On the eve of another election in America, we would like to take a minute to highlight the importance of voting access. So for our October Best and Worst in Governance, we call attention to those states who are moving forward with good ideas to bring more of their citizens to the polls as this month’s best, and the states and trends that limit opportunities for voters to participate in the democratic process as this month’s worst.
There has been considerable focus on voting rights in recent years. Since the 2010 election, 22 states have passed new voting restrictions, many of which are likely to suppress minority, elderly, and low-income votes. On the other hand, 11 states will roll out new voting processes designed to increase voter turnout on Election Day.
Given the feeble state of voter turnout across the country, it’s more important than ever to ensure that Americans have the greatest opportunities to make their voices heard. Access and ability to vote should be made available to as many citizens as possible even post Shelby v. Holder, the decision that allowed previously constrained states to enact changes to election law without federal approval.
Best in Governance
Louisiana and Illinois
In January 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration presented President Barack Obama with a series of recommendations designed to encourage state and local governments to improve the voting experience. The recommendations highlight several implementable reforms that can make the voting process more efficient, reduce waiting time at the polls, and increase opportunities to involve more citizens in the voting process. Since the last mid-term elections, several states have worked to expand voter access through various means, including modernizing voter registration systems, easing voter ID rules, increasing opportunities for same-day registration, broadening pre-registration options, and expanding early-voting windows.
Louisiana proves that increasing voting rights need not only be the preserve of left-leaning states. A recent poll from the Harvard University Institute of Politics found that less than one in four Americans under the age of 30 said they would “definitely be voting” in Tuesday’s elections, results that are consistent with recent research from Pew Research Center that shows decreasing rates of participation among younger voters in recent years. But Louisiana and several other states are taking steps to get citizens involved in the voting process earlier by creating pre-registration programs for 16 and 17-year-olds, often through driver’s license registration process. Unless they opt out, young Louisianans are automatically added to the voting rolls if they pre-register to vote starting at age 16. Giving young voters this easy option could pay beaucoup democracy dividends in elections to come across Louisiana and the eight other states that have passed similar registration legislation since 2005.
Illinois is another state that has taken a pro-active stance on finding ways to reach out to more voters. Thanks to the passage of HB 105, the state will allow voter registration on Election Day, provide more early voting time, and ease voter ID requirements for early voting. Same-day registration will be implemented as a pilot program for the mid-term election, part of an effort from legislators to find the most effective way to improve turnout. Some hope the new law will add thousands of voters based on estimates that show a 7 to 14% bump in voter turnout with election-day registration. Student participation at the polls could also see an upturn, as public universities in the state will now have campus locations for in-person absentee voting on Election Day, part of extended efforts by Illinois to involve the next generation in the political process.
Worst in Governance
Texas and North Carolina
According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, the past few years have seen a dramatic surge in the number of laws and initiatives to restrict the ability of citizens to vote. A recent study from the Government Accountability Office showed that these restrictions have decreased voter turnout in some states, especially among youth and minorities. Most of these efforts have centered on preventing voter participation through instituting voter ID requirements, scrapping early voting, and reducing opportunities for voter registration.
Texas highlights a harsh turn of several states toward requiring voter IDs for voting purposes. Despite evidence that voter fraud is rather rare, strict voter ID laws will have a punitive effect on elderly, youth, and minority voters. Many anecdotal cases show that ID requirements are already preventing many from heading to the polls. A Brennan Center study estimated that as many as 11% of voters do not have an appropriate government-issued ID. In Texas, preliminary data suggest that the number of voters without one of the qualifying IDs could be between 600,000 and 800,000 registered voters, a high price to pay for four cases of impersonation noted in the decision of a federal judge in early October. Even with available “free voter IDs,” the cost and effort to obtain these IDs often represents an unconstitutional “poll tax” for some, as Attorney General Eric Holder and others have noted.
Making it easy for citizens to register and vote should be among the most important objectives for democratic governments. But in North Carolina, the state government has enacted a draconian and sweeping voting law that will reduce early voting, make it easier to discard some ballots, and abandon a same-day voter registration program that helped 20,000 Tar Heels vote in the last mid-term election. North Carolina is among nine states that have made it harder to register to vote. These state now exercise restrictions on voter registration drives and stringent new “proof of citizenship” requirements, which could bar thousands of voters in three states. These actions, along with curbing early voting opportunities, adversely impact members of minority communities.
The founding of the United States inaugurated an important moment in political history. For the first time, the law established that every person had a direct say in the direction of their communities and their own and their neighbor’s well-being. This shining achievement is preserved only if people remain able to vote, which is the focus of our Best and Worst. But once able, it is critical that every person exercises that right. See you at the polls!
See you at the polls!
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