February 1, 2023

With newfound powers, Democrats race to expand voting rights at the state level

6 min read


After strong election results in the midterm elections, Democrats in some key states are moving fast on voting rights this year – pushing ambitious plans to expand ballot access ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

In the presidential swing state of Michigan — where Democrats have won the governorship and both legislative chambers for the first time in nearly four decades — Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and a group of lawmakers recently released a package of ballot priorities. announced. These range from criminalizing harassment of election workers to expanding voter-approved early voting.

Newly empowered Democrats in Minnesota, meanwhile, are pushing a suite of election changes through the Legislature, including establishing automatic voter registration and restoring voting rights to felons.

And in Arizona — a battleground state where Democrats have flipped key statewide offices — new Democratic Attorney General Chris Mays recently diverted the attention of an “election integrity unit” established by his Republican predecessor from investigating voter fraud. Announced plans to move on “protecting voter access” and the fight against voter suppression.

“Nobody thinks it’s going to be easy, but there’s a general feeling in the air that change is possible,” said Lily Sass, a We Choose Us – a 26 group. Unity Joe is supporting an election package introduced by Democratic lawmakers in the Minnesota Legislature this month.

Republicans hold the majority of state legislative seats across the country, but Democrats defied political odds by not losing their legislative majorities in 2022. Democrats achieved four new trifectas at the state level in the midterm elections, winning the governorship and both houses of the legislature in Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan.

In Michigan, Democrats benefited politically from an increase in liberal voter turnout in 2022. Successful ballot measurement That included abortion rights in the state constitution, along with blueprints for new legislation drawn up by an independent commission.

Senator Jeremy Moss, the newly elected chairman of the Democratic state Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, said Michigan lawmakers are now engaged in a “very difficult reset” after repeated attempts by Republicans who previously controlled the state legislature. To approve new voting restrictions And find ways to block Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto pen.

Last year, Whitmer and two of the state’s top Democrats – Benson, the top election official; and Attorney General Dana Nissel – Defeated a slate of Republican challengers. Who falsely claimed that former President Donald Trump had won the 2020 election. (President Joe Biden won the state by more than 154,000 votes.)

“Now, we have evidence across the aisle that Michigan voters want to push back on these lies and lies,” Moss said.

And last November, Michigan voters approved the constitutional amendment. which simplified the voting rules in several ways. Among other things, it established nine-day early, in-person voting, mandatory ballot drop boxes and prepaid postage to return absentee ballots. It also allowed voters to sign a statement verifying their identity if they did not have a photo ID.

Democratic priorities during the newly convened legislative session include passing legislation to implement parts of the new constitutional amendment. Other proposals include criminalizing spreading electoral disinformation or harassing and threatening election workers. Moss said he wants to ban the practice of paying petition gatherers for each signature, saying it provides an incentive for fraud.

A scandal over forged signatures knocked many. Republican candidates voted in Michigan last year.

Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, said she would ask the Legislature to tap. Projected a $9.2 billion budget surplus Providing $100 million to help local jurisdictions conduct elections.

She is also launching a Bipartisan Election Policy Working Group to review and recommend election proposals on a rolling basis. Its first meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.

“There’s a sense of urgency and a sense of opportunity,” Benson told CNN.

In Michigan and Minnesota, Democrats hold narrow majorities in their respective state legislatures, leaving little room for any defections in their ranks as they struggle to enact their election priorities in the coming weeks. are doing

In Minnesota, Democratic lawmakers introduced one this monthN Election Package It includes measures that would automatically register eligible Minnesotans to vote when they get a new driver’s license, allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote and be released from prison. It will provide the right to vote to those who are guilty of crimes.

Currently, ex-felons in Minnesota must complete all portions of their sentence, including any probation, parole or supervised release, before they can register to vote.

But Democrats are also following a parallel path, pushing some of their priority bills as standalone measures. For example, a separate bill to restore voting rights for ex-felons has cleared a select committee and will be considered by a House Judiciary panel on Thursday.

Its sponsor, state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, said he and his fellow Democrats didn’t want to miss the opportunity. He has spoken with lawmakers who served in the Legislature a decade ago when Democrats last held the trifecta in state government. “It’s a real shame we didn’t do it at the time,” he said.

Frazier said the proposal would restore the voting rights of about 50,000 Minnesotans. “What we’re saying by not allowing them to participate in the election process is that even though they’re back in the community, ‘you’re not healthy yet,'” he said.

If successful, Minnesota would join 21 other states that automatically restore some or all of the voting rights to ex-convicts after they are released from prison. Numbers by Voting Rights Labwhich tracks election laws at the state level.

In three jurisdictions — Vermont, Maine and Washington, D.C. — convicted felons are never disenfranchised, even in prison. In Oregon, another state where Democrats control the governor’s seat and both houses of the legislature, a bill introduced this month would give voting rights to those still in prison.

In New York, another Democratic stronghold, the state Senate passed an array of fast-track election bills this month that allow for ballot drop boxes, portable early voting locations and other ways to make voting easier.

Voting rights activists are watching the action in the states closely — especially after Biden and his fellow Democrats failed to pass federal voting rights legislation last year when his party passed both houses of Congress. Controlled.

Republicans now control the US House of Representatives, making passage nearly impossible. GOP House members, who cast the elections bill as federal overreach, voted against it as a bloc last year. In the US Senate, Democrats failed to change the chamber’s filibuster rules to advance the measure on a simple majority vote.

“That’s what we’re saying: ‘When you’ve got this power, when you control this trifecta, you’ve got to use it,'” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. Said, who has argued. For federal intervention. “Hopefully, these states will do what the Democrats couldn’t do at the federal level.”

The moves by Democrats in Minnesota and Michigan follow a raft of voting restrictions in other key states after the 2020 election that fuel unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election by Trump and his allies.

Last year alone, at least seven States have enacted 10 restrictive voting laws.According to the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.

And lawmakers continue to propose new laws this year that critics say will make it harder to vote or serve to intimidate voters.

In Texas, where the Republican-controlled legislature passed major voting restrictions, new proposals this year Focus on the prosecution of election crimes. And would give state attorneys general or new “election marshals” additional enforcement powers.

In Ohio, which is expected to be one of the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races of the 2024 cycle, a law signed this month by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine requires photo ID to vote. and more stringent deadlines are set for requesting and returning mail. Ballots Several liberal-leaning groups already exist. Challenged the law. in federal court.

Veteran progressive strategist David Donnelly said pro-voting groups will be deeply engaged in “defensive work” this year despite electoral gains in places like Michigan.

Donnelly is the lead strategist for two organizations, the Pro-Democracy Center and the Pro-Democracy Campaign, which spent $32 million before last year’s midterms on organizing efforts to promote ballot access.

About $4 million of that went to groups that were active in Michigan and Minnesota during the midterms – including a $250,000 get-out-the-vote grant, which supported Michigan’s successful constitutional amendment.

“It’s better to be on offense in some spots than everywhere on defense, but that doesn’t mean the defensive battles aren’t as critical as they were last year,” Donnelly said.

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