These reforms, which House Democrats previously passed in 2019, face a challenging path in the Senate given Democrats’ narrow majority and uncertainty over whether they can overcome a GOP filibuster, but their adoption is critical for preserving American democracy amid unprecedented attack by Republican extremists both in and outside Congress. Senate Democrats have announced that they plan to hold hearings on the bill on March 24, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has committed to holding an eventual floor vote.
Using Congress’ power to regulate Senate and House elections under the Elections Clause and enforce anti-discrimination laws under the 14th Amendment, the bill would:
- Require states to establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions for congressional redistricting;
- Establish nonpartisan redistricting criteria such as a partisan fairness provision that courts can enforce starting immediately no matter what institution draws the maps;
- Establish automatic voter registration at an array of state agencies;
- Establish same-day voter registration;
- Allow online voter registration;
- Allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register so they’ll be on the rolls when they turn 18;
- Allow state colleges and universities to serve as registration agencies;
- Ban states from purging eligible voters’ registration simply for infrequent voting;
- Establish two weeks of in-person early voting, including availability on Sundays and outside of normal business hours;
- Standardize hours within states for opening and closing polling places on Election Day, with exceptions to let cities set longer hours in municipal races;
- Require paper ballots filled by hand or machines that use them as official records and let voters verify their choices;
- Grant funds to states to upgrade their election security infrastructure;
- Provide prepaid postage on mail ballots;
- Allow voters to turn in their mail ballot in person if they choose;
- Allow voters to track their absentee mail ballots;
- End prison gerrymandering by counting prisoners at their last address (rather than where they’re incarcerated) for the purposes of redistricting;
- End felony disenfranchisement for those on parole, probation, or post-sentence, and require such citizens to be supplied with registration forms and informed their voting rights have been restored;
- Provide public financing for House campaigns in the form of matching small donations at a six-for-one rate;
- Expand campaign finance disclosure requirements to mitigate Citizens United;
- Ban corporations from spending for campaign purposes unless the corporation has established a process for determining the political will of its shareholders; and
- Make it a crime to mislead voters with the intention of preventing them from voting.
Importantly, the bill that won approval on the full floor on Wednesday contained critical amendments strengthening its anti-gerrymandering provisions. While the original version would not have required states to use independent commissions and nonpartisan redistricting criteria until 2030, the revised bill would implement them right away. And even if states don’t have enough time to set up new commissions ahead of the 2022 elections, they would still be banned from drawing maps that unduly favor a party, which a court could then enforce.
Ending Republicans’ ability to gerrymander is of the utmost importance after Republicans won the power to redistrict two-to-three times as many congressional districts as Democrats after the 2020 elections. If congressional Democrats don’t act, Republican dominance in redistricting may practically guarantee that Republicans retake the House in 2022 even if Democrats once again win more votes, an outcome that could lead to congressional Republicans more seriously trying to overturn a Democratic victory in the 2024 Electoral College vote than they did in January, when two-thirds of the House caucus voted to overturn Biden’s election.
If this bill becomes law, Republicans would lose that unfettered power to rig the House playing field to their advantage. Instead, reform proponents would gain the ability to challenge unfair maps in court over illegal partisan discrimination, and the bill would eventually require states to create independent redistricting commissions that would take the process out of the hands of self-interested legislators entirely.
Protecting the right to vote is just as paramount when Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced hundreds of bills to adopt new voting restrictions by furthering the lies Donald Trump told about the election that led directly to January’s insurrection at the Capitol. With Republican legislatures likely to pass many of these bills into law—and the Supreme Court’s conservative partisans poised to further undermine existing protections for voting rights—congressional action is an absolute must to protect the ability of voters to cast their ballots.
The most important remaining hurdle, however, is the legislative filibuster: The fate of these reforms will depend on Senate Democrats either abolishing or curtailing it. Progressive activists have relaunched a movement to eliminate the filibuster entirely, while some experts have suggested that Democrats could carve out an exception for voting rights legislation. Either way, Democrats will need to address the filibuster in some fashion, since Senate Republicans have made it clear they will not provide the support necessary to reach a 60-vote supermajority to pass H.R. 1 into law.
