The divide over voting rights and election procedures, by impacting election outcomes, strongly reinforces the existing political divide in an already tribal nation.
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With the slew of voter suppression bills that are being passed in many state legislatures this year, it is easy to forget that some states are actually working on positive election reforms such as reenfranchisement provisions and ensuring that voting processes are secure. And significant work is being done to help block the targeted disinformation that confronts voters and would-be voters.
These bills, of course, are dwarfed by the cascade of voter disenfranchisement legislation that is increasingly prevalent in so many states. But it should not be overlooked that some legislators really do believe in a robust democracy with high participation rates. Unfortunately for red state residents and America as a whole, these officeholders tend to be in the majority in the blue states but in an often helpless minority (or superminority) in most of the red ones — leading to yet another stark red-blue divide. This divide over voting rights and election procedures is one that, by impacting election outcomes, strongly reinforces the existing political divide, in an already too tribal nation.
Nevertheless, the positive reforms deserve attention, both for the standards they set and for the laboratories they provide for testing the feasibility, practicality, and track records of such processes as mail-in voting and risk-limiting audits.
I have grouped this legislation by state rather than topic, in order to provide a better understanding of what is happening geographically around the country. It emerged, somewhat surprisingly, that the red-blue divide is not quite absolute, as there is actually some voting rights expansion legislation being debated in a few red states.
The concluding section discusses why all this legislation is important for the state — and the fate — of American democracy.
The Minnesota Legislature passed some groundbreaking bills that will open up more opportunities for people to vote and vote safely. Gov. Tim Walz (D) has signed all of these provisions into law.
MN HF3 (Democracy for the People Act)
- Creates an automatic voter registration, establishing a process by which eligible applicants for a new or renewed driver’s license or identification card would be required to register to vote unless they opt out.
- Enables 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote.
- Creates a permanent absentee voter status. Rather than having to request an absentee ballot for every election, the absentee ballot will now be sent automatically to these voters prior to each election.
- Increases penalties for voter intimidation, establishing criminal penalties and civil remedies for violations and doing away with the administrative complaint process that needed to be completed before a fair-campaign-practices violation could be prosecuted by a county attorney.
- Bans foreign-influenced corporations from spending money on state elections. This provision would restrict foreign corporations from contributing to or endorsing a candidate, a ballot initiative, or a political action committee (PAC).
- Establishes 18 days of in-person voting.
- Restricts challenges to voter eligibility. This provision would ban mass challenges by requiring officials to reject any effort to challenge “the eligibility of more than one voter,” shorten the challenge period, and add new evidence requirements to the grounds for a challenge.
- Expands an employee’s right to take time off of work to vote at any point during the early voting period.
Walz also signed into law a bill that restores voting rights to more than 50,000 felons who are on probation in Minnesota.
Republican House Elections Committee member Rep. Paul Torkelson chafed at HF3, saying: “It [strikes me] more as a bill for ensuring Democratic Party victories,” adding that the bill “violated a longstanding tradition in the Minnesota Legislature that election bills should be bipartisan to advance.”
Addressing Republican concerns about the bill, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (D) said, “The provisions in this bill are nonpartisan in origin and nonpartisan in effect. They have been implemented in red states, blue states, and in purple states.”
This exchange typifies the positions ordinarily taken by proponents and opponents of both expansive and restrictive voting provisions: Opponents will denounce the proposed reforms as a “partisan ploy” while proponents defend it as “fair and nonpartisan in effect.”
NM HB4 (New Mexico Voting Rights Act)
- Expands automatic voter registration.
- Restores convicted felons’ right to vote upon release from prison.
- Creates a voluntary permanent absentee voter list.
- Enacts the Native American Voting Rights Act to the state Election Code.
- Allows election candidates to collect digital signatures, in addition to paper signatures.
- Requires the state to operate an “election security organization.” The secretary of state maintains an elections security program within the bureau of elections, which has the general responsibility of advising the secretary of state, county clerks and the voting system certification committee regarding voting system and cybersecurity requirements and ensuring their implementation.
- Requires mandatory training for challengers and election watchers, provided by the county clerk based on a uniform curriculum provided by the secretary of state.
Republican Rep. John Block proposed an amendment to HB4 to add a voter identification requirement for voters, but the amendment failed on a party-line vote. Block stated that he opposed SB180 because of the potential decrease in “transparency” if officials, for their protection, are allowed to keep their home addresses off of official paperwork.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed both pieces of legislation into law on March 30. Both bills were supported mainly by Democrats, but two Republican representatives did vote Yea for HB4.
- Allows servicemembers and overseas voters to return their mail ballots up to six days after Election Day as long as ballots are postmarked by Election Day.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed SB259 into law on May 1.
- Would remove the constitutional amendment that was added in 2000 when voters approved a statewide ballot question making it illegal to vote from prison while serving a felony sentence.
This proposal just passed the Senate Election Laws Committee. The goal of this effort is to have the measure, restoring the right to vote from prison, placed as a statewide ballot question in 2026.
House Minority Leader Rep. Brad Jones (R) expressed these sentiments when opposing the legislation: “During the period of your incarceration — because if you’re incarcerated then you’re separated from society — you should not necessarily be involved in electing the officials and crafting the laws that govern that society.”
