The last two decades have been pretty bleak for voting rights advocates. President George W. Bush revived the myth of voter fraud to give cover to Republican lawmakers’ efforts to restrict the franchise. The Supreme Court upheld voter ID laws and disemboweled the Voting Rights Act. Democrats’ down-ballot collapse in 2010 paved the way for state-level suppression across the country. The results have been entirely predictable: voter roll purges. Cuts to early voting in minority communities. Ever-more draconian ID and registration requirements. Insidious racial gerrymandering.
Voting rights supporters have been on the defensive for most of this battle, and Democrats have not always spent their political capital championing suffrage for all. That’s changing. This year, Democrats in four states have passed landmark legislation to make voting easier and fairer for everyone, and they’ve pursued an ambitious platform designed to restore and expand the franchise in the face of GOP attacks.
Start with Washington state, which vividly illustrates the new urgency of this issue to Democratic lawmakers and constituents. In November 2017, Democrat Manka Dhingra won a special election that tipped the control of the state Senate, giving the party a “trifecta”—control over both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s office. Almost immediately, Democrats got to work on a far-reaching slate of voting reforms dubbed the “Access to Democracy” package. Both houses passed the entire package over Republican opposition. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law in March.
The passage of automatic voter registration in Washington is especially worthy of celebration. AVR dramatically simplifies the registration process, signing up citizens to vote when they interact with a state agency, unless they opt out. (When a resident renews her driver’s license, for example, she is also registered to vote.) When Oregon became the first state to pass AVR in 2016, an additional 270,000 people were added to the voter rolls. (Experts estimate AVR could add 400,000 voters to the rolls in Washington.) A Demos study found that Oregon’s AVR bill substantially increased the racial, age, and income diversity of the state’s electorate. Forty-four percent of automatic registrants ended up voting in the next election, increasing the overall turnout rate by about 2–3 percentage points. The overwhelming majority of automatically registered voters chose to remain registered.
Democrats in Washington didn’t stop with AVR. They also included Election Day registration, which appears to drive up turnout. And they threw in automatic pre-registration for older teenagers, ensuring they can vote the day they turn 18.
Finally, Democrats made Washington the second state, after California, to pass its own Voting Rights Act. This law gives cities, counties, and school districts an incentive to abolish at-large voting, which tends to disenfranchise minority communities by diluting their votes. In 2014, a federal court found that Yakima, Washington’s at-large scheme “routinely suffocates” Latino voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act; the city eventually agreed to scrap at-large voting following years of expensive litigation. Shortly thereafter, Yakima elected its first Hispanic councilmember. In 2016, the same story played out in Pasco, Washington, though the city relented more quickly. Pasco elected its first three Hispanic councilmembers in the following election.
Washington’s new state-level Voting Rights Act seeks to avoid such costly lawsuits. It allows a resident to notify a city when it plans to challenge its voting scheme, then gives the city 180 days to fix the problem. The measure also grants local lawmakers clear authority to reform their election systems, as well as guidelines to ensure that these reforms increase voter equality. If cities still refuse to remedy biased election schemes, voters can sue under the law, and state courts can swiftly mandate new fairer districts.
With the passage of its Access to Democracy package, Washington caught up to its neighbors on the West Coast. Oregon pioneered AVR and added pre-registration in June 2017. California passed AVR in 2015 and pre-registration in 2017; it has had its own Voting Rights Act since 2002. In February, the state took a step forward by automatically pre-registering older teens.
Now the East Coast is beginning to catch up. In March, Maryland’s Democratic Legislature passed AVR; Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has not indicated whether he’ll sign the measure, but Democrats likely have the votes to override a veto. That same month, the New Jersey Senate also passed an AVR bill out of committee with bipartisan support. Democrats in both chambers, as well as Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, back the bill and hope to pass a slew of other reforms, including online voter registration, pre-registration, and expanded early voting.
In all of these states, at least a few Republicans have joined Democrats in backing voting rights. But the partisan divide on this issue is still entrenched. Illinois’ Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed an AVR bill in 2016 and only agreed to sign a watered-down version in 2017. Nevada’s Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval also vetoed an AVR bill in January; the state will now have to vote on the measure via ballot initiative in November. New Jersey, for its part, is lagging behind because Republican Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly vetoed Democrat-sponsored voting reforms throughout his two terms. Ed Gillespie, who ran for governor of Virginia as a Republican, attacked former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe for restoring voting rights to 168,000 rehabilitated felons. Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott is fighting a court order that undermines his ability to keep former felons disenfranchised. (Voters may restore voting rights to these individuals through a 2018 ballot initiative.)
In an ideal world, both major parties would oppose disenfranchisement. In America, one actively supports disenfranchisement. That is not healthy for American democracy—but it does give voting rights activists a concrete goal. The Democratic base already appears enthusiastic about prioritizing equal ballot access, and politicians are now getting the message. (It helps that voter suppression tends to hamper Democratic turnout.) Voting-rights advocates have no choice but to push to elect more Democrats and to hold their feet to the fire until they enact reforms that will get ballots in the hands of more Americans.
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In 2018, we’re turning our attention to the cornerstone of our democracy: the right to vote. Slate’s journalists will be offering expanded coverage of gerrymandering and voter suppression, investigating key legislative battles and court cases on the state and federal level. They’ll also offer new tools to help readers understand how the electoral sausage gets made.