Georgia Republicans are likely to enact major new voting restrictions in response to their narrow election losses in the 2020 election cycle, but it’s unclear just exactly which provisions will ultimately advance this month before the legislative session ends.
● Alabama: Alabama recently became the second state after Ohio last month to file a federal lawsuit over the Census Bureau’s delayed release of the granular data needed to conduct redistricting, which has been postponed from the original March 31 deadline to Sept. 30 due to disruptions caused by the pandemic and the Trump administration. GOP officials want to require the bureau to release the data by the end March as originally scheduled to avoid potentially making it impossible to draw new maps this year as required under the state constitution.
Republicans also want to block the bureau from using new statistical algorithms to add slight distortions to the population data in cases where failing to do so could compromise the privacy of certain respondents, claiming it would compromise the accuracy of the data. The bureau has long made changes to the data it reports to protect privacy, but 2020 is set to see new statistical methods employed that have drawn criticism from various groups.
● Michigan: Michigan’s newly formed independent redistricting commission voted unanimously earlier this month to ask the state Supreme Court to extend the state’s Nov. 1 deadline for passing new districts. Proposed maps must be available for public comment for at least 45 days before adoption, but because the Census Bureau has delayed the release of key data needed to conduct redistricting until Sept. 30, it would be impossible for commissioners to meet the mid-September deadline for the start of the public comment period.
● New Mexico: With the end of the 2021 legislative session quickly approaching on Saturday, New Mexico’s Democratic-controlled state Senate and a state House committee have both passed a bill with support from both parties to create a bipartisan advisory redistricting commission that would propose redistricting maps to lawmakers for their consideration.
● New York: A member of New York’s bipartisan redistricting commission has filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to compel lawmakers to appropriate adequate funding for the commission, accusing officeholders of undermining the panel by withholding millions in funds necessary to complete its work.
● Oregon: The leaders of Oregon’s Democratic-run legislature have filed a petition with the state Supreme Court asking it to postpone redistricting deadlines mandated by the state constitution on account of the Census Bureau’s delay in releasing the data needed to draw new maps. Lawmakers are asking that the July 1 deadline for passing new legislative maps be extended to as late as Dec. 30 because the bureau won’t provide the necessary data until Sept. 30 instead of its original March 31 deadline.
Voting Access Expansions
● Alabama: A committee in Alabama’s Republican-run state House has passed two bills with bipartisan support regarding absentee ballot access. The first would increase the number of locations where absentee voters can return their ballots in person, letting officials add a limited increase in locations (currently they may only be returned at county courthouses). The second bill reduces the time available to request an absentee ballot by requiring requests be mailed no later than 10 days before Election Day instead of the current five to ensure ballots aren’t sent out with insufficient time for voters to receive and return them.
● Colorado: State House Democrats have passed a bill in committee that would increase the availability of Spanish-language voting materials by lowering the threshold for determining which jurisdictions have language-minority populations large enough to require multilingual voting materials.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, counties with at least 10,000 adult citizens or 5% of the total adult population who speak another language and lack sufficient proficiency in English are required to offer multilingual voting materials. The Colorado bill would implement a lower threshold of 2,000 adult citizens or 2.5% of the total adult population. If enacted, 22 of Colorado’s 64 counties, including many of its largest, would be required to offer Spanish voting materials instead of the current four.
● Connecticut: Democrats have passed two constitutional amendments in a state House committee, one of which would establish an early voting period determined by future legislation and the other of which would allow any voter to vote absentee without needing a specific excuse. Every Republican opposed the absentee voting amendment and only a few backed early voting.
Lawmakers previously passed the early voting amendment in 2019, meaning that if the Democratic-run legislature approves it a second time, it would appear on the November 2022 ballot. However, since Republicans are likely to deny the absentee voting amendment the three-fourths supermajority needed to place it on next year’s ballot, the full legislature would have to pass the proposal both before and after the 2022 elections before it could appear on the 2024 ballot at the earliest.
