The States Making Voting Easier: While Georgia moves to restrict voting rights, Virginia and California offer models for legislation that expands ballot accessibility.
Also see https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-13/how-activists-are-challenge-new-voter-laws and https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-12-09/nyc-moves-to-allow-noncitizens-green-card-holders-to-vote New York City has approved a measure that allows noncitizens to participate in local elections, expanding rights for about 800,000 residents at a time when other parts of the country are making it harder to vote. The legislation applies to legal permanent residents and those authorized to work in the U.S., a fraction of the 3 million immigrants living in the city. The City Council voted 33 to 14, with two abstentions, in favor of the legislation. Outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he would let the bill go into law. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has voiced support for the proposal. “We are giving dignity and respect to close to 1 million New Yorkers who made important contributions,” Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, the bill’s prime sponsor, said in an interview. “Their contribution should be valued and measured the same as any other New Yorkers’.”
By Hadriana Lowenkron, Bloomberg, August 24, 2021
Across the U.S., states from Georgia to Kansas are enacting laws that would place restrictions on mail-in voting, add ID requirements and reduce the number of ballots people are allowed to submit on behalf of others, citing election security as their primary concern.
But even more states are pushing through legislation that would make voting more accessible to all, and they dispute claims that fewer barriers to the polls will lead to fraud. These efforts are feeding into a broader push for Congress to pass the recently updated John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced in the House on Aug. 17, which would restore protections against voter discrimination under the increasingly hollowed Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We are in a circumstance where it’s necessary for Congress to act, to make sure that American voters across the country have access to the promise of the right to vote, and are protected from discriminatory voting procedures,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that tracks voting rights legislation.More fromBloombergCitylabThe Road WarriorsA Mayor Makes the Case for Investing in Micro-Businesses‘Definition Please’ Is a South Asian Ode to Rust Belt PennsylvaniaAfrica’s First Heat Officer Faces a Daunting Task
In the meantime, Virginia became the first state to pass its own version of the Voting Rights Act, called the Voting Rights Act of Virginia this year. State law now prohibits discrimination in election administration, requires local election officials to get feedback or pre-approval for voting changes and allows individuals to sue in cases of voter suppression.
“I reject the premise that there’s a tension between increased access and weakened security,” said Virginia House Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat who authored another voting rights bill the state passed this year, which makes a host of changes to absentee voting procedures that improve ballot availability and accessibility. The passage of that bill followed another piece of legislation — introduced by Virginia House Delegate Mark Sickles in a special session ahead of the 2020 election — that allowed mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if received by noon on the Friday after the election.
Vote by Mail
On the West Coast, California lawmaker Tom Umberg helped pass a bill that authorizes voters to use a vote-by-mail tracking system and requires county election officials to mail a ballot to every active registered voter, a practice that has been outlawed in other states.
“With the [vote-by-mail] ballots, there are barcodes that correspond to your registration, that correspond to the ballot that was sent out, that correspond to the ballot that comes back in, and so it is secure,” said Umberg. “And I think both the concerns and estimates as to those who wish to tilt the process are way overblown. Here in California, we have a hard time getting people who are undocumented to go to the hospital when they’re sick or their children are sick in order to prevent the disease or injury from being exacerbated, let alone folks voting.”
Including Virginia’s and California’s new rules, 25 states have enacted 54 laws this year that make it easier to vote, compared with at least 18 states passing 30 laws that restrict voter access, according to the Brennan Center’s latest voting rights roundup. There are hundreds more bills pending that expand voter accessibility and rights across 49 states this year.
Local and state activists have also been using lawsuits, donations, public pressure and other methods to push back against restrictive laws, created under the rationale of rampant voter fraud, despite U.S. officials announcing that the 2020 elections were the most secure in U.S. history. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that voting by mail can be “an effective way of ensuring that many citizens have a practical ability to participate in the election process, given the various logistical difficulties that may preclude individuals from appearing at a polling place on Election Day.”
“No Systematic Failure”
A separate report from the National Task Force on Election Crises, a nonpartisan group, analyzed the capacity of state and federal governments to combat voter intimidation and increase access. The task force offers recommendations such as expanding pre-canvassing of absentee ballots, which allows election administrators to begin processing ballots in advance of Election Day in order to mitigate post-election delays in determining results. Another recommendation is to increase crisis-tested voting options, such as early voting and mail-in voting.
