Virginia and New Jersey this week joined other Democratic-led states moving ahead with new laws that would expand voting access — a stark contrast to the Republican rush in statehouses across the country to make voting more difficult.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which has tracked voting measures across the country, 843 bills that would expand voting access, largely offered by Democrats, have been introduced in 47 states.
Republican lawmakers have introduced 361 restrictive bills in a different set of 47 states. Texas, Arizona and Georgia — states that are competitive in presidential elections, but where Republicans have full control of statehouses — have seen the largest numbers of restrictive bills introduced, according to the Brennan Center.
The crush of new voting rules comes after former President Donald Trump’s lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election ignited a new, fiercely partisan flame under the fundamental issue of voting access.
There are rare exceptions: Kentucky’s Republican-controlled legislature this week passed bipartisan voting reform legislation, sending to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk a bill allowing no-excuse in-person early voting on Thursday through Saturday in the week before an election, but backing away from the emergency expansion of mail-in voting that took place last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Largely, though, states that have expanded voting access are controlled by Democrats. And those that are making voting harder — Georgia and Iowa already have new laws on the books; Arizona, Florida, Texas, Michigan and other key states are currently advancing bills that would impose new restrictions — are led by Republicans or, in Michigan’s case, have a GOP-controlled legislature that plans to circumvent the Democratic governor.
A number of those GOP measures would even prohibit Democratic-led counties, such as Harris County, the largest in Texas and home of Houston, from implementing their own efforts to ease voting access.
“Your access to the ballot depends a lot on where you live,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, “and the divide is growing.”
It’s part of the reason voting rights activists and Democrats have pushed to establish baseline voting rules for all Americans. But those proposals, including the House-passed “For the People Act,” which would expand early voting, allow same-day registration, require automatic voter registration, ease ID requirements and more, has not attracted enough Republican support to clear the Senate.
The rush to change voting laws and the heightened attention both parties’ bases are paying to the issue shows the hyper-partisan nature of what could be the most significant battle over voting access since the civil rights era.
It’s a departure from a more recent period in which some overhauls of voting laws were implemented with bipartisan support. Early shifts to mail-only voting, for example, occurred in Republican-dominated Utah and in Oregon, where the change was backed by GOP lawmakers. Previous expansions of voting access often happened “in what we would deem non-competitive states,” including traditionally red states such as Alaska, which has automatic voter registration, Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, said in an online briefing with journalists Wednesday.
But following Trump’s falsehoods about election fraud, “what we are now seeing is that any state, that is, you know, Republican-controlled, is trying to move forward on voter-suppression measures, and many Democratic states … saw the greater outcomes from the last election — greater turnout and access — and are moving forward with expansions.”
That’s not true in every single state, she said, but “we are seeing trends, and they are often breaking down” along partisan lines.
What Democratic-led states are doing
In Washington, the state legislature has sent to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk a bill that would automatically restore the voting rights of people convicted of a felony once they are released from prison. The measure was approved despite Republicans’ objections to restoring the voting rights of those who are on parole or probation.
In Delaware, the state Senate has approved a bill to automatically register voters when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles. That bill now heads to the House.
Virginia — where Democrats won control of the Senate in late 2019, giving the party its first majority in both chambers of the legislature since 1994 — has been the most aggressive in expanding voting access. The state in recent months has repealed its voter ID law, made Election Day a holiday, allowed 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting and established automatic voter registration for anyone who obtains a driver’s license.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last month took executive action to immediately restore former felons’ voting rights as soon as they complete their prison terms, a move that will immediately apply to more than 69,000 formerly incarcerated Virginians.
Northam this week also approved the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, which would make the state the first to enact its own version of the federal Voting Rights Act. He made minor technical changes to the measure, which must be approved by the legislature before it becomes law.
The measure would require local elections officials to take public feedback or get advanced approval from the state’s attorney general before making changes such as moving voting precincts. It allows the attorney general to sue over voter suppression, and prohibits racial discrimination or intimidation related to voting.
“At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it,” Northam said in a statement.
Lawmakers in New Jersey have sent the state’s Democratic governor two election bills that together would expand voting rights for residents in the state, as GOP-led states move to restrict access to the ballot box elsewhere.
The first bill, given final passage from the state Senate on Thursday in a 28-8 vote, would allow residents to vote 10 days before a general election at specially designated polling sites, according to a release from the New Jersey Senate Democrats. The bill only applies to a June primary or a November general election, according to the lawmakers, but municipalities could adopt an early voting period by ordinance for other elections.
A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy said that the governor intends to sign the early voting bill on Tuesday.
A second bill sent to the governor gives the county board of elections the ability to determine the location of ballot drop boxes, the lawmakers’ release said. The state General Assembly and Senate gave final approval to the measure on Thursday.