Bill sponsors Sen. Liz Miranda (D) and Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven (D) countered that this is a racial justice issue, as people of color represent about 18 percent of the population in Massachusetts, but 58 percent of people in the carceral system. Uyterhoeven said 1.5 percent of Blacks in Massachusetts are serving time for felonies and therefore cannot vote under the state constitution.
- Establishes portable polling locations for early voting.
- Provides that a county board of elections may establish one or more portable polling locations.
- Prohibits deceptive practices and the suppression of voters.
- Increases the penalties for violations of the elective franchise.
- Permits the establishment of absentee ballot drop-off locations to give voters a convenient alternative option when they submit their absentee ballots.
All of these bills have passed the New York State Senate and are currently being debated in the Assembly.
Most Senate Republicans registered opposition to S242. Sen. George Borrello (R) said about the bill: “I think when we talk about a portable station it sounds like a nice idea. We want to send a food truck or a pop-up shop so people can vote wherever they want, but as you get into the details there are less and less details on how we will ensure they are secure.” Although the evidence presented for voter fraud is scant verging on nonexistent, opponents of a facilitated voting process often reflexively present accessibility and security as conflicting and incompatible goals.
A Rare Glimmer of Good News From Two Red States
Bills being debated in Tennessee (HB1256) and South Carolina (H4221) would automatically restore voting rights once a sentence is completed, except for a small group of crimes. The Tennessee bill has at least some bipartisan support. Unfortunately the good news from red states pretty much stops there.
I’ve presented a fair sample of the voting rights- and access-expanding legislation that is being hotly debated in statehouses throughout the US. A corresponding catalog of even a sampling of legislation to restrict and retract voting rights, which has been and is sweeping through the red states, would run to much greater length.
Why Is This All Coming to a Head Now?
So why is all of this attention to process important? For a reason so obvious that it is easy to overlook: Fair and secure elections are the bedrock protocol of our democracy. Our ability to participate in the electoral process is what sets us apart from countries that are run by autocrats. It is a right we sometimes take for granted, but it is one we should never forget to safeguard.
And why all the attention and heated debate right now? Because America finds itself already in the midst of something akin to a civil war, a political confrontation that both sides now regard as existential, for all the marbles. And because it is a war that both sides believe will be decided by who gets to vote and how, by who counts the votes and how, and even by who verifies those counts and how.
Of course, the United States has a long history of permitting voter suppression, especially toward voters of color and other disfavored minorities. Poll taxes, election tests, gerrymandering, and outright violence have long been countenanced in this country. And that anti-democratic spirit has recently revived itself and gone on something of a spree.
As one example, the North Carolina Supreme Court, under Republican control since the 2022 election, reversed its previous decisions and ruled that partisan gerrymandering, no matter how extreme, does not in fact violate their state constitution’s “free elections” protections.
And the beat goes on. Bills that are moving through the Texas Legislature include:
- SB990, which would eliminate the countywide polling program that allows voters to vote at any polling place in their county on Election Day.
- SB260, which initiates the process of removing a voter from the voter registration list if they have not voted in an election in the previous 25 months.
- SB1600, which would require voters to prove their citizenship when registering to vote.
And in Florida, S7050, which just passed the Florida House and Senate, includes the following provisions:
- First-time Florida voters who have not gotten a state-issued driver’s license or ID card or Social Security number would be required to vote in person.
- Requires ballot envelopes be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day.
- Election police would be vested with yet more authority and have expanded power to investigate and prosecute accusations of election violations (this despite the fact that there has been and is little evidence of voter fraud in the state).
Along with such procedural thumbs on the electoral scales, growing distrust of election processes is a problem in and of itself. As my colleague Jonathan Simon reminded us in a WhoWhatWhy article from the last election season, “Democracies don’t survive when they lose the trust of their citizens.” And, as he writes in another article, “Elections matter. Never more so than in a nation torn in two.”
One of the main themes he is speaking to is apathy: that we are not doing a good enough job of protecting the rights of voters — at a time when throughout much of the country those rights are under attack, and when each national election, and the broad acceptance of its results as legitimate, seems to be all that stands between our democracy and political chaos and potential civil war.
But what are the root causes of this apathy? The psychic numbing we experience from our day-to-day pressures? The onslaught of disinformation that we are exposed to on a regular basis, particularly through our addiction to social media? The conviction that everything is hopelessly corrupt? Apathy is just what the people who spread such lies want to cultivate in us.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying “Elections belong to the people” and “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” He speaks of the importance of participatory government, of which the right to vote is a cornerstone.
We would do well to heed the advice of our 16th president. For he spoke those words at a time of great conflict in our country. The Civil War was raging, and Lincoln well understood the frailties of a divided nation.
This is why — in a time of comparable division and breakdown — we must advocate for and support these often obscure pieces of legislation that expand voting rights and promote election security and transparency.
Unfortunately, much of the electoral “reform” currently being pushed uses such worthy goals as pretext for enacting laws and regulations designed to achieve just their opposite. Such deceptions must be exposed and opposed. To that end, in an upcoming article I will delve into some of the more problematic and dangerous state-level legislation currently being debated.