“There was no systematic failure of election infrastructure or digital interference from enemies foreign or domestic. Despite voter suppression attempts, turnout was historic — and historically diverse,” the report reads. “At least 85% of voters had the option to bypass polling locations and vote from the safety of their homes in this election. Mail-in voting helped to alleviate pressure for in-person voting and enabled those who were high-risk for Covid-19 to vote without risking their health.”
Some conservative lawmakers advocate that restricting voter access is making voting easier. In Florida, a bill from state Senator Dennis Baxley requires applicants to present ID when requesting a mail-in ballot, limits the availability of drop boxes at early voting sites and prohibits individuals from handling more than two additional mail-in ballots beyond their own, not including immediate family members.
Baxley, a Republican who served in the Florida legislature during the controversial 2000 Bush-Gore election, said he “kept mail voting alive” despite personal concerns with the capability of the U.S. Postal Service, and even as many Republican lawmakers have voted this year to eliminate mail-in voting. He said he reduced the number of drop boxes because they are unobserved, could “get rained in, or full of water,” or people could secretly remove or add ballots to them.
But the Brennan Center’s Sweren-Becker says that Baxley’s law still restricts voter access.
“The other common method that voters [use to] deliver absentee ballots is through mailboxes, which sit on street corners and are not monitored or staffed,” said Sweren-Becker. “The suggestion that there was some problem with the way that ballot boxes operated in Florida is disingenuous, because I have seen no evidence of any problems being surfaced in last year’s usage of that method of casting ballots.”
“Notice and Cure”
This disconnect over election security, often along party lines, can lead to misinformation among voters — something that Vermont state Senator Cheryl Hooker says can be combated with voter education. Hooker’s bill arose from learning one of her constituents’ ballots was denied for a reason she did not understand. The bill, which was signed into law on June 7, establishes a universal vote-by-mail system for all state general elections and implements a “notice and cure process” in which clerks are required to mail a postcard to the voter by the next business day following rejection of a ballot, informing them of any defect and how to correct the error.
“I introduced the bill to allow people who had voted by mail, who had made a mistake — like not signing the outside envelopes [or] not sending back the unvoted ballots — to cure the defect that caused their ballot to be denied,” Hooker said.
There’s precedent for this: Following the Bush-Gore 2000 election controversy, the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that focuses on public policy and political history, assembled a commission to examine voting systems and recommend reforms. Many of the suggested improvements ultimately helped inform, and were subsequently adopted in, the Help America Vote Act, which addressed improvements to voting processes and access, and was signed by former President George W. Bush in 2002.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who was honorary co-chair for the Miller Center commission, and former Secretary of State James Baker III then founded the nonpartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, which put out a report in 2005 that the Brennan Center slammed for lacking detail and empirical data. The report recommended a controversial ID requirement that critics said would disenfranchise millions around the country, including the four million with disabilities who did not possess a driver’s license or other form of state photo ID at the time. It also argued that voting by mail was “likely to increase the risks of fraud” — becoming a crucial weapon for today’s restrictive voting laws.
Despite Carter’s denunciation of politicians cherry picking that sentence as rationale for their restrictive laws, it became part of Chief Justice John Roberts’ key rationale in the July 2021 Supreme Court ruling upholding provisions of an Arizona law that restricts how ballots are cast. Carter maintains that the line’s main purpose was to call attention to the need to further study vote-by-mail practices.
“American democracy means every eligible person has the right to vote in an election that is fair, open and secure. It should be flexible enough to meet the electorate’s changing needs,” Carter said in a statement in response to Georgia’s new restrictions. “As Georgians, we must protect these values. We must not lose the progress we have made. We must not promote confidence among one segment of the electorate by restricting the participation of others.”
Here’s How Activists Are Challenging Voting Restrictions
Local and state activists are using lawsuits, money and public pressure to push back against new laws that would make voting harder for marginalized groups.
By Hadriana Lowenkron July 13, 2021, Bloomberg KOCOCA-COLA CO/THE60.45USD-0.30-0.49%
On June 1, the League of Women Voters of Kansas, along with several other voting rights groups, sued the Kansas Secretary of State and Attorney General in a challenge to new laws that include criminalizing anyone who “gives the appearance of being an election official” or anything “that would cause another person to believe a person engaging in such conduct is an election official.”
