Hawaii is poised to become the latest state to adopt automatic voter registration.
The Senate unanimously approved the measure on Tuesday after the House passed it earlier this month, with only one lawmaker voting "no." The bill now goes to Gov. David Ige's desk, and he is expected to sign it.
With Democrats forming an executive and legislative trifecta, Hawaii is following the nationwide trend in which Democrats are largely advocating for voting easements, while Republicans are trying to roll back access to the ballot box.
When the legislation receives final approval from Ige and automatic voter registration goes into effect July 1, Hawaii will join 18 other states, plus Washington, D.C., that already have systems to automatically register eligible citizens when they apply for a driver's license or state identification card. Two more states, Maine and New York, are in the process of implementing such a system in the near future.
Hawaii's bill also ensures that people already registered to vote can have their names and addresses automatically updated when changes are needed, unless a person declines.
Supporters of automatic voter registration say the system provides more convenience to voters, is cost-effective for states and keeps the voter rolls up-to-date. Those opposed expressed concerns over privacy and a lack of a citizenship requirement in the bill.
Voter registration information will only be shared with Hawaii's local election officials and the Department of Transportation.
So far this year, 20 more states are considering bills to adopt automatic voter registration, according to the Voting Rights Lab. And five states that currently have this type of registration system are considering bills to eliminate it.
Meanwhile, Montana recently ended its long-standing practice of same-day voter registration, which is often discussed alongside automatic voter registration. Same-day registration allows potential voters to register and then cast a ballot on Election Day.
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Iowa is already seeing the effects of the year's first Republican-driven curbs on voting. The state's elections administrator has told 294,000 Iowans they've been targeted for an eventual purge from the registration list — simply because they did not vote last year.
GOP Secretary of State Paul Pate's office revealed this week that postcards have been mailed to more than 13 percent of the state's electorate telling them they are "inactive" voters because they did not cast any ballot in 2020. The list includes about 400 teenagers who were allowed to register even though they turned 18 after Election Day.
Pate was required to act under the sweeping tightening of election rules approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in February, despite united Democratic opposition. Like fellow Republicans nationwide, the GOP acted in the name of preventing the sort of election cheating that Democrats accurately describe as almost non-existent.
Keeping voter rolls up to date enjoys bipartisan support as a good-government best practice, but Republicans generally want to move much more aggressively than Democrats — who say the risk of fraud is much less than the risk that eligible voters will get purged.
Previously, voters had to miss two consecutive general elections to be moved to inactive status. That designation does not immediately limit the ability to vote, but instead puts the Iowan on notice their registration will be canceled if they remain politically silent through 2024. Requesting an absentee ballot, voting in any election or re-registering at a new address will restore an Iowan's active voter status.
"Incorrectly inactivating voters is a chill to voters across the state," said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat considering a challenge to Pate's re-election next year. "It sows distrust and uncertainty while also discouraging voters from voting."
The new law is in some ways more restrictive than the one in Georgia, which has gained much more notoriety because the Peach State is a newly purple presidential battleground — and both civil rights groups and some big companies have derided the effort as all about suppressing the vote of the one-third of Georgians who are Black.
In Iowa (which is 4 percent Black) there will now be nine fewer days for early voting and an hour less for voting on Election Day. Counties may no longer proactively send out absentee ballot request forms or set up more than a single drop box, and they are no longer permitted to count ballots postmarked on time but delayed in the mail. And Iowans may no longer turn over their sealed vote envelopes for delivery by partisan operatives or community activists, the practice critics deride as "ballot harvesting."
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This is the 11th installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, Bob LaRocca, executive director of the Voter Protection Corps, answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization uses data-driven solutions to battle voter suppression and disenfranchisement. LaRocca's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
American voters, election officials and election workers achieved a remarkable feat in 2020: holding a presidential election during a once-in-a-century pandemic and still achieving the highest turnout in history. Some states, like New Hampshire and South Carolina, adopted significant voting expansions on a temporary basis to address the challenges Covid-19 presented. Others like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia implemented major permanent advances in voting rights for the first time. The Voter Protection Corps was proud to work with city, state and local officials to help ensure that every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted. The Voter Protection Corps released a national action plan to protect in-person voting, recruited poll workers across the county, and ensured students in New Hampshire had the resources they needed to vote. We also partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to create a data tool to identify counties at risk for voting challenges and the possibility of voter disenfranchisement due to vast poll worker recruitment shortfalls.
And your biggest setback?
