Congressional Democrats Came out Swinging on Voting Rights. Will State-Level Democrats Follow?

Voting rights advocates say they expect new Democratic majorities to prioritize automatic voter registration and other reforms.

[Photo: Five women of color voting at early voting polls.]
Democrats, despite a progressive wave in the 2018 midterm election, aren’t in position to reverse all of the attacks on ballot box access. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

It was no coincidence: Republicans, after dominating state legislative and gubernatorial races in the 2010 midterms, made sure to immediately pass a range of voting restrictions. Making it tougher to vote took precedence over busting labor unions, slashing taxes for the rich, and ramming through a raft of laws eroding access to abortion care.

“That’s what conservatives do—they satisfy the right-wing base as quickly as possible,” said Bernie Horn, senior director for policy and communications at the Public Leadership Institute, a nonpartisan policy center based in Washington, D.C. “The whole idea behind what conservatives do is to suppress the vote to win the next election.”

And it worked. State-level GOP lawmakers in the 2012 general election and 2014 midterm elections maintained their hold on power in many states that previously had Democratic majorities or split legislatures, offering Republicans almost a decade to pass disastrous economic austerity measures and legislative attacks on LGBTQ rights and abortion access.

Bolstering voting rights is among the top priorities of the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, which on Thursday introduced a bill aimed at ending gerrymandering, creating a public elections financing system on the federal level, and implementing automatic voter registration (AVR). Democrats in state legislatures won’t be far behind their congressional counterparts, voting rights observers and activists said.

Viki Harrison, director of state operations for Common Cause, a nonpartisan government oversight group based in Washington, D.C., said the group’s officials “expect every state to have voting rights bills introduced” in 2019, including online voter registration in Texas, early voting in New York, and AVR in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico, a state where Democrats have a new governing trifecta.

“Open access to the ballot for all eligible voters is critical to our democracy, and all legislators, whether they are in Congress or in the states, should move legislation to protect that right quickly and decisively,” Harrison told Rewire.News, citing recent voting rights setbacks like GOP voter roll purges and the reduction of early voting windows. “2019 can and should be the year to reverse the damage that has been done and help return our country to one where every voice is valued and heard.”

GOP-majority legislatures in 25 states have passed some form of voting restriction since 2010’s sweep midterms, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voter suppression laws in the United States. Republicans in states like Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana, and Tennessee passed strict voter ID laws in the proceeding years. There are now 34 states with some form of voter ID requirement, even as courts rule against some of the laws.

Democrats, despite a progressive wave in the 2018 midterm election, aren’t in position to reverse all of these attacks on ballot box access.

They could, however, push measures in 2019 that make it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot. Instituting automatic voter registration, banning voter intimidation and suppression, giving voting rights to people who will be 18 years old on election day, and offering workers paid leave to head to the voting booth are among the laws Democratic-held legislatures could take up in 2019. Democrats’ 2018 gains included breaking several state-level Republican supermajorities, meaning voting restrictions passed in those states wouldn’t be able to survive a veto by a Democratic governor.

Those who track state legislative trends said they expect new Democratic majorities to prioritize voting rights’ expansion, which would likely help the party’s electoral chances in 2020, just as restricting voter access aided Republicans after the 2010 election. 

“It’s good politics to just move and move quickly,” Horn told Rewire.News. “There’s no reason to delay and there’s every reason to do it sooner so state elections officials have time to prepare for 2020.” Horn said waiting until 2020 to pass voting rights laws would be “impractical.”

Even though a state-level expansion of voting rights wouldn’t be permanent—future GOP majorities could roll back these measures—it might become politically unfeasible for Republicans to attack laws that encourage voting once they are enacted, state legislative observers told Rewire.News.

“Clearly any changes to voting rights and electoral policies are not immune from future interference either through the legislative process or litigation,” said Janet Hoy, co-president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina. But doing away with a range of new voting rights, she added, “would prove difficult.”

“It seems that once something has been out in place and the voting public has embraced it, it is perceived as the new norm and is often hard to roll back,” Hoy said. “Not impossible … but certainly more difficult.” 

Automatic voter registration, which registers eligible people to vote when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles, is considered by elections analysts to be safer, more inclusive, and less prone to error than traditional voter registration systems. AVR, as it’s known, is widely seen as a bulwark against Republican efforts to make it harder to cast a vote.

A national AVR bill introduced in the U.S. Congress in recent years received little GOP backing even though automatically registering people to vote would make elections more secure—an issue Republican lawmakers claim to care about. Hoy said passage of an AVR law in Congress—even if it only clears the Democratic-majority House of Representatives—could propel the concept forward on the state level. 

“Movement at the federal level could move this whole effort forward,” she said. 

The past four years have seen marked state-level progress for AVR. Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have enacted automatic voter registration since 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, saving money and creating more efficient voter registration systems.

Progressive lawmakers and activists in New York last year led a campaign to pass AVR, which had the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who won re-election in November. But just like New York voting reforms proposed in 2012 and 2015, last year’s effort fell short in New York’s state senate, which was controlled by Republicans with the help of the since-defeated right-wing Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference. Democrats, who now have total control of the state government, could make AVR law in 2019. 

“Voting rights and ensuring all eligible voters are registered to vote makes political sense for all parties—poll after poll shows us that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of political party, believe the right to vote is inherent for all citizens in our country,” Harrison said. “And with Congressional Democrats introducing a bill … that includes automatic voter registration, it makes sense for state legislators to do the same.”