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Voting Rights Roundup: Ohio GOP readies new voting restrictions, together with a ban on pay as you go postage

Republicans are also considering codifying some of LaRose’s directives into law, such as one that limited counties to a single location for mail ballot drop boxes regardless of population size instead of outright banning them. Combined with a 2006 law Republicans passed to limit counties to one early voting location regardless of size, this directive means that populous Democratic-dominated urban counties such as Franklin County, which is home to the state capital of Columbus and 1.3 million residents, are placed at a disadvantage compared to residents of smaller Republican-leaning counties like Vinton County, which has just 13,000 residents but the same number of drop boxes and early voting sites.

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While most of the bill appears aimed at making it harder to vote, cleveland.com reports that Republicans might include a few measures that would expand voting access. LaRose has backed giving voters the option to automatically update their registrations when they do business with the state’s driver’s licensing agency, though that proposal falls short of true automatic voter registration, which would cover currently unregistered voters. LaRose also expressed optimism that the bill would enable online requests for absentee ballots, even though he refused to allow this method via administrative action last year by claiming only lawmakers had that power despite a court ruling that officials could do it.

Redistricting

New York: Democrats, who control both the legislature and the governorship, have reached a deal on the state budget, meaning the package of proposals is likely to become law. The legislation includes $4 million in funding for New York’s bipartisan redistricting commission, which will likely moot a lawsuit filed last month seeking to compel lawmakers to adequately fund the commission.

Oregon: Democratic lawmakers in Oregon have agreed to relinquish their majorities on the legislature’s redistricting committees and give the GOP an equal number of committee seats in return for Republicans backing off of some of their unprecedented legislative obstruction that has taken place through abusing Oregon’s unusual two-thirds supermajority requirements for quorums to stop Democrats from passing bills. This supposed compromise appears to give Republicans veto power over a Democratic congressional gerrymander but not a Democratic gerrymander of the legislature itself, a development that we will explore in more detail in the next Voting Rights Roundup.

Voting Access Expansions

Congress: On Wednesday, House Democrats passed a bill in a committee that would grant statehood to most of Washington, D.C. A vote on the bill on the full House floor is expected on Thursday, with passage likely following a 2020 vote that saw House Democrats pass D.C. statehood for the first time ever.

Alabama: Alabama’s Republican-run state Senate almost unanimously passed a Democratic-sponsored bill last month that would make voting rights restorations for people with felony convictions more automatic than the current process, which requires affected citizens to apply to have their rights restored.

The bill would also soften a current requirement that those who have completely served any prison, parole, or probation sentence must also pay off all court fines and fees before regaining voting rights. Instead, it will require such citizens to comply with a payment plan for a year before being eligible to vote, although they would still have to pay off any court-ordered restitution to crime victims.

Alabama has one of the more restrictive felony disenfranchisement regimes in the country, with some crimes resulting in a lifetime ban on voting. However, the state passed a law back in 2017 that clarified and limited which specific offenses result in a lifetime voting ban, making it easier for some people convicted of felonies to regain the right to vote.

Despite that 2017 reform, Alabama still disenfranchises 9% of its adult population according to a 2020 estimate by the Sentencing Project; this proportion is higher only in two other states (Mississippi and Tennessee). That figure rises to 16% for Black adults, who are disenfranchised at twice the rate of all others and make up 46% of the disenfranchised population, even though only 26% of adult citizens in Alabama are Black.

Voting rights advocates have also sought to curtail Alabama’s felony disenfranchisement system via litigation, but a federal district court rejected a lawsuit last December that had sought to strike down the requirement to pay off court fines and fees as a de facto poll tax in violation of the 24th Amendment.

Arkansas: Arkansas’ heavily Republican state Senate voted 18-13 to approve a measure establishing online voter registration that had passed almost unanimously in the state House, but because the bill needed two-thirds support in order to modify a provision laid out in the state constitution, it failed to advance. Arkansas therefore remains one of just nine states that require voter registration but haven’t implemented an online option open to all voters.

California: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill in committee that is intended to strengthen California’s automatic voter registration law by changing the way in which prospective voters are given the chance to opt out of registration. Currently, eligible voters who do business with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles are automatically registered unless they choose to opt out at the time of the transaction, known as a “front-end” system. This latest bill would instead shift that opt-out chance to a subsequent mailed notification, a “back-end” system that proponents hope will encourage more new voters to remain opted in.

Most states that have adopted automatic registration use a front-end system, but a few have enacted a back-end approach, such as Oregon, which was the first state in the country to adopt automatic registration back in 2015. Researchers have yet to conclusively demonstrate the superiority of either approach, however. Immigrant rights groups have also expressed concern that design choices might accidentally cause undocumented immigrants to unintentionally register in violation of the law, something that lawmakers in several states have taken steps to address.

Colorado: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill to let people with disabilities vote online as a way to protect their right to vote a secret ballot. While the bill is intended to protect voting access, security experts have widely warned that internet-based voting is inherently insecure under any existing technology.

