Voting Laws Roundup 2017

March 27, 2017
(Note: This updates the Roundup previously published on February 27, 2017.)
 

Every state but Louisiana has begun its 2017 legislative session, and voting is proving to be a popular subject of legislation. As of March 21:

  • At least 87 bills to restrict access to registration and voting have been introduced in 29 states. Ten bills have passed through at least one legislative chamber in 6 states.
  • At least 478 bills to enhance voting access have been introduced in 43 states. Thirty bills have passed through at least one legislative chamber in 15 states.
  • Three states have enacted new voting laws. Arkansas passed a restrictive voter ID bill, Wyoming passed legislation to ease restoration of voting rights for people with criminal convictions, and Utah passed bills to improve voter list maintenance and expand early voting opportunities.

Continuing a trend seen in recent years, bills to expand voting access outpace those that would make it harder to vote. So far, the majority of states advancing restrictive legislation are pushing bills that try to circumvent previous court rulings or settlements that blocked strict voting laws. Bills to restrict voting have been largely divided along party lines, whereas most voter-friendly bills have received bipartisan support.

Restrictive Legislation

 
Most states moving legislation to restrict voting this session are responding to voter-friendly court rulings
 
Lawmakers continue to introduce bills to restrict voting in a landscape that has changed significantly over the last decade. After a relatively slow pace prior to the 2010 election, 19 states passed 27 restrictive bills in 2011 and 2012. More followed in subsequent years, and by the 2016 election, 20 states had new restrictions in place. That number would have been higher if not for significant pushback in the courts. State and federal panels struck down or limited many of the strictest laws blocking access to the franchise. Other bills went into effect only after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The result is an environment with many new voting restrictions in place, but also significant court-imposed limits on efforts to restrict access to this most fundamental right.   

Against this backdrop, state legislators are seeking to circumvent court rulings and put restrictive laws into effect:

  • In Arkansas, a 2014 state court ruling blocked a voter ID statute on the grounds that it violated the state constitution. On March 16, the governor signed a bill to amend the constitution to require ID. The bill now goes to the voters in the form of a ballot initiative. On March 24, he signed another bill to enact voter ID.
  • Georgia’s Senate passed, on March 16, a bill previously approved by the House that would  impose a requirement that information on voter registration forms match exactly with other state records — a burdensome process known as “no match, no vote.” Only months earlier, the secretary of state agreed in a court settlement to stop a similar procedure that had prevented tens of thousands from registering.
  • Iowa’s House passed a bill, described in further detail below, with a sweeping set of voting restrictions on March 10, and the Senate passed a different version on March 23, sending it back to the House. It includes a requirement that voters be removed from the rolls if election officials receive information demonstrating that they are noncitizens. Proper removal of ineligible voters is not problematic. However, the state’s recent history in this area gives cause for concern. In 2014, a state court blocked former Secretary of State Matt Schultz from purging suspected noncitizens in a manner similar to programs in Colorado and Florida that swept up thousands of eligible voters. The court found the secretary did not have authority to implement the purge, without reaching the question of whether the purge itself was substantively illegal. If the state conveys authority to remove noncitizens through statute, another problematic purge might occur.
  • North Dakota’s House passed a bill on February 2 that would restore a strict voter ID requirement after a federal court partially blocked it in 2016.
  • In Virginia, the house passed a bill on February 1 requiring documentary proof of citizenship — such as a passport or birth certificate — to register to vote. The restriction was drafted to apply only to state and local elections, however, because the Kansas law on which the bill is based has been blocked for federal elections by multiple courts.

The pace of restrictive voting legislation is consistent with recent years

Amidst worries over the potential legislative fallout from the Trump administration’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, legislative trends are thus far largely in keeping with recent sessions. Only Arkansas’ bills have cleared the state capital (and one still needs to be approved by the voters before taking effect). This is similar to 2015, when one restrictive bill was enacted, and 2016, when two bills passed. Voter ID and restrictions on voter registration are the most popular legislative avenues for restricting access to the ballot box.  

Iowa could be a notable exception. The Iowa House and Senate have passed different versions of a bill, championed by Secretary of State Paul Pate, with a broad set of voting restrictions. In addition to installing a voter ID requirement, the bill would impose restrictions on voter registration drives and hinder Election Day registration and absentee voting. The bill is reminiscent of, though less extreme than, a sweeping 2013 law passed by North Carolina, which was blocked by a federal court in 2016.

Bills to restrict voter access that passed through at least one chamber in 2017:

Arkansas

Voter ID  (HB 1047) (passed and signed)

Voter ID (HJR 1016) (passed house and senate; signed by governor; must be approved as ballot measure to become law)

Georgia Voter registration (HB 268)  (passed house and senate)
Idaho Early voting (HB 150) (passed house) 
Iowa

Voter ID, restrictions on voter registration drives, Election Day registration, absentee voting (HF 516) (passed house and senate; returned to house with amendments). Also contains voter list maintenance provisions that, if implemented improperly, could lead to voter purges.

