A Change of Heart on Voting Restrictions?

In New Hampshire and Florida, the very politicians who passed restrictive voting laws for partisan gain are now changing course and putting voters first. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a new trend of lawmakers seeing the light.

March 18, 2013
Long voting lines

What a difference an election makes. We are seeing the first glimmers that legislators who passed harsh restrictions on voters last cycle are having a collective change of heart. Last week, New Hampshire House legislators voted to undo a law they passed last session making it harder for college students to vote. This about-face came a short week after Florida’s House voted almost unanimously to reinstate the exact early voting days that it had eliminated before the 2012 election. The Sunshine State’s Governor Rick Scott, who signed the original bill into law, has already publicly supported expanding early voting in the wake of Floridian’s outrage over their continuing electoral issues.

New Hampshire and Florida were among a number of states that passed a wave of restrictive laws in the two years leading up to the 2012 presidential election. The tide began to turn when voting rights advocates mounted impressive challenges to the new voting restrictions in these states and across the country, blocking or rolling back these laws through the courts. These votes in New Hampshire and Florida are evidence of a positive post-election trend: The very politicians who passed restrictive voting laws for partisan gain are now changing course and putting voters first.

New Hampshire legislators passed a law last session — over a gubernatorial veto — that required voters to sign a statement while registering that they considered New Hampshire to be their permanent home. This effort was largely understood as an effort to prevent out-of-state college students from registering to vote — even though they have the constitutional right to register wherever they call home.

When a New Hampshire court blocked the new registration law from taking effect and ordered the state to change its registration forms to avoid confusion, then-House Speaker Bill O’Brien criticized the ruling, as “judicial activism of the worst sort.” But the New Hampshire House’s tune changed dramatically last week, when it voted 190-149 to undo the ill-considered restrictions. Let’s hope the Senate follows suit when it takes up the bill soon.

Meanwhile, Florida passed HB 1355, an omnibus bill containing multiple restrictions on voters — including the irrational cutbacks to the state’s popular early voting period, from 14 days to 8. After a court battle with the Department of Justice and voting rights advocates, the state was forced to increase the number of hours polling locations would be open in certain counties, but Floridians had only eight days in which to vote during the 2012 election.

The results were striking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Florida was the state with the most visible electoral dysfunction, with lines that stretched for hours during early voting and on Election Day. Voters in South Florida stood in line for hours even after the polls had closed. It took days for the state to tally its final results and Floridians were rightly angry. It was telling that the House’s top priority on their first day in session was to undo the damage they had caused by reinstating the full 14 days of early voting.

Hopefully this is just the beginning of a new trend of lawmakers seeing the light. The strength of our great democracy has always been in the promise that every American has the opportunity to have their voice heard. A few too many politicians forgot that guarantee prior to the election, and manipulated the voting rules for partisan gain. Let’s hope these recent reversals herald a return to our nation’s founding values. New Hampshire’s House sent a clear message, and other lawmakers should follow suit. They should focus on expanding the electorate by modernizing our voter registration system, making elections more accessible, and ensuring that every eligible voter has a full, free, and fair opportunity to vote.

Photo by Aaron Webb.