State Legislatures Work to Restrict Voting Rights

May 26, 2011

The Big Picture

We’ve written much about the various voter ID battles in the states, but recent legislative attacks on voting rights go far beyond introducing restrictive voter identification requirements.

In fact, legislators around the country have been pushing bills that make sweeping changes to their election codes to limit the voting rights of students and movers, reduce early voting days, and restrict voter registration and “get-out-the-vote” mobilization efforts. 

Rather than making efforts to improve and modernize our election system and ensure that all eligible voters are able to vote, some lawmakers are instead trying to make voter registration and voting more difficult by effectively penalizing civic engagement.

Common characteristics of these bills, proposed by legislators in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, respectively, are that they are long, dense, and cover a wide variety of topics affecting access to the polls.  In Texas, the legislative attack on voting has been done through a series of bills, which is bound to confuse citizens who must sift through a pile of proposed laws. 

These bills are more than mere proposals of some overzealous legislators.  The Florida bill became law last week, and Governor Scott Walker signed Wisconsin’s bill on Wednesday.  Bills in North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas are still under consideration.

We provide a summary of these restrictive laws and bills below.

Florida

Florida’s House Bill 1355, a mammoth 158-page omnibus bill that was signed by the Governor Rick Scott on May 19th, includes language that would:

  • Require voter registration groups to pre-register every single volunteer or employee (by requiring each person to sign a sworn affidavit under penalty of perjury) and turn in every registration form they get within 48 hours or face strict penalties and fees
  • Eliminate Florida’s longstanding policy of allowing voters who have moved to update their new address at the polls on Election Day
  • Reduce the early voting period from two weeks to one

As the Brennan Center’s Lee Rowland wrote earlier, the pre-registration requirement means a student council member can’t swap in to take a turn to pass out registration forms without first signing a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, with the State. The tight turnaround time means that registration groups will be unable to follow up with voters who leave forms incomplete and will incur high fines for going a minute over the deadline. 

The burdens of this bill will fall disproportionately on low-income and minority voters, renters, and students: eligible voters that already face the biggest hurdles to vote.  And the groups that try to register these voters, from student organizers to the League of Women Voters, could be penalized for their attempts to bring more eligible citizens into our democracy.

The bill was signed by the Governor on May 19th despite urging from voting rights advocacy groups that the new law will only harm voters.

Ohio

Ohio, seemingly not wanting to be outdone by Florida, has a longer bill.  Coming in at 297 pages, House Bill 194 is definitely competing with Florida in an imagined voter restrictions dance-off, perhaps to “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, which was playing in the background of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s voter ID bill signing

This bill is not all bad.  Perhaps most importantly, it limits opportunities for unwarranted challenges at the polls that could be used to intimidate voters.  It also makes it easier for people who change their names (i.e., recently married women) to vote a regular ballot.

But there are a number of new restrictions including:

  • Significantly reducing locations and times for early in-person voting
  • Prohibiting counties from sending absentee ballot applications to all registered voters or sending return postage on absentee ballots
  • Eliminating requirements that an election official must direct a voter who is in the wrong precinct to the voter’s correct precinct (which is especially crucial as provisional ballots only count if cast in the correct precinct)
  • Eliminating the ability of provisional voters to provide additional information or identification to ensure their ballots are counted in the 10 days after they voted
  • Discarding votes that the voting machine reads as “overvotes” (i.e., voting for more than one candidate in a contest), even when a subsequent review makes the voter intent clear

H.B. 194 does allow voters to electronically update their registration information online, which is a reform we support, but only if the voter already updated this information with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (meaning this will benefit far fewer voters than it could).

North Carolina

North Carolina has its own “Voting Integrity” bill, as it is short-titled.  Instead of securing the election administration process in smart ways, Senate Bill 657 would undo some of North Carolina’s best voting practices by:

  • Cutting down the early voting period by one week
  • Ending pre-registration for 17 year-olds, which has become an important way to promote civic participation among young people
  • Repealing Same Day Registration (current law allows eligible voters to register to vote or update their registration information during the early voting period)

We are particularly troubled by the last two items. Eliminating Same Day Registration in North Carolina will discourage voters who already encounter other voter registration barriers from participating.  The motivation behind eliminating pre-registration is unclear and unfairly punishes young voters who are lawfully eligible to vote.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin Assembly Bill 7 is widely known as a bill that would require Department of Transportation-issued photo ID, a passport, military or tribal ID, or naturalization certificate in order to vote.  Student IDs could in theory be acceptable, but in practice, the ones that the University of Wisconsin currently issues would not be.  The University will have to issue new cards to all students at an estimated cost of millions if it wants its IDs to be accepted as appropriate identification for voting under A.B. 7.

In the bill, there are also provisions to:

  • Extend the length of residency period before an eligible person may register to vote from 10 to 28 days
  • Move the deadline for a late registration to the Friday before an election, rather than the day before an election

A.B. 7 passed in a hasty vote, during which Senate President Mike Ellis cut off debate and declared the bill passed before all members of the Senate could cast their votes.

See the video here:

WI Senate Vote on Voter Suppression Bill 5.19.11 by nicknice

After the vote, Governor Scott Walker tweeted his glee.  Walker signed the bill yesterday.

And then, there is Texas

Lone Star legislators did not seek to package their voting restrictions into one giant bill, defying the adage that everything is bigger in Texas.  But there is still reason to be alarmed by what’s happening in Austin.

Two bills would make it harder for persons to become deputy voter registrars.  There is even a bill that will slap you with a Class C misdemeanor if you help more than two voters in a day

Priorities in Texas seem a bit misguided.  For example, thanks to recently passed legislation, Texans will be able to legally “noodle,” the art of catching fish by hand.  The author of the bill, State Senator Bob Deuell, is quoted as saying, “I personally don't noodle, but I would defend to the death your right to do so.” 

No word on if he will defend to the death your right to vote.