2011 in Review: The Good, the Bad, and What's Ahead in 2012 for Voting Rights

Over the past year we have seen numerous attempts by legislatures across the country to pass laws that will make it harder for seniors, youth, people with disabilities, low-income workers, and minorities to access the ballot box. These cynical, anti-democratic tactics that could disenfranchise millions include shortening early voting periods and eliminating them altogether on the weekends before elections, ending Election Day registration, placing onerous restrictions on community-based voter registration drives, and requiring photo identification that many do not have or cannot afford.

This year, more than 20 states have attempted in some way to scale back access to the vote. Voting rights advocates were successful in pushing back in many states while the political forces proved too strong in others. We have seen governors take strong stands in their states by vetoing restrictive legislation. We have also heard strong warnings about attacks on voting rights from Congress as well as U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who said in a speech last week that protecting access to the ballot for all eligible voters "must be viewed not only as a legal issue but as a moral imperative."

Here I have summarized what has happened with regards to voting rights in 2011 and what we should be prepared for in 2012.

Looking Back -- Good News

From legislative advocacy to governors' vetoes to citizen-led repeal efforts, we have seen examples of strong coalition building and successful efforts to defend our voting rights from relentless attacks.

Photo identification bills introduced in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina were vetoed by Democratic governors. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer also vetoed a bill that would have eliminated Election Day registration (EDR). In Maine and Ohio, citizens used initiative processes to put voter suppression laws passed by state lawmakers on the ballot for voters to judge. As a result, Mainers voted overwhelmingly to save EDR in November, and Ohioans will get the chance to repeal a bill that eliminates a period of same day registration and shortens early voting, among other things, in November 2012.

In Tennessee, legislation has been introduced to repeal the new photo ID law, and the Protect the Vote TN coalition is collecting petition signatures to make sure legislators know that voters don't want to be blocked from the ballot box by unnecessary laws. The governor, Bill Haslam who signed the photo ID legislation into law, raised concerns recently that the law might make it "unnecessarily hard" for voters to cast ballots. Unfortunately, he didn't consider that before he signed the bill.

Nationally -- and even internationally -- voter suppression efforts have increasingly garnered attention. On Dec. 13, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., gave a speech at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, to "call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and, instead, achieve success by appealing to more voters." Last month, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and others held a forum on new state voting laws. This followed a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights in September (read FELN's testimony here). Looking ahead to January, the Senate Subcommittee will hold a hearing in Tampa on Florida's new voter suppression laws.

This heightened attention will help combat new legislation that will likely spring up in 2012.

Looking Back -- Bad News

Photo ID was the big story of 2011, with eight states passing new photo ID requirements into law (Ala., Kan., Miss., R.H., S.C., Tenn., Texas, Wyo.). The new laws will be in effect as of Jan. 1 in Kansas and Tennessee. Wisconsin implemented a confusing "soft" launch of its new photo ID law during recall and special elections this year, and will fully implement the new requirement starting with the spring 2012 primary. However, three separate lawsuits have recently been filed challenging Wisconsin's new law. South Carolina and Texas intend to implement their new ID requirements in time for the 2012 elections, but they must receive federal approval under the Voting Rights Act first.

Voter suppression efforts didn't stop with photo ID. Kansas and Tennessee have put burdensome new proof of citizenship requirements into place, and Alabama passed a proof of citizenship requirement that must receive federal approval under the Voting Rights Act. Community registration drives were seriously curtailed in Florida and Texas, early voting opportunities were reduced in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia, and the governors of Iowa and Florida used executive actions to rollback the voting rights of individuals with past criminal convictions who had served their sentences.

With the exception of the felony disenfranchisement action, Florida's recent changes are pending federal approval under the Voting Rights Act with respect to five counties covered by the Act. In the meantime, Florida has implemented the changes in the remaining 62 counties. As a result, Florida will likely operate its January presidential primary under two different sets of rules, no doubt leading to further confusion, unequal access, and voter disenfranchisement.

What's Ahead for 2012

What's on the horizon for 2012? Only time will tell. But here are some of the biggest items on the radar for the New Year:

Maine: Hopefully the resounding citizen's veto success has curbed the enthusiasm Maine legislators had for voter suppression in 2011, but we can't afford to stop paying attention. It may very well be that the Election Day registration battle has only toughened the resolve of photo ID proponents, and a careful eye should be kept on proposals to amend the residency and domicile laws in ways that limit the franchise.

Michigan: A package of election reform bills, promoted by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, includes legislation to place harsh new restrictions on community voter registration drives and a proposal that would allow the Department of State to challenge the absentee ballots of students and others temporarily living outside of Michigan. The Michigan Senate left town without voting on the bills but we expect them to take them up when they come back in January.

Missouri: Legislators have put the question of whether to amend Missouri's constitution to require photo ID on the ballot for voters to decide next year. However, FELN, Advancement Project, and the ACLU have brought a legal challenge that could thwart the effort.

New Hampshire: Legislators in both the House and Senate are reportedly examining various ways to restrict the franchise by redefining residency for voting purposes. It's likely these changes will be tied up in a package with a renewed photo ID effort, so watch out for a double-whammy!

North Carolina: Republicans in North Carolina may try to override Democratic Governor Bev Perdue's photo ID veto -- again.

Pennsylvania: Despite a last minute effort last week by the Senate State Government Committee to get an amended bill to the Senate floor, the 2011 session ended without a full Senate vote. However, Pennsylvania voters aren't out of the woods yet, as the legislation will carry over into 2012. This means lawmakers can pick up right where they left off when the session resumes in January. The modified bill now allows for IDs from PA-accredited colleges and universities, as well as nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and is rumored to have the support of the original House sponsor. Interestingly, the Senate State Government Committee, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, stated he has not seen any proof of people illegally casting ballots.

Virginia: A bill requiring voters who can't prove identity to vote by provisional ballot has been pre-filed, and could be the start of voter suppression shenanigans in Virginia for 2012.

While this year we have seen setbacks in several states, we also have seen citizens standing up against attempts to make voting more difficult. We can take the lessons we have learned this year and come out battling in 2012 against these efforts to stop the vote for political gain. At the same time, it's important to continue the work that has been done over the past decade to make voting more convenient -- including expanding early voting, same day and online registration, and passing the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Act. These reforms, unlike the others, will make voting more convenient and increase access and participation in safe, secure and representative elections.