is the only option. In Florida, a proposal to restore voting rights for most ex-felons requires a constitutional amendment, which means putting the question before voters. But in general, these initiatives have been triggered by a lack of success in the legislative process. “A number of these ideas have been proposed as bills during the last several sessions, and they haven’t gone anywhere,” says Judy Karandjeff, president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, which is one of the sponsors of that state’s ballot initiative on voting.

Case in point: The Nevada Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, last year approved an automatic voter registration bill. But GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it, warning that it could expose residents to legal liability if it turned out they weren’t eligible to vote. 

In recent years, progressives have enjoyed a fair measure of success with ballot initiatives on issues including minimum-wage increases and marijuana legalization. They believe they can similarly convince the voters themselves that expanding the franchise is the right way to go, despite concerns about election security. “People who have come into power as a result of the current electoral system have less interest in changing that system,” says Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “Direct democracy puts changes to elections in the hands of people without a direct vested interest.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Special Projects