Proposals to Expand Political Rights Surge in Statehouses
While the congressional crusade to expand voting access now looks stalled at least until after the 2020 election, momentum in the state legislatures continues to appear strong.
That's the conclusion of the Brennen Center for Justice at NYU Law School, which is out with its latest comprehensive survey of how democracy reform efforts are faring in the state capitals.
Lawmakers in 41 states have introduced 589 bills to expand political rights so far this year, a 10 percent increase from the number of such proposals at this point in the previous legislative cycle – and 25 percent more than in the spring of 2015. At the same time, just 63 measures to restrict political participation have been proposed, and in 29 states there have been none of these.
"The key question now is whether this pro-voter enthusiasm will actually be converted into law," the center writes. "We are cautiously optimistic there will be more: 17 states have already successfully moved 34 expansive bills through one or more houses of their legislature," while only four restrictive bills have moved through either a state House or a state Senate. But it is also the case that, in the legislative season of 2017, a surge of measures to restrict voting advanced in June, when many sessions come to an end.
So far, the most important pro-democracy changes have come in New York, the fourth most populous state. Legislators in Albany have already completed measures to expand early voting, permit people as young as 16 to pre-register to vote, expand the portability of registration records, consolidate the dates for state and federal primaries (which boosts turnout) and speed up ballot distributions to New Yorkers serving abroad in the armed forces.
The push and pull in the statehouses is all the more important now that HR 1, which the Democrats pushed through the House along party lines last week, looks destined for indefinite purgatory in the Republican Senate.
House passage "opened what is likely to be a sustained confrontation over access to the voting booth that could reshape not only the competition between the political parties but also the racial division of power in an irreversibly diversifying America," political analyst Ronald Brownstein writes for CNN. "Democrats and civil rights groups are committed to a long-range campaign to leverage federal power to overcome state-level barriers, particularly across the Sun Belt, that local Republican parties have constructed, partly to delay the political emergence of growing minority communities, critics suspect, which tend to vote Democratic."
Neal is federal government affairs manager at R Street Institute, a nonpartisan and pro-free-market public policy research organization.
The term "democratic norms" has become a misnomer over the last year. America's governing institutions are undermined by elected officials who dishonor their offices and each other. Standards of behavior and "normal" processes of governance seem to be relics of a simpler time. Our democracy has survived thus far, but the wounds are many.
Free speech and free press have been the White House's two consistent whipping posts. Comments such as "I think it is embarrassing for the country to allow protestors" and constant attacks on press credibility showcase President Trump's disdain for the pillars of democracy. Traditional interactions between the administration and the press are no longer taken for granted. Demeaning, toxic criticisms have become so common that they're being ignored. As the administration revokes critics' press passes and daily briefings are canceled, normalcy in this arena is sorely missed.
Having had remarkable success at signing people up to vote in Texas last year, an Austin group of activists is expanding its pilot program into a full-blown national effort to overcome the sometimes ignored first hurdle for people in the voting process — registration.
"There are millions of voters who are registered who don't get out to vote," said Christopher Jasinski, director of partnerships for Register2Vote. "But the unmeasured part of the pie is the actual number of unregistered voters."