Hawaii: Hawaii’s Democratic-controlled state House has almost unanimously passed a bill that would establish automatic voter registration through Hawaii’s driver’s licensing agency. The chamber also unanimously approved another bill that would expand the number of in-person vote centers, where any voter in a county may cast their ballot. The second bill would also require that people on parole and probation be given voting information, including a notification that they’ve regained their voting rights upon release from prison.

Following the earlier passage of both bills in the Democratic-run state Senate, both chambers must now agree on a final version before they can proceed to Democratic Gov. David Ige. Democrats previously passed automatic voter registration in both chambers in 2019 only to see the two chambers fail to agree on a final version, so it’s unclear whether lawmakers will come to an agreement this time.

Maryland: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has let two voting bills passed by Democratic legislators become law without his signature. The first requires more countywide early voting centers in each county by revising the formula for determining the minimum number of locations. It also requires that such centers be located near high-demand areas and that public transportation options taken under consideration.

The second newly enacted law permanently expands absentee ballot drop boxes, adopts an improved system for letting voters track the status of their absentee ballots, and requires a process for notifying voters and letting them fix purported problems with those mail-in ballots.

Democratic legislators have also sent a bill to Hogan that requires absentee drop boxes inside prisons for incarcerated individuals who remain eligible to vote. Additionally, it requires that prisoners be given voter registration forms upon release.

Nevada: Assembly Democrats have passed a bill along party lines in a committee that aims to make Nevada the first state in the presidential nominating contests and simultaneously improve voting access. The measure would abolish the state’s existing caucus format, replacing it with a primary with 10 days of early voting and same-day voter registration. It would also shift the date to the first Tuesday in February in an attempt to supplant Iowa and New Hampshire as the first contest.

This move could spark a race among other states to move their primaries up in the calendar, and it’s unclear if national party organizations will allow Nevada to make this change without imposing any penalties. However, proponents argue that Nevada’s diverse population is more reflective of the Democratic Party and the country as a whole, giving it a better claim on going first than heavily white Iowa or New Hampshire.

Democrats on the same Assembly committee also passed a bill that would make universal vote-by-mail permanent after its temporary adoption last November due to the pandemic. The bill further mandates a minimum number of in-person polling places and shortens the deadline for the receipt of mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to four days afterwards instead of seven.

Meanwhile, Democrats also passed a bill along party lines in a state Senate committee that would establish a straight-ticket voting option, which allows voters to check a single box to vote for all candidates on the ballot affiliated with a single party without having to mark every race. If the voter also checks the box for a particular candidate from the opposite party, that vote would supersede the straight-ticket vote in that instance. The straight-ticket option has been important in other states for preventing long voting lines in communities of color by reducing the time needed to fill out a ballot.

The same bill would also require the governor to select a same-party replacement appointee for any future U.S. Senate vacancies. Many states including Nevada already require same-party appointees for legislative vacancies, and Republican lawmakers recently had Kentucky join the list of states that impose a similar requirement for the Senate.  However, a provision was removed from the bill before it passed in committee that would have doubled the voter signatures required for third parties or independents to qualify for the ballot.

North Dakota: Republican Gov. Doug Burgum has signed a bill passed with bipartisan support that aims to make it easier for college students to obtain the documents needed to vote by enabling public colleges to issue students a document containing “the institution’s letterhead or seal.” Under the state’s voter ID law, voters who have a valid driver’s license but whose address may not be up-to-date may vote if they have a supplemental ID such as a utility bill, but students don’t always have access to such documents, something this new law seeks to remedy.

Voter Suppression

Arizona: Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has signed a bill passed by GOP legislators that bans local election officials from accepting private grant money to help pay for the cost of administering elections. Republicans have advanced similar bills in a number of states after philanthropic organizations backed by wealthy individuals such as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger donated hundreds of millions to local governments around the country in 2020.

Republicans claim that these bans are needed to prevent major donors from supposedly exerting undue influence on election administrators, though there is no evidence to indicate such a thing has ever happened. Republicans could address their alleged concern by simply allocating adequate public funding in the first place, yet they haven’t done so. As a result, election officials around the country will continue to receive inadequate funding, which has been a long-running problem.

Arkansas: Arkansas Republicans have passed bills over Democratic objections that aim to restrict voting access and give their party more power over election administration, which GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson will reportedly sign.

One of the bills would require the signature on an absentee ballot application to match a voter’s original signature on their voter registration, even though a voter’s signature often changes over time. That bill also bans officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn’t affirmatively request them.

A different measure would emulate a law that Georgia Republicans last month passed and kicked off a national backlash by effectively banning giving food or drinks to voters waiting in line. Still another bill would take away county clerks’ power to determine the locations of voting centers. One more bill, passed in the Senate and in a House committee, would give partisan county election boards more control over local election officials.

However, for the second time, Republicans failed to pass a bill in a state Senate committee that would eliminate the popular final day of early voting on the Monday before Election Day.

Indiana: State House Republicans have passed a bill to require voter ID for absentee ballot requests, which follows the bill’s earlier passage in the GOP-run state Senate. However, the House removed a Senate-approved provision from the bill that would have stripped Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and the state Election Commission of their power to institute emergency changes to election procedures or dates after they used those powers to temporarily expand voting access during the pandemic last year. The two chambers must now agree on a final version before the bill can proceed to Holcomb.

