Voting Rights Activists Strike Back on Elections Laws

Trying to stem the tide of restrictive voting measures passed in recent years by Republicans, voting rights activists have successfully targeted states controlled by Democrats to win reforms expanding voting rights.
by | May 10, 2013

By Jake Grovum

Republicans several years ago seized the upper hand in the so-called “voting wars” by pushing voter ID and other measures that created new voting restrictions. But now Democrats across the country are fighting back.

This week, Colorado lawmakers sent Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, a bill that allows voters in that state to register at the polls on Election Day; creates an all-mail ballot system; and ensures that voters who move within Colorado don’t have to re-register at their new address. The Colorado law is especially broad, but it is only the latest in a series of victories for those who want to streamline registration and reduce long lines at the polls. The governor is expected to sign the measure, which has overwhelming support among Democrats.

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During the last legislative session, Maryland expanded early voting, eased absentee voting and approved same-day registration during early voting periods. West Virginia implemented a new system to register residents using state records already on file. Delaware removed the waiting period for nonviolent felons to regain their voting rights, and made re-establishing them automatic. And this week, the Minnesota House approved a measure making absentee balloting easier.

“The Colorado bill is part of that larger movement of undoing or easing some of the restrictions that were put in place in a few years ago,” said Barry Burden, an elections expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s part of a swing back in the pendulum in the last year and a half to two years.”

Nearly 200 such bills were introduced in 45 states this year, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice. Most were never enacted, but voting activists managed to score a number of significant victories nonetheless, especially in states where Democrats are in control.

The effort in Colorado is among the most far-reaching. It also stands out for another reason: The law passed without a single GOP vote. Colorado Republicans have labeled it an open invitation to widespread voter fraud and a partisan reshaping of elections rules.

“The measure was written in a way that would allow for voter fraud,” said Republican state Sen. Ted Harvey. “Whether that would benefit Democrats and labor unions that tend to take advantage of these kinds of bills around the county, one would hope not here in Colorado, but it certainly opens up the door.”

State Sen. Angela Giron, the Democrat who was chief sponsor of the bill, said her goal was to take down barriers. “I’m trying to get more people to vote,” Giron said.

But Republicans argue the law removes too many barriers. They say allowing same-day registration is a recipe for fraud. And they question whether voting by mail is secure enough to serve as the backbone of the state’s elections system, even though nearly three-fourths of Coloradans already vote by mail.

They also complain about being left out of the process. Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler said Democrats wouldn’t consider his amendments as the bill moved through the legislature.

“They froze us out completely,” he said. “But they’ve got the power, and they’re using it.”

Some Colorado Republicans see national interests at work: Republican voter ID laws and similar measures galvanized Democrats and their allies in many states, and President Barack Obama has repeatedly spoken in favor of efforts to make voting easier around the country.

In a swing state such as Colorado, any election law change that appears to benefit one party or the other comes under careful scrutiny. Most in both parties believe that mail-in ballots and other measures that make voting easier benefit Democrats. Some note that Washington and Oregon used to be swing states, but turned solidly Democratic in statewide races once they adopted similar changes.

“You had national groups saying, ‘Colorado was going to go this way,’ and providing the talking points,” Gessler said. “This is exactly part and parcel of what these national groups want to do.”

Doug Lewis, who heads the Elections Center of the National Association of Elections Officials, views the recent measures as the continuation of a long-running partisan battle in which Republicans focus on “securing” elections via restrictive measures, while Democrats back “expansive” proposals to make voting easier.

“This is not a recent war,” Lewis said. “Both parties tend to show their excesses when they get the power.”

Two years ago, the GOP was busy rewriting voting measures, though state and federal courts struck down some of the new restrictions. That hasn’t happened to any of the Democrats’ changes.

Most of the recent action to expand voting has occurred in solidly “blue” states—but not all of it. Lawmakers in GOP-controlled Oklahoma recently eased the state’s voter ID requirement, while Virginia created an online voter registration system, even as it approved a new voter ID law.

In Republican-controlled Florida, lawmakers responded to widespread Election Day problems last November by reversing a previous shortening of the early voting period (last year, early voting was limited to eight days, rather than the usual 14) and simplifying ballots. For a state that is a perennial battleground, the reversal was striking.

Still, Florida’s changes are minor compared to Colorado’s overhaul. Furthermore, it is unclear how committed Florida elections officials are to implementing the changes, given their staunch opposition to them.

In Colorado, a bipartisan commission will monitor the implementation of the new law and recommend changes as the need arises. Many Republicans are fearful of what it will mean for their prospects in future elections. But Donetta Davidson, a Republican who heads the state’s county clerks association, believes they will learn to adapt. After all, everybody will have to play by the same rules.

“Every candidate and every party has the right to do the very same thing,” she said.

Stateline  |  Nonpartisan, Nonprofit News Service of the Pew Charitable Trusts  |

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