North Dakota Voter ID (HB 1369) (passed house)
Virginia

Absentee voting (HB 1428 / SB 872) (identical bills passed house and senate)

Proof of citizenship to register (HB 1598) (passed house)

Voter registration (SB 1581) (passed by house and senate)

 

Voter ID bills are the most common form of restrictive legislation

As in previous years, voter ID laws are prevalent. Thirty restrictive bills have been introduced in 19 states — Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Bills in 10 of these states would create strict ID requirements or make existing strict regimes even harsher. In addition to Arkansas, Iowa, and North Dakota, where legislation has already passed at least one chamber, legislation is likely to move in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature — the bill in that state has been given priority status, meaning it will probably get a floor vote. In Missouri, meanwhile, a new voter ID requirement is being implemented amidst concerns that legislation needed to fund voter education and poll worker training has not been passed. Voting experts say the proposed budget falls short of what is needed to implement the law without confusion and wrongful disenfranchisement.

Restrictions on voter registration are a close second

Eighteen states have introduced legislation that would make their voter registration system more burdensome. In New Hampshire, a bill to make registration more difficult for students is moving to the Senate floor

Expansive Legislation
 

There is a continuing trend of voter-friendly bills moving with bipartisan support

The pace of expansive, bipartisan voting legislation in 2017 is consistent with the last four years. Since 2013, at least 26 states and Washington, D.C., have passed bills to expand voting access. This year, legislative bodies in 15 states have passed 30 bills to expand voting access through at least one legislative chamber, mostly with bipartisan support. Wyoming’s legislature passed, and the governor signed, a bill that helps restore voting access to people with criminal convictions. Utah enacted bills to improve early voting access and voter list maintenance procedures. As in previous years, expansive voting reforms are passing legislative chambers even in states that have also passed voting restrictions this decade, such as Kansas and Mississippi. Automatic voter registration and other reforms to modernize the registration system are the most popular subjects of legislation, along with expanding absentee voting access.   

Bills to enhance voter access that passed through at least one chamber in 2017:

Arizona Absentee voting (HB 2055) (passed house)
Hawaii Absentee voting (SB 855) (passed senate)
Idaho Voter ID (HB 149) (passed house and senate) 
Indiana Electronic voter registration (HB 1178) (passed house) 
Kansas

Absentee voting (HB 2158) (passed house)

Absentee voting (SB 8) (passed senate) (counts absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day, but also requires absentee ballots to be requested further in advance)

Maryland

Election Day registration (SB 423) (passed senate)

Voter registration (HB 1626) (passed house)

Mississippi

Online voter registration (HB 373) (passed house)

Early voting (HB 228) (passed house)

Montana

Absentee voting (HB 371) (passed house)

Absentee voting (HB 287) (passed house)

Nevada Automatic voter registration (IP 1) (passed house and senate)
New Mexico

Disability access (HB 98) (passed house and senate)

Electronic voter registration (HB 28) (passed house)

Same day registration during early voting and voter registration deadline extension (SB 224) (passed senate)

Absentee voting (HB 290) (passed house)

Oklahoma Early voting (SB 347) (passed senate)
Utah

Automatic voter registration (HB 159) (passed house)

Voter list maintenance (HB 86) (passed and signed)

Early voting (HB 105) (passed and signed)

Absentee voting (HB 230) (passed house and senate)

Minimum standards for polling places (SB 116) (passed house and senate)

Virginia

Absentee voting (SB 845) (passed senate)

Absentee voting (HB 1912) (passed house and senate)

Absentee voting (SB 1441) (passed senate)

Military voting (SB 1490) (passed senate)

Voting rights restoration (SJ 223) (passed house and senate; returned to house with amendments)

Washington

Pre-registration (HB 1513) (passed house)

Voter registration (HB 1468) (passed house)

State voting rights protections (HB 1800) (passed house)

Wyoming Voting rights restoration (HB 75) (passed and signed)
 

Automatic registration and other reforms to modernize voter rolls are the most common forms of expansive legislation

Automatic voter registration (AVR) legislation and other bills that would modernize voter registration are very popular this legislative session, building on a two-year period in which six states passed automatic voter registration. This year, the reform became law in the District of Columbia. At least 90 bills to implement or expand AVR have been introduced in at least 30 states. Nevada passed an automatic voter registration bill through both legislative chambers, but it was vetoed by the governor. It now goes to the voters in a 2018 ballot initiative. Utah’s House also passed an automatic voter registration bill, but it died in the Senate. An AVR bill in Illinois, which nearly enacted the reform last year, cleared a Senate committee and will receive a floor vote. Meanwhile, Maryland’s Senate passed a bill that would allow Election Day registration, while New Mexico’s Senate passed a bill to allow registration during early voting. Legislative chambers in Indiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico passed bills that would modernize voter registration in other ways. 

Legislation to expand early and absentee voting is also common

Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah have passed bills to expand early in-person voting access through at least one legislative chamber, with Utah’s bill being signed into law. Overall, 56 bills to improve early voting access have been introduced in 19 states. Legislation to increase access to absentee voting has passed at least one chamber in Arizona, Kansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, and Virginia, and 92 bills total have been introduced in 27 states. 

Legislation restoring the right to vote to people with past convictions is similarly common

Wyoming enacted a bill to automatically restore the right to vote to certain individuals upon release from incarceration, building on legislation passed in 2015. Additionally, different versions of a bill that would improve voting access for certain persons with criminal convictions passed Virginia’s house and senate. Overall, 49 bills to help restore the right to vote to persons with past criminal convictions have been introduced in 16 states.