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Colorado Passed Broad Election Reform, Other States Should Follow

Legislatures across the country are hard at work expanding the right to vote. Last week, Colorado passed a comprehensive election reform bill, joining Maryland, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia as states to expand rights. Other states should follow.

May 16, 2013

Cross­pos­ted at Huff­ing­ton Post.

State legis­latures across the coun­try are hard at work expand­ing the right to vote. Already, more than 200 bills to improve voting access have been intro­duced in 45 states in 2013. Friday in Denver, Gov. John Hick­en­looper made Color­ado the latest to expand rights, join­ing Mary­land, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia. More legis­la­tion is await­ing signa­ture in Flor­ida. To be sure, some states continue to push need­less restric­tions on the abil­ity of citizens to parti­cip­ate in elec­tions, and voters and their advoc­ates must remain vigil­ant against any such efforts. Still, the trend is unmis­tak­able: After years of back­slid­ing, states are embra­cing free, fair, and access­ible elec­tions.

In many cases, the bills have enjoyed broad bipar­tisan support, another encour­aging trend. Legis­lat­ors are expand­ing access to the ballot in a vari­ety of ways, from redu­cing the burden of voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion require­ments, to modern­iz­ing voter regis­tra­tion, to expand­ing early voting.

Color­ado provides a great example. The Voter Access and Modern­ized Elec­tions Act includes a number of provi­sions that would make it easier to register and vote. With the governor’s signa­ture Friday, Color­ado is now the 11th state to enact Elec­tion-Day regis­tra­tion, which leads to higher regis­tra­tion rates and turnout. The bill insti­tutes a system of port­able regis­tra­tion, so that when voters move they can still cast a ballot which will count. It also estab­lishes a bipar­tisan elec­tion modern­iz­a­tion task force, paving the way for future reforms. Further, the bill elim­in­ates the prob­lem­atic “inact­ive – failed to vote” status that led to voters being denied ballots in certain elec­tions simply because they had failed to vote a single time.

The Voter Access and Modern­ized Elec­tions Act is truly a compre­hens­ive elec­tion reform bill. And the most prom­ising devel­op­ment is the bipar­tisan way it was conceived. The Color­ado County Clerks Asso­ci­ation — the offi­cials who actu­ally run elec­tions, and come from both polit­ical parties — worked with lawmakers, community groups, and elec­tion offi­cials to hammer out a comprom­ise that expands voting access and works for elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors as well.

The Color­ado example and the broader trend of expans­ive legis­la­tion are a welcome change from the 2011–12 legis­lat­ive session, when partisan state legis­latures across the coun­try passed a wave of restrict­ive voting laws. Before the 2012 elec­tion, 19 states passed 25 laws and 2 exec­ut­ive actions that would make it more diffi­cult to register and vote. But despite this effort to restrict voting rights, voters and civil rights advoc­ates even­tu­ally prevailed. Thanks to the actions of citizens, courts, and the Depart­ment of Justice, by Novem­ber 2012, all the worst meas­ures had been reversed, blocked, or blun­ted.

Yet prob­lems persisted on Elec­tion Day. Our outdated voter regis­tra­tion system, insuf­fi­cient safe­guards for voter access, and inad­equate stand­ards for voting machines and poll work­ers led to hours-long lines in many polling places. Comment­ing on the voters still wait­ing in line to vote as he gave his victory speech on elec­tion night, Pres­id­ent Obama remarked, “we have to fix that.”

The posit­ive devel­op­ments in 2013 show this message is getting through. Even in Flor­ida, which saw some of the worst voting restric­tions and the longest voting lines, legis­lat­ors passed a bipar­tisan bill aimed at decreas­ing wait times. Better than merely stem­ming the tide of restrict­ive laws, voters and elec­tion offi­cials are now enjoy­ing a posit­ive wave of their own as more and more states move to expand voting access.

Unfor­tu­nately, some states legis­latures continue to insist on making it harder for people to vote. Among these dubi­ous outliers is North Caro­lina, which is consid­er­ing bills that would reduce the early voting period, end same-day regis­tra­tion, make it harder for citizens who have completed their crim­inal sentences to regain their voting rights, and increase the powers of untrained “chal­lengers” to try to prevent registered voters from cast­ing ballots. Others would make the state’s voter ID law more restrict­ive by limit­ing the types of accept­able IDs and impose a tax penalty for parents of students voting in their college communit­ies. These suppress­ive voting laws are exactly the type of back­ward-look­ing, partisan, and anti-parti­cip­a­tion moves that were rejec­ted in 2012.  

North Caro­lina is out of step with the times, and if it does not reverse course, it risks find­ing itself on the wrong side of history. The story of 2013, at least thus far, has been one of lawmakers moving to make it easier, not harder, for voters to parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy. Hope­fully, the states not yet part of that story will start moving in the right direc­tion.

Photo by Mike­John­stonCO.