Much of the efforts to change the way states conduct elections, in the wake of last year's pandemic-era voting, are being done in favor of one major party or the other. Democrats are pushing voting expansions, while Republicans are backing restrictions.
But election reform advocates say it doesn't have to be this way. The Bipartisan Policy Center released a report this week in the hopes of cutting through the partisan noise. The new report details a dozen bipartisan recommendations for improving the voting process moving forward.
While election security experts have repeatedly confirmed that the 2020 election was the most secure in American history, the report says there are still many ways to streamline the voting process, bolster voter confidence and increase election security.
Because many of the changes implemented for the 2020 election were done quickly and at the last minute, a number of these recommendations emphasize the timing of passing and implementing new election rules. The policy proposals also underscore the importance of communicating any changes to voters.
"Some changes to the process are necessary and inevitable, but policymakers have fallen into a dangerous and unrelenting cycle of regaining interest in election administration only in the lead-up to major elections," the report says.
Here are the 12 policy recommendations curated by BPC's task force of 28 state and local election officials:
- "States should plan to enact legislative or administrative changes to standing election procedures outside the 90-day window before a general election."
- "Challenges to standing election procedures within 90 days of an election should be considered by courts only for future elections."
- "Courts should consider challenges to the merits of election administration changes in an election year on an expedited basis."
- "No later than 60 days before an election, counties and states should produce and publicly display detailed observation procedures for the voting process, ballot reconciliation and canvass, recounts, and audits."
- "States should create emergency election procedures that include contingencies for weather, terrorism, or other disasters."
- "States should require local election offices to develop emergency election procedures and submit them to the state for review and coordination."
- "States should mandate voting systems that produce voter-verifiable paper ballots. The voter-verifiable ballot should be the ballot of record for any audit or recount."
- "States should standardize and simplify ballot return deadlines. Local and state officials should conduct vigorous voter communication efforts to educate voters about return deadlines."
- "States should expand the options for the return of vote-by-mail ballots to include secure drop boxes."
- "Voters should have the option of voting early and in-person for a period of at least seven days in advance of a federal election. States should provide a balance of early, mail, and Election Day voting options that are informed by voter behavior."
- "States should codify a detailed certification timeline that includes all fundamental requirements and deadlines while thoughtfully balancing the amount of time devoted to state versus local responsibilities. County certification deadlines should be set no earlier than 14 days after a general election to provide time to complete precertification tasks."
- "Threats against election officials and all permanent and temporary elections staff should be taken seriously by policymakers and law enforcement. These offenses should be punishable by penalties equivalent to those assessed for threats against other public employees carrying out their official duties."
While these recommendations are not the only bipartisan solutions out there, BPC's report says they would be good starting points for bolstering the election ecosystem. The report urges state lawmakers to work across the aisle to implement changes that would fortify election security and improve the voting process, without overburdening local election administrators.
"The election process transcends politics and demands reforms that are in the best interest of all Americans, regardless of party," the report says.
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Colorado's inaugural congressional redistricting commission, which operates outside of the purview of politicians, has already faced its first partisan test.
Chairman Danny Moore was removed from his leadership position Monday after his fellow commissioners learned he had shared conspiracy theories about the 2020 election on social media. The 11 other commissioners voted unanimously to remove him from the chairmanship, but he will be allowed to continue serving on the commission.
While politicians still have mapmaking power in most of the country, Colorado is one of a handful of states that adopted a redistricting commission over the last decade. For the first time, these states will employ an independent panel to redraw congressional and state legislative maps in a more fair and transparent manner.
In 2018, Colorado voters approved ballot initiatives to establish separate commissions for congressional and state legislative redistricting. Each commission has 12 members with even representation of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated members, none of them politicians.
Last month, Moore, a Republican military veteran from Colorado Springs, was elected by the commissioners to serve as chair. But soon after, local media outlets reported he had shared election conspiracy theories on his Facebook page.
His posts claimed, without evidence, that Joe Biden was not elected by the people, but "by the Democratic steal." He also erroneously claimed that absentee ballots can be modified by mail carriers and poll workers. And he encouraged Republicans to use the courts to "erase those gains" Democrats made in the 2020 election.
"How then can the people of Colorado believe Commissioner Moore will be able to determine fact from fiction, when he's repeatedly asserted unsubstantiated claims that the presidential election was stolen, the Colorado election in particular was fraudulent, and that 'Blue state officials' in Colorado disenfranchise some voters by manipulating the vote," said Democratic Commissioner Paula Espinoza.