● Delaware: Democratic lawmakers in Delaware have introduced a bill that would enact automatic voter registration through the state’s drivers’ licensing agency, requiring voters to opt out if they don’t want to be registered. The bill wouldn’t take effect until two years after being signed into law or five days after the state Election Commissioner certifies that the systems needed to implement it are operational, whichever happens sooner, meaning it likely wouldn’t be implemented until after the 2022 midterms.
● Hawaii: The Democratic-run state Senate has unanimously passed a bill to establish automatic voter registration through Hawaii’s drivers’ licensing agency. Both legislative chambers had previously passed versions of automatic registration in 2019 but failed to agree on a single version of the bill, so it’s unclear whether 2021 will finally be the year that legislators send a single bill to Democratic Gov. David Ige for his signature.
Meanwhile, in a state House committee, legislators have unanimously passed a bill to expand in-person voting centers that counties may operate in response to long voting lines that plagued in-person voting last year amid Hawaii’s transition to universal vote-by-mail. The state Senate previously passed the vote centers bill unanimously last month.
● Illinois: State House Democrats have passed a bill in committee along party lines that would permanently expand absentee ballot drop boxes and curbside voting for mobility-limited voters. These same measures were temporarily implemented last year due to the pandemic. The bill would also require absentee ballots to be accepted even if they lack postage.
● Kentucky: Kentucky’s Republican-run state Senate has passed a compromise election reform bill almost unanimously that would implement several major changes to voting. The GOP-run state House previously passed a similar version of the bill, so now the two chambers must agree on a single version before it can go to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear for his signature. The bill would:
- Establish three days of in-person early voting;
- Authorize counties to set up “vote centers” where any voter in the county may cast their ballot instead of just at traditional local polling places;
- Allow absentee ballot drop boxes;
- Notify voters and let them fix problems with their absentee ballot signatures;
- Allow voters to request absentee ballots online;
- Require routine audits of election results;
- Mandate that new voting machines produce a paper trail record; and
- Ban voters from collecting and submitting an absentee ballot on behalf of another voter, with limited exceptions for family members, election officials, and postal workers.
● Massachusetts: Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has signed a bill passed by the Democratic-run legislature that extends the expansion of mail voting through June 30. The measure was temporarily adopted due to the pandemic last year and was set to expire on March 31, but now all voters will be able to vote by mail in upcoming local elections this spring without needing a specific excuse. The law’s passage gives lawmakers more time to consider whether to permanently expand no-excuse mail voting, which had previously been available only for November general elections and seen limited use prior to 2020.
● Missouri: The Republican-run state House has given preliminary approval to a bill that would remove the excuse requirement for voting absentee but also add a requirement that both in-person and absentee voters present a voter ID to vote. House Republicans previously passed a separate bill earlier this session to revive the state’s voter ID requirement after the state Supreme Court gutted it last year.
● New Mexico: Two committees in New Mexico’s Democratic-run state Senate have passed a bill to expand voting access for Native Americans, which includes among other provisions a requirement that every reservation or other Native community have an in-person polling place. The bill previously won unanimous support in the state House. Lawmakers have limited time to pass the bill ahead of the end of this year’s legislative session on Saturday.
● Oklahoma: Oklahoma’s GOP-run state House almost unanimously passed a bill to increase the availability of in-person absentee voting (which functions somewhat similarly to regular early voting in other states) from three days to four in presidential elections. A state Senate committee last month passed a bill that would have doubled in-person absentee voting days from three to six.
● Utah: Republican Gov. Spencer Cox has signed a bill that the GOP-run legislature passed unanimously to create a system that allows voters to track the status of their mail ballots via email or text message.
● Vermont: Democrats and around half of Republicans in the Vermont Senate have approved a bill that would permanently adopt universal mail voting in all future general elections after it was temporarily implemented last November due to the pandemic. The bill would also give voters a chance to fix problems with their mail ballots such as a signature supposedly not matching the one on file. GOP Gov. Phil Scott said he supports the bill but wants it expanded to cover additional elections such as primaries, a move that was previously rejected in committee.
