As Americans go to the polls this fall, they are voting for much more than candidates. Their votes will determine whose vote counts in every election moving forward.
It has become increasingly difficult to talk about voting in America without talking about the rules that determine who gets to cast ballots and who gets to make them. In Georgia, voting rights became a flashpoint of the state’s close gubernatorial race after The Associated Press found that nearly 70 percent of the 53,000 voter registrations being held up were from black people. In North Carolina, voters will be choosing members of Congress under a district map that a federal court said was unconstitutional because it was severely gerrymandered to benefit Republicans. In Florida, the races for U.S. Senate and governor are likely to be extremely close, but around 1.5 million people won’t be able to participate because the state permanently disenfranchises people.
Joshua Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of a forthcoming book about voting reforms, said he thought there was more attention on voting rights than usual. He suggested the focus on citizen-led ballot initiatives was a combination of seeing the U.S. Supreme Court become increasingly conservative on voting rights issues while seeing local experiments to expand voting succeed.
“Activists are figuring out that they can promote pro-voting enhancements on the ground in their states and localities,” Douglas said. “If they do pass, then we’ve seen that there’s a clear path towards positive voting rights enhancements.”
As Americans go to the polls, here are a few of the ballot initiatives and races that are worth your attention:
Florida Felon Disenfranchisement
Florida is one of just four states that permanently bar people with felony convictions from voting. About 1.5 million people in the state can’t vote because they have at some point been convicted of a felony. The state is now home to more than a quarter of the nation’s 6 million disenfranchised citizens. Nationally, African-Americans are disenfranchised at a rate more than four times that of non-African-Americans, and in Florida, more than 1 in 5 black people is disenfranchised, according to a 2016 estimate by the Sentencing Project. Only the governor can restore voting rights to someone with a felony conviction, a process that can be cumbersome and take years.
This fall, Floridians will vote on whether to amend the state’s constitution and get rid of that policy. If voters approve the proposal, which will be Amendment 4 on the ballot, people would automatically get their voting rights back once they entirely finish their sentences, including probation and parole. People convicted of murder and sexual offenses would be exempt from the change and wouldn’t have their voting rights restored.
The measure needs 60 percent approval to pass.
Republicans in Michigan controlled the state Legislature in 2011, giving them control over the process of drawing the state legislative and congressional maps that would be in place for the next decade. They didn’t waste their power. They drew a congressional map that greatly benefited Republicans, allowing them to consistently win nine of the state’s 14 congressional seats. Emails from 2011, recently made public as part of a lawsuit, show how Republicans intentionally crafted districts to help their candidates win.
A constitutional amendment on the ballot in Michigan would make it so that neither Republicans nor Democrats could gerrymander that excessively to their advantage again. If approved by Michigan voters, Proposal 2 would create a 13-person commission consisting of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents who would have control over the redistricting process for both congressional and legislative districts. There would be strict requirements on who can serve on the commission, and it would be required to hold at least 10 public hearings. A majority of voters appear to support the measure, but Republicans and conservative groups oppose it, saying it would be bureaucratic and strips the Michigan Legislature of its constitutional authority to draw district lines.
Preventing A Repeat Of 2010
Redistricting is done once every 10 years, so whichever party has control over state governments during the next round, in 2021, will have consequences for a decade. Many of the state lawmakers and governors who play a role in the process will be elected this year.
In 2010, Republicans had control over the redistricting process in places like Michigan because they intentionally targeted state legislative races where they saw an opportunity to flip seats and control a legislative chamber. It worked extremely well. Now Democrats, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, are trying to prevent that from happening again.
Holder’s group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, is targeting gubernatorial and state races this year that will affect redistricting in 2021. The group is focused on 12 states, including 10 gubernatorial races and 19 legislative chambers, where the result will determine which party has a seat at the table the next time electoral maps are drawn.
Secretaries Of State
Until relatively recently, no one seemed to be paying much attention to secretaries of state, who serve as the chief election officers and partisan elected officials in 35 states. The increased focus on voting rights has also brought these officials under more scrutiny. There are secretary of state races in 26 states this fall, nine of which are competitive, according to Governing magazine.
