In stark contrast to the Republican rush in statehouses around the country to make voting more difficult, Virginia and New Jersey joined other Democratic-led states this week in passing new laws that would improve voting access.
In 47 states, 843 bills have been introduced, largely offered by the Democrats, which would enhance access to votes in Brennan Center for Justice and have tracked voting measures across the country.
In a total of 47 states, Republican lawmakers have introduced 361 restrictive bills. According to the Brennan Center, the most stringent bills have been introduced in Texas, Arizona, and Georgia, states that are competitive in presidential elections but where Republicans have complete control of state legislatures.
Since former President Donald Trump’s lies about alleged election fraud in 2020 triggered a new, fiercely partisan fire under the fundamental issue of voting access, new voting rules have been enforced.
There are a few notable exceptions: Kentucky’s Republican-controlled legislature passed bipartisan voting reform legislation this week, sending a bill to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk that requires no-excuse in-person early voting on Thursday through Saturday in the week before an election, but refrains from the emergency extension of mail-in voting that occurred last year in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, Democrats dominate the majority of states that have extended voting rights. Those states that are making voting more difficult — Georgia and Iowa have already passed new laws; Arizona, Florida, Texas, Michigan, and other key states are currently advancing legislation that would introduce new limits — are dominated by Republicans or, in the case of Michigan, have a GOP-controlled legislature that plans to bypass the Democratic governor.
A number of the GOP bills would make it illegal for Democratic-led counties, such as Harris County, Texas’ largest and home to Houston, to enforce their own voter-access initiatives.
“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 one of the reasons why voting rights advocates and Democrats have campaigned for uniform voting laws for all Americans. However, those measures, including the House-passed “For the People Act,” which would extend early voting, enable same-day registration, mandate automatic voter registration, and ease ID requirements, among other items, have failed to gain enough Republican support to pass the Senate.
The rush to reform voting rules, as well as the increased attention the issue is receiving from both parties’ base, demonstrates the hyper-partisan nature of what may be the most important fight for voting rights since the civil rights period.
It’s a change from a more recent time, when some voting-law reforms were enacted with bipartisan support. For example, early changes to mail-only voting occurred in Republican-dominated Utah and Oregon, where the transition was supported by GOP legislators. In an online briefing with journalists on Wednesday, Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, said that previous extensions of voting access have occurred “in what we would consider non-competitive states,” such as historically red states like Alaska, which has automatic voter registration.
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.
The state legislature in Washington has submitted a bill to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee that would immediately restore voting rights to people who have been convicted of a crime after they are released from jail. Despite Republican resistance to restoring the voting rights of those on parole or probation, the bill was passed. The state Senate in Delaware has passed legislation that would automatically register voters when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles. The bill is now on its way to the House of Representatives.
Virginia has been the most aggressive in improving voting rights since Democrats gained control of the Senate in late 2019, bringing the party the first majority in both houses of the legislature since 1994. In recent months, the state has repealed its voter ID law, declared Election Day a holiday, created automatic voter registration for anyone who obtains a driver’s license, and permitted 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting.
Last month, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order restoring convicted felons’ voting rights as soon as they end their prison sentences, a step that would affect over 69,000 previously incarcerated Virginians.
Northam also signed the Virginia Voting Rights Act this week, making Virginia the first state to pass its own version of the federal Voting Rights Act. He only made slight technical improvements to the bill, which still needs to be passed by the legislature before becoming law.
Before making changes like changing voting precincts, municipal election officials will have to seek public input or receive advance approval from the state’s attorney general. It gives the attorney general the power to sue for voter fraud and outlaws racial discrimination and coercion in the voting process.