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Voting Rights Battles in the States

Brenden Timpe

President Obama and some members of Congress have made waves recently with calls for voting reform. But your access to the ballot probably depends more on what’s going on at the nearest statehouse.

With state legislative sessions well underway, lawmakers across the country have unleashed a raft of bills tweaking their states’ voting systems. Here are a few issues to keep an eye on.

Early voting is one hot topic among state legislatures – sparked, no doubt, by Florida’s embarrassing experience in the 2012 presidential election. Sunshine State lawmakers thought they could cut back on the opportunity to vote early and no one would notice. Instead, they created mass confusion and long lines that forced voters to wait up to six hours to cast a ballot.

Florida lawmakers got the message, and they are now advancing a bill that would increase the number of early voting days to 14. Even Gov. Rick Scott, who helped engineer the original cutback, has done an about-face and come out in support of the expansion.

Early voting is also on the rise in New Jersey and Missouri, which may join the 32 states that have already embraced the practice. South Carolina may jump on board, too – a positive step for a state where the average voter waited more than an hour in 2008. Meanwhile, Maryland's legislature is considering a bill that would expand the number of early voting centers across the state, and also allow citizens to register to vote at these centers. But not all states have learned Florida’s lesson. Lawmakers in Nebraska, North Dakota, and even North Carolina want to cut back on early voting.

Voter ID requirements are also making headlines across the country. Eleven states are considering new voter ID laws, while another six may tighten their existing requirements. In most cases, this means your vote won’t be counted unless you can show poll workers one of a few pre-approved forms of identification. Despite the claim that these laws combat fraud, they are actually much more efficient at disenfranchising voters – especially those from low-income families or minority communities.

Same Day Registration is in place in 9 states and the District of Columbia. Most of these laws are wildly successful, but that isn’t stopping some state lawmakers from trying to eliminate them.

In Wisconsin, legislators have targeted the Same Day Registration policy that has been in place since 1975. There is a push to repeal a similar law in Montana, where lawmakers say it led to long lines in November 2012. Left unsaid – the long lines were not at the polls, but at the separate facility where citizens can register on election day. If not for Same Day Registration, these individuals – many of whom were listed at the wrong address simply because of an administrative error or a recent move – would have lost the opportunity for their ballots to be counted. 

Even as SDR faces new attacks, prospects also look good for expanding this practice in additional states. Colorado is actively considering enacting Same Day Registration as is Maryland, where Demos' Steve Carbo recently offered testimony in that state's legislature in support of SDR. Carbo noted, among other things, that SDR provided a cost-effective fail safe to ensure that everyone who shows up at the polls can still vote -- an important feature amid widely documented problems with registration system and widespread frustration at polling places. As Carbo notes:

A previously registered voter who only learns on Election Day that her name has been left off the voter rolls can simply update a faulty registration record or register anew with SDR, and cast a ballot that will be counted. 

This remedy to incomplete rolls is preferable to provisional ballots. And Same Day Registration, said Carbo, "can be a boon for local elections officials, dramatically reducing the complicated, post-election process of verifying registrations and/ or sending notifications to those whose votes were not counted – a time-consuming and expensive task."

As Demos has pointed out before, citizens should be wary about lawmakers who want to make it harder to exercise the right to vote. You can bet there are a few of these folks in your state’s legislature, so it’s a smart idea to stay tuned in the weeks ahead.