● Virginia: Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Tuesday that he would issue a groundbreaking series of executive orders to automatically restore the voting rights of every Virginia citizen with a felony conviction who has completed their prison sentence but is still on parole or probation. The Sentencing Project says that an estimated 69,000 disenfranchised Virginians, a group that is disproportionately Black, will soon regain the right to vote. Democratic legislators had passed a constitutional amendment to the same effect last month, but it won’t take effect unless approved again by lawmakers and then voters in a referendum next year.
Meanwhile, Northam last week signed a bill passed by Democratic lawmakers to move any municipal elections that are still held in the spring to instead take place in November alongside federal races beginning in 2022. The move could increase local election turnout several times over and save money for cities that would no longer need to hold separate elections in May.
● White House: On the 56th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the federal government to take action to expand voting access.
The order tasks federal agencies with studying ways to expand access to voter registration materials. It also directs them to offer voter registration opportunities upon request by states, which could be particularly consequential for agencies that focus on issues affecting people with disabilities and historically disadvantaged groups such as Native Americans. Biden’s directive furthermore orders a revitalization of the government’s Vote.gov website so that it has up-to-date voting information.
The order additionally requires the Justice Department to give people in federal prison or on parole information about voter registration, assist them in obtaining identification for registering and voting, and help them vote by mail.
● Arizona: In an effort to deter mail voting in a state where four-fifths of voters regularly vote that way, state Senate Republicans have passed a new voter ID bill along party lines that would require absentee voters to include an affidavit with their birthdate and state ID card number, or their voter registration number and a copy of a utility bill, with their ballots.
The Senate also passed another bill in committee last last month that would institute a restriction not seen in any other state that would require absentee ballots to be postmarked by the Thursday before Election Day even if they are mailed in time for officials to receive them by Election Day, which is the current deadline. Since the Postal Service sometimes doesn’t postmark every piece of mail, even voters who put their ballots in the mail on or well before the Thursday before Election Day could be disenfranchised.
In the state House, Republicans have passed two other bills to limit voting access, which would ban election officials from automatically registering voters and mailing ballots to all voters. Following its recent passage in the Senate, state House Republicans have also passed a bill in committee that could purge roughly 200,000 voters from the state’s “permanent” mail voting list, which is supposed to automatically send a ballot in all future elections to participating voters and has proven very popular since its implementation. The bill would remove anyone who doesn’t vote in two consecutive election cycles, even if they still remain eligible to vote.
● Arkansas: Republican legislators have introduced a bill that would eliminate the final Monday and Sunday of early voting preceding Election Day, setting Saturday as the cutoff. Sunday early voting in many Southern states has traditionally been used disproportionately by Black voters and Black churches that organize get-out-the-vote drives after services.
- Ban absentee ballot drop boxes;
- Require absentee ballot requests be made each election cycle instead of allowing voters to make one request that is good for two consecutive election cycles, retroactively cancelling thousands of pending absentee ballot requests for 2022 that were made ahead of the 2020 elections; and
- Require that a voter’s mail ballot signature match the most recent signature they’ve used instead of the more extensive history of their voter signature, which Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Early testified would violate a court mandate from previous litigation.
● Indiana: Voting rights advocates have announced that they will ask the Supreme Court to overturn a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld Indiana’s requirement that voters present an excuse to request an absentee ballot, but only if they are under 65, which the plaintiffs argue violates the 26th Amendment’s ban on age discrimination in voting.
Last year, a three-judge panel of Republican appointees on the 7th Circuit upheld the requirement using logic that, if applied to race-based voting restrictions, would result in the revival of Jim Crow laws. However, given the increasingly radical right-wing tilt of the Supreme Court, there’s a strong risk that if the justices take up this appeal, the outcome could result in a serious blow to voting rights by greenlighting further Republican efforts to target young voters, who typically favor Democrats.
