By Eliza Newlin Carney
The election is over but the voting wars continue, and a wave of new state laws to restrict access to the polls has stirred national controversy. Yet voting rights advocates have also scored important victories, and are winning where it matters most — in the court of public opinion.
Yes, new laws passed in Georgia and several other states impose strict new curbs on voters, including ID requirements and limits on absentee voting. The Georgia law most directly threatens voters by stripping power from nonpartisan election administrators and handing it to partisan politicians, an approach being emulated in at least seven other states. All told, legislators in 47 states had introduced 361 bills to restrict voting as of March 24, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
But the Brennan Center also tallies 843 bills to expand access to the polls, also in 47 states. Nine have been signed into law, including a measure to dramatically expand voting in deep-red Kentucky. Approved by the GOP legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, that bipartisan law facilitates online registration and early and absentee voting, and sets up innovative voting super centers.
In Virginia, a groundbreaking new law makes Election Day a holiday, repeals voter ID requirements, institutes automatic voter registration, expands absentee voting, and requires public feedback or approval from the state’s attorney general before election rules may be changed. This latter provision effectively reinstitutes, on the state level, the preclearance requirements once imposed on Virginia by the Voting Rights Act, requirements struck by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Such voting rights success stories merit notice both as a signal of where most voters stand, and as a blueprint for democracy reforms nationally. GOP legislators who parrot Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election to justify new voting limits are at odds with the majority of voters, including many Republicans. Voters of all stripes broadly supported the expansion, during the pandemic, of absentee and vote-by-mail options, and of conveniences such as ballot drop boxes.
Voters on both sides of the aisle also overwhelmingly support the For the People Act, congressional Democrats’ sweeping bill to expand voting and overhaul campaign financing and lobbying rules, which has passed the House is before the Senate. The bill faces an uncertain future, and Democrats are divided over whether to break the measure into smaller, more manageable pieces or stick with their more-ambitious, original package.
But democracy advocates have a powerful new ally in the business community, which has come out increasingly forcefully against voter restrictions, despite its traditional allegiance to the GOP. Business leaders understand instinctually that free markets flourish best in a functioning democracy. Some CEOs have long endorsed greater transparency and accountability in the campaign finance sphere, and now voting rights is an even more potent force rallying the businesses sector behind democracy reform.
As voting expert Michael McDonald recently wrote in The Fulcum, the 2020 election was an extraordinary administrative success, and there is every reason for the measures put in place during the pandemic, most notably the expansion of vote by mail, to become the “new normal.” The move to restrict voting is “especially concerning” in this context, according to McDonald, and serves as a reminder that progress is not guaranteed. But he noted: “It’s important to recognize that, in the larger picture, our country continues to strive towards greater representation by increasing access to the levers of democracy to those routinely marginalized.”
Eliza Newlin Carney is a journalist and founder of The Civic Circle.
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