Secretaries of state can wield enormous power in deciding how easy it is for people to vote. In Ohio and Georgia, for example, the secretaries of state are aggressively removing people from the voting rolls if they don’t vote for a period and fail to respond to a mailer confirming their address. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor, also faces accusations of voter suppression for holding the registrations of 53,000 people in suspense because their registration information didn’t exactly match what was on file in a state or federal database. Kemp has strongly denied the accusations.
Secretaries of state can also play a huge role in determining how easy it is to update your voter registration when you move, and a handful of states recently faced lawsuits over accusations they’re not doing enough to update people’s voter registrations when they move. They also are charged with ensuring that election systems are protected from hackers and other kinds of interference.
Seeing an opportunity to elect officials who will make it easier to vote, Democrats are investing in secretary of state races. In Ohio, for example, Kathleen Clyde, the Democratic nominee, has said she would end the state’s aggressive voter purging, while her Republican opponent has said he would continue the practice. In Arizona, Democrats are spending money to back Katie Hobbs for secretary of state in her race against Steven Gaynor, a businessman with no political experience. Gaynor has said that ballots should only be printed in English, something that would likely violate the Voting Rights Act, which includes specific protections for non-English speakers.
“There has been more recruitment. National Democrats, everyone has sort of come together to realize this is something that people need to put more of an emphasis on because many Republican secretaries of state across the country are trying to use the office for political gain,” said Abe Rakov, chair of Let America Vote, a voting rights group that is supporting Democratic candidates for secretary of state across the country. “On our side, we want to make sure every eligible voter can vote.”
Voters in North Carolina are choosing this fall whether to amend the state’s constitution to require voters to show photo ID. The most notable thing about the amendment is what’s not in it: The Republican lawmakers who got the measure on the ballot didn’t include any details about what kinds of photo ID would be accepted at the polls and what the state would do to accommodate voters who don’t have IDs. Legislative leaders have said they’ll work out those details if the amendment passes.
That omission is significant because North Carolina passed a voter ID requirement in 2013 that was struck down by a federal court. That law required voters to present one of seven forms of acceptable voter ID at the polls, and a federal appeals court said the requirement targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Republicans defend the push, noting that 34 states have voter identification requirements at the polls. The requirements for acceptable ID, however, vary in each state.
Arkansas voters will also decide on a constitutional amendment to require photo ID when someone votes. In 2014, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down a voter ID requirement, saying it was unconstitutional. Arkansas lawmakers passed a new law this year, and the constitutional amendment is designed to make sure it can withstand more scrutiny.
Also Worth Watching
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the most high-profile secretary of state in the country, is locked in a tight race for governor with Democrat Laura Kelly. While in office, Kobach has made voter fraud a signature issue, gaining him national attention, even though there’s no evidence to suggest voter fraud is a widespread problem. Kobach convinced the Kansas Legislature to make him the only secretary of state in the country with the authority to prosecute election crimes, but, as of June, his efforts had produced just nine guilty pleas. He’s also still touting a law that had required Kansans to prove their citizenship when they registered to vote, even though a federal judge struck it down in June. A Kobach win would send a strong signal about the political power of spreading fear of voter fraud.
Michigan voters will also get to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment designed to make voting easier. If Michiganders pass Proposal 3, the state’s motor vehicle agency would be required to automatically register people it interacts with (Michiganders can still opt out of voting). The measure would also allow people to register to vote on election day (the current cutoff is 30 days before an election) and allow them to vote a “straight ticket” and cast votes for all candidates from one party with the check of a box.
Voters in Nevada will also choose whether they want the state Department of Motor Vehicles to automatically register voters (13 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of automatic voter registration).
Voters in Maryland will choose whether they want to amend the state constitution to allow voter registration on election day.
Montanans are considering a ballot measure that would prohibit people from collecting someone else’s ballot (family members, household members, caregivers, postal workers and acquaintances would be exempt). The Republican who sponsored the measure says it’s necessary to combat voter intimidation and ballot tampering, but critics say there’s no evidence that that’s a problem. The measure comes amid the growing popularity of absentee balloting in the state.