● Iowa: Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a major bill making it harder to vote, placing it among the first of a wave of GOP-backed voting restrictions under consideration nationally in response to Republican losses last year. Latino voting advocates immediately filed a lawsuit in state court arguing that the law violates the state constitution’s guarantee of the right to vote.
The new law will:
- Cut the early voting period from 29 to 20 days;
- Close the polls on Election Day at 8 PM instead of 9 PM, making it harder for working people and those with children to vote;
- Require mail ballots to be received by officials on Election Day instead of postmarked by Election Day and received a few days afterward, which would have disqualified roughly 6,500 ballots in 2020;
- Ban county officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot request forms to all voters;
- Prevent county officials from mailing absentee ballots to voters more than 20 days before Election Day, a reduction from the current 29 days and a shorter window than in all but five states; and
- Bar voters from requesting an absentee ballot less than 15 days before Election Day instead of the current 10 days.
● Mississippi: Earlier this month, Republicans failed to pass a bill in a state House committee ahead of a key deadline that would have purged thousands of voters from the registration rolls, meaning the proposal is dead for this legislative session despite its previous passage by Senate Republicans. The bill would have purged voters if they didn’t vote in four consecutive years or respond to a single notice form, even if they remained eligible to vote.
● Montana: Republicans have passed a bill out of a state House committee along party lines to enact a stricter voter ID requirement, sending it to the House floor. In a silver lining for voting rights, Republicans stripped out a provision from the bill that would have banned students from using college IDs to register and vote in order to deter a lawsuit. State Senate Republicans previously passed the bill last month.
● New Hampshire: Republicans in a state House committee have voted to “retain” multiple bills that would restrict voting, particularly among student voters, meaning the measures will no longer be under consideration for the regular 2021 legislative session but could still be considered again either later this year or in early 2022.
The bills included proposals to:
New Hampshire has the highest proportion of college students in the country, making up over 15% of their voting age population. Republicans have long crusaded to prevent this largely left-leaning student population from voting in recent years and previously passed two major restrictions (which you can read more about here and here) to curtail their ability to vote in the wake of the GOP’s narrow defeats in 2016.
The lead sponsor of the now-shelved bill to prohibit students from using their campus address to vote went so far as to argue that students from out of state should be banned from voting entirely in New Hampshire even though multiple federal courts have ruled that students have a right to vote where they go to school and reside for most of the year.
● Wisconsin: Major Republican donor Jeré Fabick has filed a lawsuit asking Wisconsin’s conservative-majority Supreme Court to install several restrictions on voting ahead of the April 6’s elections for state education superintendent and local offices. Fabick’s lawsuit aims to ban absentee ballot drop boxes, limit who can turn in someone else’s absentee ballot on their behalf, and prohibit local election officials from fixing absentee ballots that are missing information such as a witnesses’ address to ensure they count.
● Arkansas: State House Republicans have passed a constitutional amendment that would raise the voter approval threshold needed for ballot initiatives to pass from a simple majority to 60%, which comes amid ongoing efforts by voting advocates to put initiatives on the ballot to reform redistricting and the state’s electoral system. However, even if the state Senate follows suit and approves the amendment, it wouldn’t go before voters until November 2022, giving activists one last chance next year to pass initiatives with simple majority support even if the amendment becomes law.
Separately, Arkansas’ Supreme Court last week upheld an order issued by a lower court last September that blocked a law imposing background check requirements for ballot initiative signature-gatherers that initiative organizers argued was impossible to satisfy. The law in question requires both state and federal background checks by the Arkansas state police, but the police lack authorization to conduct the federal check for ballot initiative sponsors.
Republican officials had used that law to throw out all of the signatures that reformers had gathered to put an independent redistricting commission measure, as well as another measure to create a “top-four” primary with instant-runoff voting on the 2020 ballot. However, the lower court didn’t block the law until after the state Supreme Court had upheld the decision to disqualify the election reform initiatives last year. Now, though, reformers should have an easier time putting measures on the ballot next year.