● Minnesota: A group of Minnesota citizens, including a veteran redistricting expert and a former state supreme court justice, filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to prevent Minnesota’s current congressional and legislative districts from being used next year if state lawmakers are unable to pass new districts by Feb. 15. That outcome is likely given that Democrats hold the state House and governorship while Republicans hold the state Senate. Similarly divided governments have led the courts to intervene to draw new maps in each of the last five decades.
● New Mexico: A committee in New Mexico’s Democratic-run state Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would establish a bipartisan advisory redistricting commission to handle redistricting for Congress, the state legislature, the state Public Regulation Commission, and the state Public Education Commission. Democratic state House Speaker Brian Egolf endorsed the proposal after previously opposing a competing reform measure that passed unanimously in state House committee in early February.
The Senate bill would create a commission with seven members, with four chosen by the leadership of both parties in each of the state’s two legislative chambers, two unaffiliated members selected by the state Ethics Commission, and a final seventh member named by the Ethics Commission who would be a retired appellate judge and would serve as commission chair. No more than three commissioners could be members of the same party, and anyone who is or has served as an officeholder, candidate, or lobbyist (or whose close family members have) in the two years prior to redistricting could not participate.
Commissioners would devise three proposals for each type of office and hold public hearings to discuss them. Districts would have to be drawn according to the following criteria: equal population; legislative districts cannot split precincts; adherence to the federal Voting Rights Act and its protections of voters of color; compactness; preservation of communities of interest and local government jurisdictions; and preservation of the cores of existing districts. The criteria apparently do not prohibit mapmakers from considering partisanship or incumbency.
Once commissioners have come up with three different proposals for each office and held public hearings, they would submit the maps to the legislature for approval by lawmakers. The bill doesn’t mention any prohibition on lawmakers amending the proposed districts, meaning this reform measure could nevertheless result in legislators adopting gerrymandered districts.
● South Dakota: Last month, the League of Women Voters and other good-government organizations announced a plan to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year that would establish an independent redistricting commission. Supporters would need to file just under 34,000 signatures, roughly 10% of the total vote for governor in the most recent election, by this November in order to get onto the ballot.
Since South Dakota only has a single statewide congressional district, the proposal would only affect legislative redistricting. The measure would create a nine-member commission chosen by the state Board of Elections with no more than three members belonging to the same party, though the proposal is vague on the specifics of the selection process.
Mapmakers would have to adhere to several criteria, which prioritize compactness, followed by preserving communities of interest and keeping counties and cities undivided to the extent practicable. Commissioners would be barred from considering partisanship or incumbency. While Republican lawmakers would still have the opportunity to draw new districts for the 2022 elections even if the amendment passes, the commission would sweep into action immediately, crafting new maps in 2023 for the 2024 elections and then in years ending in “1” every 10 years afterward.
Voting Access Expansions
● Congress: House members are set to introduce a bill with bipartisan support that would make Puerto Rico a state following a referendum last November in which voters backed statehood by a 52-48 margin. The bill’s 48 sponsors in the House are mostly Democrats but also include around a dozen Republicans, several of whom are from Florida, which is home to a large Puerto Rican population. However, even if the House passes the bill, it will face a challenging path to overcoming a likely filibuster by Senate Republicans, as only Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott are reportedly supporting the bill on the GOP side.
● Delaware: Democratic state Rep. Bryan Shupe has announced he plans to introduce a bill later this month that would end Delaware’s unusual system that requires voters to register twice: once for state and federal elections and separately for local races. This system regularly leads to situations where voters who are registered in state elections try to vote in their local elections only to find out on Election Day that they can’t vote. Democrats hold both legislative chambers and the governor’s office in Delaware.
● Idaho: Idaho’s Republican-run state Senate has unanimously passed a bill to set up a standardized process for requiring local election officials to contact voters and give them a chance to fix any errors with their absentee ballots such as a voter signature supposedly not matching the one on file.
