Partisan control determines how states act on voting rights
ATLANTA (AP) — New York voters for years have experienced some of the longest wait times in the nation on Election Day. Attempts to fix the problem routinely became casualties of the divided politics of the state Legislature.
That dynamic changed last November, when Democrats won majorities in both legislative chambers, and it didn’t take them long to act.
Just weeks into this year’s legislative session, they passed a bill to allow early voting, and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo promptly signed it.
“Early voting is going to make a significant difference for countless numbers of New Yorkers by making polling places so much more accessible and allow voters to determine when it is most convenient for them,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.
New York is among a small number of states where Democrats made big gains in last year’s election and have used that power to pass laws to make it easier to register and to vote. They have introduced early voting, all-mail voting or automatic registration.
A few Republican-led states — some of which saw high turnout for Democratic candidates — are going in the opposite direction, advancing bills to tighten voter registration and early voting.
“Some of this seems like a fairly direct response to things that happened in the midterms,” said Max Feldman, who tracks voting laws at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
In New Mexico, Democrats not only expanded their majority in the state House but also claimed the governor’s mansion after eight years of GOP control. By March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had signed a law to allow people to register and vote on the same day beginning in 2021. Previously, registration ended 28 days before an election.
Hawaii lawmakers approved legislation replacing the in-person voting system with one made up entirely of mailed ballots. If the measure is signed into law, the state will join Colorado, Oregon and Washington with mail-only voting. Delaware approved in-person, early voting beginning in 2022.
While bills increasing voter access this year far outnumbered those seeking to impose restrictions, many of the expansion bills were put forward by Democratic lawmakers in states led by Republicans. That means they are unlikely pass.
In the 2018 elections, Democrats nearly doubled to 14 the number of states in which they control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers, but Republicans remain in charge in more states — 22.
While some voting reforms such as automatic registration have drawn bipartisan support, Republicans generally have opposed same-day registration, mail-only voting and other changes, saying they increase the potential for fraud.
In Connecticut, Republicans recently thwarted a push by Democrats to do as New York did and add in-person, early voting. Democrats have a legislative majority there, but a constitutional amendment is required to make the change, and they fell short of garnering the votes necessary to put the issue on the ballot.
Republicans had expressed concern that early voters might come to regret their selections if a race’s dynamics shifted after they had turned in their ballot.
GOP lawmakers in some states also have targeted groups that register voters. They say such groups can create a burden for local election officials if they turn in large numbers of forms that are incomplete or contain false information.
In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a law that allows for fines against groups turning in 100 or more incomplete registration forms in a year.
“This bill was presented because of actual circumstances that were meant to confuse the integrity, or to create a lack of integrity, in the voting process,” Lee said.
Critics say Tennessee’s Republicans feel threatened by an increase in voter participation last year. In 2018, turnout in the state was 51 percent higher than in the previous midterm election. About 259,500 new voters registered in the six months before Election Day.
“What politicians should be doing is making sure that local election officials have the adequate resources to do their jobs,” ACLU attorney Sophia Lakin said in announcing a federal lawsuit challenging the new law. “Silencing civic groups’ voices is not the solution.”
In Texas, where Democrats picked up two congressional seats last year, lawmakers have been considering a bill that would make it a felony rather than a misdemeanor to knowingly put false information on a voter registration form. It would also increase scrutiny of those who provide transportation for voters headed to the polls.
The legislation passed the state Senate but stalled in the House.
Voter-suppression claims also have been made against Republicans in Florida, over a constitutional amendment voters approved last year that would make it easier for convicted felons to regain the right to vote.
Republican lawmakers, in drafting legislation to implement the amendment, said its language about felons having to complete “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation” also meant paying all court fees, fines and restitution before being eligible to vote.
“This measure is nothing but a poll tax that would effectively disenfranchise those who are unable to pay,” Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, said during a recent congressional hearing in Florida.
The bill’s sponsor, GOP state Sen. Jeff Brandes, defended it, saying: “Our goal was to follow the constitution, and the constitution is clear — ‘all terms of the sentence.’”
Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
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