Moore has also used social media to cast doubt on the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and has accused the media of lying about it. He defended calling Covid-19 "the Chinese virus," saying that was not racist. But critics of Moore's posts said his rhetoric has contributed to the trend of anti-Asian hate and violence.
Ahead of the commission's vote, Moore defended his posts, arguing he had the right to free speech and to his own opinions.
"My comments were intended to create a broader discussion around political correctness and the problems that are impacting our society. I meant no harm or malice against any group or any person," Moore said.
Seven commissioners expressed their disappointment in Moore's actions and called on him to resign as chairman. But Moore refused to do so and instead asked the commission to vote on the matter. After some discussion and advice from the state attorney general's office, the commission proceeded to vote for his removal from the top spot..
Carly Hare, an unaffiliated member who previously served as vice chair, will now take over as chair of the commission.
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Republican lawmakers have turned back efforts to make no-excuse absentee voting a permanent fixture in New Hampshire.
On Thursday, the GOP-led state Senate voted along party lines to reject a bill that would have eliminated the excuse requirement to vote by mail.
During the 2020 election, all 1.1 million New Hampshire voters were able to request an absentee ballot due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Democratic lawmakers had hoped to make voting by mail a fixed option in future voting.
With the legislation now dead, New Hampshire will return to the absentee voting rules it employed prior to the pandemic. In order to qualify for a mail ballot, voters must have one of these excuses: an absence from their city or town on Election Day, a religious observance, a disability or illness, or an employment commitment, including caregiving, during the entire in-person voting period.
Expanding absentee eligibility to everyone last year gave voters the convenience and flexibility to choose whatever voting method was best for them, proponents of the bill said. One-third of the more than 814,000 ballots cast by New Hampshirites in the 2020 election were by mail.
Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy said because mail voting was so widely used, she's concerned some voters have come to expect the no-excuse policy as the norm.
"Now that we experienced the largest election in our state's history, and have accommodated all of these voters, why would we now go back and tell them that this process doesn't make sense anymore?" she said.
But Republican lawmakers maintain that the state's current law is "adequate" and allows plenty of opportunities for people to vote absentee.
"Give me an example that we don't cover that isn't a person who is just too lazy to go to the poll on Election Day," said GOP Sen. James Gray.
Currently, 34 states and Washington, D.C., allow for no-excuse absentee voting, and during the 2020 election, all but five states expanded eligibility. Now, state lawmakers across the country are considering hundreds of bills to reform the election process, with Democrats largely in favor of expanding access and Republicans pushing for restrictions.
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More than $1 billion spent on the 2020 election — the most expensive presidential contest in history — came from unknown sources.
Because of the secretive nature of this so-called dark money, it's difficult to capture the entire scope of such undisclosed spending. So this enormous sum, first reported by OpenSecrets, is actually a conservative estimate. The organization, which tracks money in politics, published its report Wednesday after studying Federal Election Commission reports and advertising data.
Ironically, Democrats, who largely advocate for bolstering transparency around political spending, were the ones who benefited most from these undisclosed funds. OpenSecrets found that liberal dark money groups spent $514 million last year, compared to $200 million spent by conservative groups.
In recent years, liberal dark money has been on the rise despite fervent efforts to curtail this spending by Democrats. The 2018 midterms was the first time since the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision that more dark money was spent in favor of Democrats than Republicans. This trend continued in the 2020 election, marking the first presidential contest in which Democratic dark money surpassed that of Republicans.
The 2010 ruling lifted restrictions on political spending, considering it protected as a form of free speech. Since then, secretive spending has only become more entrenched in American elections.
"Overturn Citizens United" has been the mantra of campaign finance reform advocates for the last decade. Many Democratic candidates, including nearly every one that ran for president last year, included it in their campaign platform. Reeling in dark money is also a key provision of the sweeping democracy reform bill, HR 1, that has been passed twice by House Democrats.
While President Biden may have slightly improved the odds of the For the People Act passing in the Senate, it's still an uphill climb. This week a pair of progressive advocacy groups, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and Let America Vote Action Fund, announced a $30 million investment in advertising, lobbying and grassroots organizing to push HR 1 forward.
Still, there's no denying Democrats' ability to use the current system to their advantage in last year's election. Biden's presidential victory was supported by $174 million from anonymous donors — more than six times the amount ($25 million) that went toward Donald Trump's unsuccessful re-election bid.
Liberal groups accounted for 10 of the 15 biggest dark money spenders in the 2020 election, but the No. 1 spot went to conservative nonprofit One Nation, which spent more than $125 million on political contributions and ads. One Nation has ties to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
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