Democrats push back on voting rights

August 19, 2013

After crying foul over Republican efforts to modify election laws in key states, Democrats are launching their own wide-ranging push to change the way Americans vote, kicking off the latest battles in a fight over voting rights that’s as old as the republic itself.

Last week, operatives tied to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee launched what they call a 50-state initiative to promote voting reforms that would make it easier to cast a ballot. The effort is being run by American Values First, an outside group organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code and run by Michael Sargeant, the DLCC’s executive director. Democrats will push legislation similar to a Colorado measure signed into law earlier this year that requires all elections to be conducted by mail.

Legislators in at least seven other states will propose bills that would tweak election laws in other ways. In some states controlled by Democrats, the measures have a good chance to pass. In other states with divided control or that operate under Republican control, Democrats plan to use the measures as political cudgels, painting the GOP as opposed to basic voting rights.

The new push comes in response to Republican initiatives to rewrite election laws in key states. Republicans in North Carolina and Florida moved to cut the number of days on which a voter can cast a ballot early. Arizona and Florida both imposed new restrictions on groups that sign up voters for absentee ballots. And Republican-led legislatures in states from New Hampshire to Michigan to Florida passed legislation requiring voters to show photo identification before they receive a ballot.

Democrats have criticized the new rules as overly restrictive, making it more difficult for an eligible voter to cast a ballot. Their legislative response: Make it easier for eligible Americans to register to vote and to sign up to receive a ballot by mail.

“What we’re promoting is ease of access,” Sargeant said. “People are getting mobilized now to push back against these far-right attempts to limit democracy. Some of these efforts [by Republicans] have been ignored for too long, and now people understand that this is not something you can sit back and watch. You have to get involved and stop it.”

Sargeant wouldn’t comment on the new group’s budget. American Values First launched last week in Atlanta, during a meeting of the National Conference on State Legislators.

The Colorado law, which passed on party-line votes in the Democratic-controlled legislature, will require residents to vote entirely by mail. Two other states, Washington and Oregon, already hold all-mail elections; implementation of the law in those states coincided with their shift from presidential swing states, in 2000 and 2004, to pillars of the party’s West Coast stronghold. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the measure in May over protests from Republicans led by Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

In Oregon, a bill that would have automatically registered eligible voters when they receive driver licenses failed by a single vote last year when a Democratic state senator surprised her colleagues by voting against it. Rep. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat, said he would reintroduce the bill when the legislature’s 2014 session kicks off in January. “It’s a pretty simple bill,” Frederick said in an interview. “Unlike some of the Republican efforts, there’s actually a problem to be solved. This is not something we’re making up.”

Minnesota Democrats this year rolled back a provision that required voters to give an excuse for receiving an absentee ballot. Gov. Mark Dayton signed that bill in May, making his state the 34th that offers so-called “no-fault” absentee voting. State Rep. Steve Simon, the Democrat who heads the committee that oversees voting rights legislation, said he will push other reforms this year, though Dayton has said he will only sign voting legislation that earns bipartisan support. If Dayton sticks to that promise, that makes other Democratic-led reforms unlikely to win his approval.

Efforts to change election rules are less likely to succeed in states where Republicans control at least one lever of state government. Democrats who control both legislative chambers in Maine will push to expand voter access to absentee ballots and early voting locations, but Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, is unlikely to sign anything that passes. And Democrats in Nevada passed bills to extend the deadline for new voters to register and to add additional polling places; both measures were vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican.

Republicans say the DLCC’s new push is little more than an effort to fundraise off an issue that matters to their base. “What concerns me is that the vaunted Democrat-Obama machine brags about tens of millions spent on the ground game trying to turn out votes, yet now doesn’t seem satisfied with that,” said Chris Jankowski, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “They seem to want to loosen and make the system as lenient as possible. You still have to protect the integrity of elections.”

The battle over who gets to vote, and how, is nothing new, said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies voting patterns. Issues such as military voting and national voting qualifications were debated as the Constitution was being drafted.

“Partisanship seems to rule when it comes to the ballot box. This is nothing new in American politics. We can go all the way back to the founding of the country to see these types of laws being debated,” McDonald said. “Inevitably, it comes down to people having perceptions that they have some benefit over the change in the laws.”

McDonald said he didn’t expect most of the voting law changes, whether they be measures that require voters to show an identification, or measures to universally register voters or ease access to absentee ballots, to have a dramatic impact on turnout. Canada adopted a measure similar to Oregon’s proposed universal registration in the 1990s, McDonald noted, and turnout actually decreased in subsequent years. That means while both parties can tinker with the rules, they still need to do the blocking and tackling of actually identifying and motivating their own supporters.

“You can lead that proverbial horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink. Voters need to have an interest in the election before they go through the hoops of casting a ballot,” McDonald said.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | August 19, 2013