There’s Some Good News on State Voting Bills. Now the Federal Government Must Act.

By Zachary Stern

It is no secret that American democracy is under attack. Roused by the former president’s lies about the 2020 election, thousands gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6 to stop its certification. The rest is unforgettable: hundreds storming the Capitol, calls for violence against elected officials from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Vice President Mike Pence, Confederate flags waving in the Senate chamber, and five dead. 

Hardline Republican officials have now doubled down on their attempts to reshape the electorate for their own political gain. In the 2021 legislative session alone, legislators across 48 states have introduced almost 400 bills aimed at restricting access to the polls. Twenty-two laws have already been enacted, and 61 more are currently moving through their respective state legislatures.  

Yet, during this same period, several states have responded with measures expanding voting access rather than erecting barriers to the ballot. Here are a few examples of how states are proactively protecting the freedom to vote.  

Passed at the end of March, Kentucky’s bipartisan House Bill 574 does the following:

  • Mandates three days of in-person early voting before every election;
  • Allows voters to “cure” absentee ballots containing problems that would otherwise discount them;
  • Makes permanent the online absentee ballot request portal used in the 2020 election;
  • Authorizes the use of secure drop boxes for submitting mail ballots; 
  • Allows counties to establish voting locations where residents from any precinct can cast their ballots; and
  • Requires counties to transition from electronic-only to paper ballot voting systems.

Although it is focused on expanding access as opposed to limiting it, the bill does not go nearly far enough. The three days of early voting outlined in HB 574 pale in comparison to the average early voting period of 19 days. The bill does not require multiple voting centers in larger counties. And it fails to adjust the state’s unnecessarily early voter registration deadline or extend voting hours past 6 p.m., among other issues. However, as state legislatures across the country work to restrict voting rights and undermine the electoral process, the bill remains a small step in the right direction.

Maryland has moved more boldly to expand voting access, enacting a series of bills over the past few months that:

  • Reform the state’s formula for designating early voting centers to increase the number of available locations;
  • Require counties to pay particular attention to the accessibility of early voting centers for historically disenfranchised communities;
  • Allow voters to choose to receive mail ballots for every election rather than having to reapply each year; and
  • Increase voting access for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people by ensuring that all formerly imprisoned people receive a voter registration application upon their release and mandating greater efforts to inform incarcerated voters about their rights and voting options.  

The Illinois General Assembly also passed a series of changes to its voting laws that Governor J.B. Pritzker has signed. In the final hours of its session, the legislature:

  • Moved to allow people in jail while awaiting trial to vote;
  • Authorized counties to build permanent lists of voters who wish to receive mail ballots each election;
  • Called for the use of empty schools as polling locations;
  • Required high schools to allow students and community members to register to vote on campus;
  • Required every county to establish at least one universal voting center;
  • Required election officials to ensure that people with disabilities can vote by mail; and
  • Pushed back Illinois’ 2022 primary election to allow lawmakers to delay congressional redistricting until after official census figures are made available later this summer.

As Representative Maurice West said, the legislation “sends a message to the nation that this is how it’s supposed to be…While other states are focused on voter suppression, Illinois is focused on voter empowerment.”

After introducing no-excuse mail-in voting for the 2020 election in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed a bill in early June cementing vote-by-mail as a standard voting option for future elections. “At a time when state legislatures across the country are attempting to roll back access to the polls,” he said, “I am so proud that Nevada continues to push forward with proven strategies that make voting more accessible and secure.”

New York and Washington, meanwhile, each passed bills in April restoring voting rights to people with past convictions, and in December of 2020, New York became the 19th state to adopt automatic voter registration.

Virginia’s recent wave of voting rights legislation offers the most comprehensive state expansion of voting access in the nation. Over the past 14 months, the general assembly: 

  • Repealed Virginia’s voter ID law;
  • Established a one-and-a-half-month period of no-excuse absentee voting;
  • Designated Election Day as a state holiday;
  • Enacted automatic voter registration for anyone receiving a state driver’s license;
  • Established a state version of the preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was struck down in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.

“At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it,” Governor Northam asserted. “Our Commonwealth is creating a model for how states can provide comprehensive voter protections that strengthen democracy and the integrity of our elections.”

As restrictive voting bills continue to move through state legislatures across the country, the positive examples highlighted above model a very different path forward for American democracy — one that learns from the 2020 election to expand access to the polls and embraces equity over barriers. These bills suggest that if we act now, 2020 could be a catalyst for fulfilling the promise of our democracy.  

But bold action from a few states will not protect the freedom to vote alone. These bills cannot ensure access to the polls for voters in Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, or Michigan, nor can they protect them from strict voter ID laws, attacks on mail and early voting, inaccessible polling locations, purged voter rolls, and other measures aimed at shutting out the voices of historically disenfranchised communities.

We also need a federal response. Congress must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. The VRAA would restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, reestablishing and updating the preclearance provision under which jurisdictions with a documented history of voting discrimination had to seek pre-approval from the federal government for changes to their voting rules to ensure that those changes were not discriminatory. Preclearance proved an extremely effective tool for blocking discriminatory voting rules and practices in covered jurisdictions. Yet, it will not affect laws that have already been passed nor will it protect against restrictive actions in states not included in the updated coverage formula. 

This is where the For the People Act comes in. Aimed at creating basic federal standards  for voting access for all Americans, it would: 

  • Require states to modernize voter registration — including by instituting automatic and same-day registration and protecting against discriminatory purges;
  • Require every state to offer early and no-excuse mail voting; 
  • Permit voters who lack photo identification to use a sworn statement affirming their identity instead;
  • Restore voting rights to citizens with past criminal convictions once they complete any term of incarceration;
  • Crack down on deception and intimidation as barriers to voting; and
  • Ban partisan gerrymandering and take other steps to protect racial and language minorities in the redistricting process.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act would ensure that the expansive voting measures implemented in states like Virginia and Maryland become a national reality. Until they do, our democracy hangs in the balance.

Zachary Stern is a summer 2021 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.