● Maryland: Maryland’s Democratic-run state House has passed a bill to create a semi-permanent list that will automatically mail absentee ballots in all future elections to voters who opt in. A handful of other states have similar systems, though this proposal differs in that voters who don’t vote in two consecutive election cycles would be removed from the list and have to reapply.
Meanwhile, state House Democrats passed a bill with some bipartisan support to strengthen voting access on college campuses, military bases, retirement homes, and other “large residential communities.” Sites like these would be able to request an in-person voting location, and colleges would be required to establish voter registration efforts on campus and give students an excused absence to vote if needed. The bill would also let military service members register online using their identification smart cards issued by the Defense Department.
● New Mexico: New Mexico’s Democratic-run state House has unanimously passed a bill that aims to protect Native American voting access in a variety of ways. Among other provisions, the bill requires that every reservation or other Native community have an in-person polling place, which fills an important gap since many Native communities lack reliable postal service for mail voting and also have a large proportion of residents who lack a driver’s license or access to other transportation options.
● New York: Following its recent passage in the state Senate, a bill has been approved in committee by Assembly Democrats that would automatically restore voting rights to everyone who is not currently incarcerated, which would permanently end the disenfranchisement of parolees. Currently, many parolees are only able to vote because Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order two years ago to restore the rights of people on parole who were convicted of certain crimes, meaning their right to vote could be rescinded by a future governor unless this bill passes.
● New Jersey: New Jersey’s Democratic-run Assembly has passed a bill with bipartisan support to create an in-person early voting period after their counterparts in the state Senate passed similar legislation last week. The Assembly’s bill would adopt 10 days of early voting for general elections starting in November, five days for presidential primaries, and three days for all other primaries and any municipal elections taking place in May. The measure would require each of New Jersey’s 21 counties to establish between five and 10 early voting locations.
● Utah: Utah’s GOP-run legislature has unanimously passed a bill creating a system where voters can track the status of their mail ballots via email or text message. Utah is one of a handful of states that mails ballots to all active registered voters by default.
● Virginia: Both chambers of Virginia’s Democratic-run legislature have passed a constitutional amendment that would abolish felony disenfranchisement for everyone who is not currently incarcerated. Currently, state law imposes a lifetime ban on voting by anyone convicted of a felony, but that system has been curtailed because Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and his Democratic predecessor issued executive orders to automatically restore voting rights upon completion of any prison, parole, or probation sentences. Those orders, however, could be rescinded by any future Republican governor.
To become law, legislators would have to pass this same amendment again after the 2021 elections before it would have to win approval in a November 2022 voter referendum. A separate amendment that would have abolished felony disenfranchisement entirely, including for people currently in prison, failed to advance before a key deadline.
● Supreme Court: On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case over two Arizona voting restrictions that could deal a crippling blow to what remains of the Voting Rights Act after the high court’s conservatives gutted a key part of the law in 2013. Observers widely agreed that the court’s conservative majority was leaning toward upholding the Republican-backed voting restrictions, but it was unclear from oral arguments just how gravely the court could undermine the standards used to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
This case involves two Arizona laws that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found had both the effect and intent of discriminating against Black, Latino, and Native American voters. If both findings are overturned, it may become impossible to challenge similar laws in the future.
Last year, the 9th Circuit blocked both measures: one that bars counting votes cast in the wrong precinct but in the right county, and another that limits who can turn in another person’s absentee mail ballot on a voter’s behalf.
Arizona had largely transitioned to mail voting even before the pandemic, but the 9th Circuit observed that only 18% of Native American voters receive mail service, and many living on remote reservations lack reliable transportation options. That led some voters to ask others in their community to turn their completed ballots in, which Republicans have sought to deride as “ballot harvesting” in an attempt to delegitimize the practice. The invalidated law had limited who could handle another person’s mail ballot to just close relatives, caregivers, or postal service workers.