The state already has an existing law that makes it illegal to impersonate an election official. However, the new law would also apply to advocates such as the League of Women Voters of Kansas, who assist voters with disabilities and other people who need special assistance when casting ballots. That means bringing more than 10 advance ballots to the polls on behalf of other people, like the elderly or people with disabilities, could now be considered a criminal act, and such assistance could lead to 15 to 17 months in prison.
The restriction is one of several new state limitations placed on voter assistance — and in some cases, on voting itself. As of June 21, there have been 28 bills enacted across 17 states this year that restrict voter access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. Ten of the new laws now criminalize previously normal voting practices akin to Kansas, and dozens more similar bills are still moving through state legislatures.
“This has been far and away the biggest, most aggressive wave of anti-voting legislation at the state level that we’ve seen since, certainly any year that we’ve been tracking, probably since at least the 1960s,” said Will Wilder, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s voting rights and elections team. The center is currently tracking at least 30 voting rights-related lawsuits from 11 different states in 2021, with nine additional cases filed in 2020 that are ongoing.
The U.S. Supreme Court on July 1 upheld provisions of an Arizona voter law, saying that the restrictions didn’t sufficiently burden minority voters, and that the state’s interest in mitigating fraud was legitimate. That decision has shown the limits of local and state organizations fighting such legislation in court as they seek to make voting more accessible and advocate for voters who have historically faced discrimination.
A Federal Fight
“The issues we’re having exemplify why we need to have national voting standards,” said Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas. “National standards for voting access would protect our freedom to vote, and make sure that the voting options are easily accessible across all 50 states.”
Although the 15th and 19th amendments granted Black men, and women, respectively, the right to vote, a century of Jim Crow laws following Reconstruction enabled the birth of intimidation, violence, literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses to strip them of that right. The passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965 removed those restrictions, in part by placing power in the federal government to outlaw states’ discriminatory voting practices, just as Reconstruction gave people who were previously enslaved more rights and freedoms.
But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder declared Section four of the Voting Rights Act — the formula for determining which jurisdictions should be subjected to federal review for voting changes — unconstitutional, empowering states to further restrict voting practices.
Now, voting rights activists and many lawmakers share a common goal of getting voting rights legislation passed in Congress. The For the People Act would ensure all registered voters can vote by mail and in person for 15 days before Election Day, and ban restrictive voter ID laws and other barriers to voter registration. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would reimplement the “preclearance” formula that was stripped away from Section four of the Voting Rights Act by requiring states and jurisdictions with a “proven history” of voting discrimination to undergo federal review of any election changes.
“These voter suppression bills were like the start of a schoolyard fight.”
Activists see the latest round of voting laws cutting across race, sex, gender, age and disability. According to a June report from Voting Rights Lab, voters with disabilities are typically the voters who need third-party assistance the most at the polls. A study from Rutgers University estimates there were 38.3 million such voters that took part in the November 2020 election.
For Sachin Pavithran, executive director of U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities, the laws are that much more detrimental to the disability community, whose biggest struggle when it comes to voting is transportation, or lack thereof.
“One worry I have, as a disabled person, is: what does it mean when you reduce opportunities to when you can vote?” he said. “If times are reduced, how do I even get to a polling place? Will we have to depend on someone else? On public transportation, which is limited?”
Georgia as a Battleground
“We were calling for corporate accountability for those corporations to make good on the promise that they made in the summer protest in 2020 to stand on the side of Black folks and for greater equity, and to use their influence to get an immediate repeal and to stop the passage of those bills from spreading,” said Fenika Miller, Georgia senior state coordinator for Black Votes Matter. “Our corporations cannot support people who stand in opposition to democracy.”
The coalition’s efforts eventually prompted the companies’ CEOs to publicly rebuke the law, and the U.S. Department of Justice filed its first major voting rights lawsuit since President Joe Biden took office on June 25, alleging the laws were enacted “with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of Black Georgians to vote on account of their race or color.”
“These voter suppression bills were like the start of a schoolyard fight, where folks would say ‘don’t cross my line,’ and they drew a line in the sand that we are prepared to step across,” Miller said. “We’ve never been afraid of playground bullies, and we just have to dig a little deeper, and strategize a little better.”
