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Two Battles for Ballot Access
The Democracy Dispatch (Edition #42)
Welcome back to the Equal Citizens Substack. As promised, in this edition we are going to discuss state legislation. After all, states have considerable leeway over the direction of our democracy.
As you know, anti-voter politicians have used the states to their advantage. Last year, a slew of terrible voting laws passed in states across the country, and currently there are over 250 restrictive voting bills pending in various state houses. But those of us who believe in free and fair elections are playing ball, too. Right now, 399 pro-voter bills have been introduced that would expand access in elections. And in addition to these bills, ballot initiatives are being prepared that may sidestep legislatures in the pursuit of a better democracy.
Below, we’ll highlight two key state efforts: one bad, one good. If you want a full rundown of all 600+ state voting bills under consideration, the Brennan Center for Justice has a February 2022 Voting Laws Roundup that you can read here.
Before we launch into our news, we have two announcements for you all.
Tomorrow (February 23rd) at 7pm EST, The Workers Circle is hosting a conversation with Ari Berman, a prominent voting rights journalist with Mother Jones and award-winning author, on the threats that our democracy faces and how we can organize against them. Register for the event here.
Last week, our Executive Director Adam Eichen gave a talk at an event organized by Reclaim Our Democracy and the First Parish Church in Concord, MA. The topic of his presentation was: The Democracy Movement, Where it Stands Today and Where it Needs to Go. You can watch a recording here.
Now to the update from the states.
More Anti-Voter Policies on the Horizon?
In Michigan, a troubling initiative called Secure MI Vote is gaining traction. If successful, it would increase burdens on voters by making the state’s voter ID and absentee ballots laws more restrictive.
Currently, Michigan requires photo ID to vote in person. However, if someone does not have their ID, they can sign an affidavit attesting to their identity in order to vote. Secure MI Vote would eliminate this option. The proposal would also require voters to provide the last four digits of their social security number when registering to vote and their driver’s license, state-ID, partial social security number or a photo ID when applying for an absentee ballot. And, among other things, it would ban election officials from preemptively sending out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters and from providing pre-paid postage for absentee ballots.
As the 2020 election showed, establishing these types of barriers to the ballot box can be costly and lead to voter confusion and disenfranchisement. For this reason, voter access organizations in Michigan, such as the League of Women Voters Michigan, are opposing the Secure MI Vote campaign.
So how exactly is Secure MI Vote attempting to get its policies adopted? Well, it’s complicated.
Secure MI Vote is seeking to use a unique provision in Michigan’s constitution which allows the legislature, in conjunction with citizens, to bypass the governor. Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has repeatedly served as a bulwark against the state’s Republican legislature that has passed numerous anti-voter bills and she has pledged to continue doing so. So for those attempting to restrict the franchise, bypassing Whitmer is therefore necessary.
Secure MI Vote must collect just over 340,000 signatures on a petition, which is 8% of the total votes cast in the 2018 gubernatorial election. If they succeed in doing so, their legislative package will go to the legislature. The legislature will then have 40 days to pass the package of anti-voter provisions. If they do, the bill immediately becomes law. Governor Whitmer has no power to veto it. If the legislature does not act, the proposal goes to the voters in the next election.
Keep your eyes on this fight. It’s dangerous.
But not everything from Michigan is gloomy. Advocates are seeking to put Promote the Vote 2022 on the upcoming ballot. This measure would not only counteract many of the harmful proposals contained in Secure MI Vote, but it would also require more ballot drop boxes and create nine days of early voting. This petition is supported by the Michigan ACLU, the Michigan League of Women Voters, All Voting Is Local, and Voters Not Politicians.
Michigan has a recent history of passing pro-voter initiatives. In 2018, voters passed two ballot measures that ended gerrymandering and implemented ballot access reforms such as automatic voter registration.
The Good News:
This week we are going to give some love to our home state, Massachusetts. The legislature is currently considering the VOTES Act, which, if adopted, would mark a major victory for New England democracy advocates.
During the pandemic, Massachusetts, like many states, made voting more accessible given the difficult circumstances. The VOTES Act (also known as an Act fostering Voting Opportunities, Trust, Equity and Security) would make many of the pandemic-era voter access laws permanent.
Specifically, the VOTES Act would:
Cement the COVID-19 vote-by-mail option for all citizens. Massachusetts has some of the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws in the country, so this would be a major advancement.
Ensure that every election has at least 10 days of early voting prior to Election Day.
Improve ballot access for people in jail who have not lost their right to vote.
Guarantee that the automatic voter registration law established in 2018 is implemented properly.
Make official Massachusetts’s entrance into the Electronic Registration Information Center, which will safely ensure that the voter rolls are up-to-date without wrongful disenfranchisement.
Different versions of the VOTES Act were passed by the Massachusetts House and Senate in recent months. It is currently in a Conference Committee, where legislators from the House and the Senate are meeting to reconcile their disagreements. After they resolve their differences, both chambers will vote on the legislation and if it passes, it will be sent to the Governor’s desk.
The big point of contention between the House and Senate is over same day voter registration (SDR), which would allow residents to register to vote (or update their registrations) on Election Day or during the early voting period. Currently, citizens in Massachusetts must register at least 20 days before the election. SDR was included in the original bill and the version passed in the Senate. The House rejected SDR but included a reduction in the voter registration deadline to 10 days. It is unclear whether SDR (or, another compromise: Election Day registration — i.e. one can (re)register on Election Day but not during the early voting period) will be added to the final package. We fully support the adoption of same day registration — it’s one of the best pro-democracy policies currently in use.
If you are in Massachusetts and want to help the VOTES Act, Common Cause MA has ways to get involved. Check out their work here.
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More About Us:
Kevin Rissmiller is a fellow at Equal Citizens and a Goodwin-Niering Scholar at Connecticut College majoring in Government and double minoring in sociology and economics. In his free time, you will find him at Dunkins or playing ultimate frisbee. Connect with him on LinkedIn.
Kate Travis is a fellow at Equal Citizens and a senior at Harvard studying History and Literature with a minor in Government and a citation in Spanish. When she is not writing about democracy, Kate spends her time running, drinking coffee, and watching bad romcoms with her friends. Follow her on Twitter.
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