The 9th Circuit’s ruling also invalidated a separate provision prohibiting out-of-precinct voting, in which a voter shows up and casts a ballot at the wrong polling place but in the right county on Election Day. Under the invalidated law, voters in such circumstances could only cast a provisional ballot, which were automatically rejected if it was later confirmed that the voter had indeed showed up at the wrong polling place.
This decision relied on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits laws that have a discriminatory effect against racial minorities regardless of whether there was an intent to discriminate. The finding of a discriminatory effect is critical because it’s often much more difficult if not impossible to prove that lawmakers acted with illicit intent, whereas statistical analysis can more readily prove that a law has a disparate negative impact on protected racial groups.
Consequently, it’s this so-called “effects test” that is the key remaining plank of the Voting Rights Act following the Supreme Court’s notorious 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Some legal observers remained optimistic that the worst may not come to pass, since Arizona Republicans’ oral arguments did not touch on the constitutionality of the VRA’s effects test. However, others have noted that even if the effects test isn’t formally struck down, the Supreme Court could make it so difficult to comply with the requirements to prove discrimination that the VRA would nevertheless become meaningless.
In one revealing exchange, conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Republican attorney Michael Carvin why the state GOP was even party to this case. Carvin responded with an admission that the 9th Circuit decision striking down the two voting restrictions “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats” because “every extra vote they get … hurts us.”
● Arizona: Republicans in the Arizona Senate have passed a bill that could purge roughly 200,000 voters from the state’s “permanent” mail voting list, which is supposed to automatically mail 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. Republicans only hold a two-seat majority in both the state House and Senate, so they would need every member on board to overcome Democratic opposition.
In the state House, meanwhile, Republicans have passed a bill that would require people and groups who register more than 25 voters in a given year to themselves register with the state, mandating that they put unique identifying numbers on every registration form they submit. Voter advocacy groups have condemned this bill and warn that it could lead to registration forms being rejected.
● Alabama: Alabama House Republicans have passed a bill that would ban local election officials from establishing curbside voting or setting up voting machines outside of polling places, which would make it harder for people with disabilities and limited mobility to cast their ballots.
● Arkansas: Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has signed a bill into law that makes Arkansas’ voter ID law much stricter, making it one of the first of many Republican-backed voting restrictions under consideration nationwide to become law following the 2020 elections. The bill removes the option for voters who lack an ID to vote by signing a sworn statement under penalty of perjury, instead mandating an ID in order to have one’s vote counted.
- Require that voters provide the number on their driver’s license, state ID, or a photocopy of their ID when requesting an absentee ballot and a photocopy of their ID when returning an absentee ballot;
- Limit weekend early voting;
- Restrict absentee ballot drop boxes to only the inside of early voting locations or county election offices, making them unavailable outside of regular business hours;
- Set a minimum of one drop box per 200,000 registered voters (other states such as California require one drop box per 15,000 voters);
- Shorten the runoff period in federal elections from nine weeks to four weeks, with the apparent intent of giving campaigns less time to mobilize voters (instant runoffs would be used for overseas civilian and military voters to avoid running afoul of federal law mandating that their ballots be sent out 45 days before an election);
- Ban state officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot request forms to all voters after Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger did so in the 2020 primary;
- Disqualify ballots that were cast in the wrong precinct but in the right county, which currently may be counted as provisional ballots;
- Limit mobile early voting buses to only emergency situations;
- Bar counties from receiving private funding to help administer elections; and
- Block officials from distributing food and drinks to voters waiting in line to vote.
Meanwhile, in the state Senate, Republicans passed a bill in committee to end no-excuse absentee voting for voters under age 65, who typically lean more Democratic than older voters. Late last month, Republicans in the full Senate also passed a bill that would give the state the power to take over local election boards that supposedly fail to meet certain standards, which Democrats condemned as a way to let Republicans usurp control over election boards in Democratic-leaning counties.
● Montana: State House Republicans have passed a bill over Democratic objections that would bar anyone who isn’t a family or household member, caregiver, or an “acquaintance” who is a registered voter in the same county from turning in another person’s ballot, thereby preventing voter advocacy groups or political campaigns from organizing ballot collection efforts.