● Florida: Republicans have passed a constitutional amendment in a state Senate committee that would raise the threshold of voter support needed to pass ballot initiatives to two-thirds from the existing three-fifths, which is already the highest threshold in the country for ballot initiatives. Republicans could put this measure on the November 2022 ballot without any Democratic support, and it would become law if three-fifths of voters approve it.
● Missouri: State House Republicans have passed a constitutional amendment that aims to stifle ballot initiatives after activists had used them in recent years to pass redistricting reform and raise the minimum wage. The GOP’s amendment would require two-thirds voter support instead of the current simple majority for passing constitutional amendments. It would also ask voters whether only citizens should be allowed to vote, a provision that is already law but whose inclusion appears intended to increase the likelihood that voters will favor the amendment.
Republicans’ amendment would also require that initiative proponents obtain signatures equivalent to 10% of voters in all eight congressional districts instead of the current requirement of 8% of voters in just six districts. Since Democrats and Black voters are heavily concentrated in just two of those eight districts, this geographic distribution requirement would make it even harder for progressives to put measures on the ballot by requiring them to gather more signatures in conservative rural districts where left-leaning voters are few and far between.
State House Republicans also gave preliminary approval to a bill that would strip state judges of the power to rewrite the ballot summaries for ballot measures written by the legislature. This proposal comes after a state court partially altered the deceptive summary Republicans had given to a 2020 ballot measure that repealed the aforementioned 2018 redistricting reform initiative, which voters narrowly approved last year.
● Utah: Utah Republicans have passed a bill largely along party lines that would ban ballot initiative backers from paying petition signature-gatherers based on the number of signatures they collect, instead mandating that they be paid on an hourly basis or not at all. This move comes after activists used ballot initiatives in 2018 to try to reform redistricting, expand Medicaid, and legalize medical marijuana, all of which GOP lawmakers subsequently undermined via later legislation. Opponents argue that the bill would destroy the incentive for paid petition circulators to try to gather as many signatures as quickly as possible.
● New Hampshire: Republican lawmakers have killed a bill that would have switched New Hampshire from allocating all of its Electoral College votes to the statewide popular vote winner to instead assigning them based on the winner of New Hampshire’s congressional districts, which Republicans are poised to gerrymander after 2020.
Electoral System Reform
● Colorado: For the second time, Democrats in a Colorado state House committee have passed a bill along party lines that would make it easier for local governments to adopt instant-runoff voting for local elections by providing state support for administering its use. Cities already have the option to use instant-runoff voting, but this bill would remove remaining election administration hurdles to help facilitate the transition. It now goes to a third committee before it can advance to the House floor.
● Utah: GOP Gov. Spencer Cox has signed a bill that the Republican-controlled legislature passed, with all Democrats and most Republicans in favor, that would allow more local governments to experiment with adopting instant-runoff voting in local elections beginning this year as a prelude to its potentially more widespread adoption in the future.
● Wyoming: Most Republicans and the lone Democrat on a state Senate committee have passed a bill that would adopt primary runoffs in the event that no candidate wins an initial majority for state and federal offices. The bill originally would have applied beginning next year, which many of its most vocal advocates (including Donald Trump Jr.) hoped would make it more likely that Republican Rep. Liz Cheney would lose her upcoming primary after voting to impeach Donald Trump. However, because of concerns about implementing the change given the delay in the Census Bureau’s production of redistricting data, the revised bill won’t take effect until the 2024 election cycle.
● Kentucky: State House Republicans have passed a bill over Democratic objections that would require the governor to fill any future U.S. Senate vacancies with an appointee from the same party as the departing senator, sending it to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear after Republican state senators previously approved the bill. Republicans easily have enough votes to override Beshear if he chooses to veto it.
Currently, Kentucky’s governor is a Democrat while both of its senators are Republicans, meaning this bill would prevent Beshear from replacing Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul with a Democrat if either were to leave office. The bill would allow the party committee of the departing lawmaker to send a list of three names to the governor, who would be required to pick a replacement from that list. A few other states have a similar requirement for U.S. Senate vacancies, and many more do so for state legislative vacancies.