Even though we made progress in 2020, we faced constant threats to safely casting a ballot, a commander-in-chief who spread disinformation and encouraged voter suppression at every turn, and an attack on our Capitol by white supremacists trying to overturn the election. And while we did everything in our power to ensure every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted, there is no doubt that these suppressive measures affected the behavior of many voters. Our electoral system was broken long before Trump and his enablers gained power.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
It's so important to be patient with the process during an election, and especially on Election Day. Anyone who has volunteered or worked in an election knows how difficult it is to wait for the results, but given the unique circumstances of 2020, this feeling was exacerbated among our staff. We constantly had to remind ourselves, and everyone in our communities: Every vote must be counted and we won't know the winner of the presidential election on election night. That is okay. Many states have antiquated systems of waiting to count mail-in ballots and, as a result, those ballots took a few days to process. It was more critical in 2020 to remind ourselves, our friends and our families to be patient through this process.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
Even though we made tremendous progress in 2020, election administration in the United States is a patchwork, with differing state laws, thousands of local election jurisdictions nationwide, countless outdated systems and policies, and a history of unequal access that dates back to the founding. We have a long way to go to ensure every eligible voter can register, vote and have their vote counted.
Thankfully, we know how to get there. This year, the Voter Protection Corps will focus our efforts on pushing state and local leaders to implement important reforms outlined in our Democracy Benchmark. The report provides specific recommendations, including:
- Voter registration: Every state must offer same-day registration, ensure online voter registration is accessible and entirely online for all eligible voters, adopt automatic voter registration, relax restrictions on third-party voter registration, allow teenagers to pre-register, and end the racist practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions.
- Voting in person: Every state must provide access to at least 15 days of early voting with uniform hours that include mornings, nights and weekends; allow voters to vote at any Election Day voter center in their local election jurisdiction rather than requiring voters to use an assigned polling place; abolish or relax discriminatory and unnecessary voter identification requirements; reduce the risk of frivolous and intimidating voter challenges; and minimize law enforcement presence at voting sites.
- Vote by mail: Every state must adopt no-excuse voting by mail, allow voters to request mail ballots online, provide multiple options for returning mail ballots (including by mail, at a dropbox or voting site, and allowing a person the voter trusts to return the ballot for them), provide prepaid postage, ensure all mail ballots received within a week of Election Day are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, prevent local election offices from rejecting mail ballots unnecessarily, and provide voters the opportunity to fix problems that cause their mail ballots to be rejected.
- Election administration capacity: Every state must assume responsibility for ensuring that local election offices have the funding and flexibility they need for adequate capacity during election season. State election offices should also have the funding, infrastructure and mandate to ensure that every eligible voter is able to vote conveniently, and that their votes are counted.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
State and local leaders carry great responsibility for righting many of the wrongs we saw in 2020, and many of the states where reform is needed most continue to be led by forces that oppose increased access. Still, it is also essential that the Biden administration and Congress prioritize voting rights at the federal level. We encourage Congress to quickly pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Act, among other measures.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
Those responsible for perpetuating disinformation and attempting to overthrow our democracy in the horrific attack at the Capitol — including President Donald Trump and Republican members of Congress — must be held accountable. Policymakers must not use lies about the integrity of our election to justify voter suppression. State legislatures across the country are seeking to curtail voting opportunities that have been proven to expand access to the ballot — such as early and mail-in voting -— and erect other barriers that make it harder for people to vote. The challenges before us are daunting. We must ensure that efforts to advance voting rights don't dissipate as we move away from the election. The Voter Protection Corps will continue to fight any efforts to suppress legitimate votes and use data to support state and local leaders as they continue to ensure that every American has safe, convenient, and equal access to their most fundamental right.
Finish the sentence. In two years, American democracy will ...
be innovative, efficient and inclusive.
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Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed legislation ending Montana's long-standing same-day voter registration practice, while also imposing stricter voter ID requirements.
The Republican governor approved the two restrictive voting measures on Monday, after the GOP-majority Legislature passed the bills largely along party lines last month.
This makes Montana the latest state to roll back voting access following the 2020 election. Republican lawmakers across the country have been pushing for stricter election rules that they say will protect against voter fraud — despite no evidence of widespread wrongdoing. At the same time, Democrats have been advocating for expanding access to the ballot box.
Since 2006, Montana has allowed eligible voters to register and cast a ballot on Election Day. (Twenty other states, plus Washington, D.C., allow for same-day registration.) But now, under this new law, Montanans will have until noon the day before an election to register to vote.
The second bill requires voters to show certain identification before casting a ballot. Acceptable forms of photo ID include a Montana driver's license, government-issued photo ID, passport, military ID, tribal ID or state-issued concealed carry weapons permit. Voters could also provide the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Students can use their school-issued photo IDs to vote as long as they also provide a secondary piece of identification like a bank statement, utility bill, paycheck or another document that shows their name and current address.
Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen specifically requested the Legislature make these voting changes. She said requiring voter ID and implementing voter registration deadlines were "best practices in protecting the integrity of elections."
"Montana has a long history of secure, transparent elections, setting a standard for the nation," Gianforte said in announcing his approval of the bills. "These new laws will help ensure the continued integrity of Montana's elections for years to come."
But voting rights advocates lambasted the new laws as unnecessary barriers to the ballot box. They said the photo ID requirement in particular would impose a financial burden on low-income Montanans and others without government-issued IDs.
It's possible voting rights groups could mount a legal challenge to the new laws, or try to undo them through a ballot initiative.
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