It’s this same reasoning that pushed Priorities USA, a liberal super PAC, to invest $20 million toward counteracting voting restrictions in late June and ramp up its media campaigns to further combat voter suppression by helping people understand how and where to vote.
“One of our post-mortem projects after 2020 revealed that for the first time in a very long time, the American people saw their vote as a means for impacting change in their communities on issues like social justice and health care and ending the pandemic,” said Aneesa McMillan, deputy executive director of Priorities USA. “They saw voting as a means of seeing change in their community. And so what we want to do is not only remind them of that and say ‘hey, this is a means for you to impact change in your communities, but also, here’s how the world around you is changing. Here’s how the voting laws and the things that are happening legislatively impact you and your vote.’”
New York City Expands Voting Rights to Noncitizens
The law, which applies to about 800,000 legal permanent residents and those authorized to work in the U.S., comes as the country faces a wave of voting restrictions.
By Elaine Chen December 9, 2021, Bloomberg
New York City has approved a measure that allows noncitizens to participate in local elections, expanding rights for about 800,000 residents at a time when other parts of the country are making it harder to vote. The legislation applies to legal permanent residents and those authorized to work in the U.S., a fraction of the 3 million immigrants living in the city. The City Council voted 33 to 14, with two abstentions, in favor of the legislation. Outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he would let the bill go into law. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has voiced support for the proposal. “We are giving dignity and respect to close to 1 million New Yorkers who made important contributions,” Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, the bill’s prime sponsor, said in an interview. “Their contribution should be valued and measured the same as any other New Yorkers’.”
The bill was introduced in January 2020, though the idea has been around since the mayor took control of public schools two decades ago, disbanding the school board elections that noncitizens were allowed to participate in. The new law would let them to vote in New York City’s elections for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, City Council, borough presidents and ballot initiatives.
“Their kids are in our public schools, they’re shopping in our stores, they’re driving down the same streets,” said Anu Joshi, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, which has helped lead the campaign. “They’re serving as essential workers on the front lines during this pandemic.”
The law comes as Republican-led state legislatures across the U.S. push voting restrictions, including laws that curb mail-in voting, add ID requirements and reduce the number of ballots people are allowed to submit on behalf of others. In New York elections last month, statewide ballot measures to allow for same-day voter registration and vote by mail without an excuse failed to pass.
By extending voting to noncitizens, the largest city in the U.S. could “be a role model not only to other cities in the state of New York, but to the whole country, especially those that have been on the attack when it comes to voting rights in the Midwest and the South,” Rodriguez said.
It could lead to positive outcomes not only for immigrants but for communities as a whole, said Ron Hayduk, a political science professor at San Francisco State University who has studied immigrant voting efforts. He said that when immigrant communities in New York were allowed to vote in school board elections, it resulted in the city devoting more funds to education and building new schools.
“To the extent that there’s greater pressure on elected officials to respond to community needs, those sometimes, and often are, common concerns,” he said. “These mobilizations can have mutual benefits for diverse community residents.”
Still, de Blasio has questioned whether such voting rights could be granted by the city. Republican Vito Fossella, Staten Island borough president-elect, said he would bring a legal challenge if the bill was passed. Adams’s spokesperson Evan Thies said the mayor-elect will discuss any legal concerns with his law department when he assumes office.
Fossella said that the law would dilute “the voice of our citizens” and “increase concerns over fraud” in a system that “has been made more complex by rank choice voting.”
Organizations leading the campaign behind the bill said the New York constitution and state election law do not prevent the city from deciding who has such voting rights. They also pointed out that New York would be following 13 towns in Maryland and Vermontthat have enacted similar laws, indicating there’s no federal rule that would stand in the way.
Municipalities with Noncitizen Voting
|11 towns in Maryland||Municipal elections|
|Two towns in Vermont||Municipal elections|
|San Francisco||School board elections|
De Blasio has also expressed concern that allowing noncitizens to vote may discourage them from pursuing full citizenship, a sentiment which advocates have pushed back against.
Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, which has also helped lead the campaign, said immigrants will continue to seek citizenship since it offers the most security.
“We know that it takes a long time to become a citizen,” Moran said. “So we want to make sure that while people are living here, working here, running small businesses, paying taxes in the meantime, that they have the ability to shape local issues.”(Updates with result of City Council vote. )