Kansas: Republican legislators have given their final approval to bills that would strip state judges and executive branch officials such as Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of some of their powers over election procedures and impose new restrictions on absentee voting.

Responding to actions by Democratic executive officials in other states during the pandemic last year to improve voting access by extending key deadlines, altering election procedures, and agreeing to legal settlements, one of the Kansas GOP’s bills would prevent the judicial and executive branches of state government from altering election laws or entering into legal agreements known as “consent decrees” without legislative approval. The bill additionally imposes disclosure requirements for groups sending information about mail voting to voters.

Another Republican-backed bill would restrict who may collect and submit a completed absentee ballot on behalf of another voter, including making it a felony for anyone to return more than five ballots. That bill also bans candidates from assisting voters to cast their ballots; bans the secretary of state (currently Republican Scott Schwab) from extending deadlines for absentee voting; and requires absentee ballot signatures to match the one officials have on file. However, Republicans lacked a veto-proof two-thirds majority when passing the second bill in the state House, so it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to override Kelly’s likely veto.

Montana: Following on the measure’s earlier approval in the GOP-run state House, a committee in Montana’s Republican-run state Senate has passed a bill that would prevent the governor from making emergency election changes without legislative approval, as former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock did last year to authorize counties to adopt universal vote-by-mail during the pandemic. While newly elected GOP Gov. Greg Gianforte is unlikely to take steps like these expanding access, this bill would give GOP legislators a veto over similar attempts by any future Democratic governor.

Meanwhile, state Senate Republicans also narrowly failed to pass a bill that would have barred 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 absentee ballot, thereby preventing voter advocacy groups or political campaigns from organizing ballot collection efforts. Since it would require a two-thirds vote to reconsider the bill, a supermajority that Republicans lack, the bill is effectively dead.

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, and had this bill become law, a lawsuit would have been practically guaranteed.

Ballot Measures

Missouri: State Senate Republicans have passed a constitutional amendment that aims to stifle ballot initiatives after activists had used them in recent years to pass redistricting reform, raise the minimum wage, and expand Medicaid. The GOP’s amendment, which state House Republicans already passed, would require two-thirds voter support instead of the current simple majority for passing constitutional amendments. When it goes on the ballot itself, it would also ask voters whether “only” citizens should be allowed to vote, a provision that is already law but whose inclusion appears intended to increase the likelihood that voters will favor the amendment.

Republicans’ amendment would also require that initiative proponents obtain signatures equivalent to 10% of voters in all eight congressional districts instead of the current requirement of 8% of voters in just six districts. Since Democrats and Black voters are heavily concentrated in just two of those eight districts, this geographic distribution requirement would make it even harder for progressives to put measures on the ballot by requiring them to gather more signatures in conservative rural districts where left-leaning voters are few and far between.

North Dakota: Following state House Republicans’ recent rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have raised the threshold of voter support needed to amend the state constitution to 60% from the current simple majority, a conservative-aligned group tied to big businesses has announced it will try to put the proposal on the ballot on its own. To qualify for the ballot, supporters will need signatures equal to 4% of the state’s 2020 population, which the census will release later this month; GOP Secretary of State Al Jaeger estimates that number to be around 31,000.

These GOP-backed efforts to make initiatives harder come as a reaction to reformers who used initiatives to establish a state ethics commission in 2018 and sought to ban gerrymandering in 2020, albeit unsuccessfully. While the ethics commission measure passed, North Dakota’s conservative-dominated state Supreme Court removed the redistricting measure from the ballot on the dubious grounds that the petition voters had signed to place the measure on the ballot was misleading, but redistricting reformers could try again with a modified proposal later this decade.

Election Security

Texas: Texas’ Republican-run state Senate and a state House committee have both passed bills (available here and here) with widespread bipartisan support to require voting methods that produce a verifiable paper trail. Texas is one of the last few states that still uses paperless voting machines in some of its jurisdictions.

Judicial Elections

Texas: Following the recent withdrawal of a bill that would have allowed GOP lawmakers to redraw Texas’ appellate court districts to Republicans’ advantage, state Senate Republicans have surfaced a different approach to limiting the power of Democratic judges. Legislators in the upper chamber passed a bill this week that would leave the current appeals court districts in place but create an entirely new appeals court with five judges elected statewide who would seize the existing court’s purview over lawsuits that challenge state laws or are directed at state agencies.

Such cases are currently heard mostly by the state’s 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, which Republicans drew back in 2005 in part to dilute the impact of Democratic voters in Austin by combining them with rural, heavily Republican counties. But subsequent population growth in the suburbs, combined with a profound shift to the left among urban and suburban voters during the Trump era, saw Democrats gain control over this court district in 2018, which now has a 5-1 Democratic majority.

If this bill becomes law, those five new statewide judges would likely be Republicans, given that Democrats haven’t won a statewide election for any office in Texas since 1994. That may not last, however: The trends that saw the Austin court district shift from red to blue are playing out across the state as a whole, so switching to statewide elections could eventually backfire on the GOP. But before that day comes, Republicans could simply enact yet another change to keep the courts on their side.

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