A previous Republican-backed law imposing similar restrictions was blocked in court last year for discriminating against Native American voters, who often live on remote rural reservations where mail service and transportation access are limited. This latest bill may therefore also face difficulty surviving a likely lawsuit.
● New Hampshire: New Hampshire’s Republican-run state Senate has passed a bill along party lines to add a voter ID requirement for requesting and casting absentee ballots, sending it to the state House, which is also controlled by the GOP. New Hampshire is one of several states where Republicans are considering extending voter ID requirements to absentee ballots after Democrats disproportionately voted by mail in the 2020 elections.
● Idaho: Idaho’s Republican-run state Senate has passed a bill that would make it all but impossible for progressive initiatives to get on the ballot by requiring proponents to submit voter signatures equivalent to 6% of registered voters in each of the state’s 35 legislative districts instead of 18, the current requirement.
The bill, which would take effect immediately, would disproportionately impact progressives because left-leaning voters are heavily concentrated in a handful of denser urban districts. Liberal organizers would therefore have to canvas in rural districts where receptive voters are few and far between. Conservatives, by contrast, would have an easier time canvassing for signatures in cities because, even if right-leaning voters represent a relatively small proportion of voters, they live in closer proximity to one another.
Republicans in Idaho have advanced similar restrictions on initiatives in recent years as a reaction to successful efforts by progressives to expand Medicaid and increase public education funding at the ballot box during the last decade. Fearing a lawsuit, GOP Gov. Brad Little vetoed a similar bill in 2019 but the Senate passed this most recent bill with a veto-proof majority.
● South Dakota: South Dakota’s Republican-run legislature voted this week to put a constitutional amendment on the June 2022 primary ballot that would institute a 60% supermajority requirement for ballot initiatives that raise taxes or spend more than $10 million in public funds within a five-year period. The amendment would not, however, require a supermajority to cut taxes or spending. Democratic legislators blasted Republicans for trying to manipulate the election to their advantage by placing the amendment on the primary ballot instead of sending it before voters in the general election, noting that turnout in the 2020 primary was just one-third as high as it was last November.
Republicans have repeatedly tried to enact restrictions on ballot initiatives in recent years after voters approved an initiative in 2016 that would have placed strict limits on lobbying, created an independent ethics commission, and implemented a public campaign finance system that would have given each voter a voucher to donate to their preferred candidates.
In 2017, Republicans resorted to declaring an actual state of emergency to enable the legislature to immediately repeal the voter-approved ethics law and make it immune to a veto referendum, meaning supporters of the reform needed double the signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to restore the measure. Although they did just that in 2018, then-Republican Attorney General Marty Jackley gave the new amendment a ballot summary that said it would “likely be challenged on constitutional grounds,” and voters rejected the second ethics commission amendment 55-45.
Electoral System Reform
● Burlington, VT: Voters in Vermont’s largest city of Burlington voted by 64-36 margin to approve a ballot measure that will adopt instant-runoff voting in City Council elections starting next year. This vote comes just over a decade after Burlington voters narrowly repealed instant-runoff voting for mayoral elections after it had been used to elect the mayor in 2006 and 2009. Before it can take effect, though, it must be approved by the Democratic-run legislature and Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
Currently, Kentucky’s governor is Democrat Andy Beshear while both of its senators are Republicans, meaning this bill would prevent Beshear from replacing either McConnell or fellow Sen. Rand Paul with a Democrat if either were to leave office. Republicans easily hold enough seats to override a potential veto by Beshear. 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.
Ever since Beshear’s narrow 2019 win, Kentucky Republicans have advanced a series of moves to strip him of his executive power, and this proposal is part of the same partisan effort to constrain Beshear’s authority. However, despite the GOP’s self-interested motives, the proposed system is already used in many states for legislative vacancies and a handful of states for Senate vacancies and better ensures the will of voters is respected.