The past two years have not been kind to voting rights. Across the country, the Tea Party wave of 2010 led to new restrictive voting measures, including photo identification requirements and cuts in early voting. In total, these changes had the potential to disenfranchise more than 5 million Americans.
However, with progressive victories in the 2012 election and a renewed awareness of the need to protect the ballot box, 2013 could be a banner year for voting rights.
Rather than continuing to solely play defense, the Center for American Progress has released a report detailing 11 pieces of state legislation that voting rights advocates can use to go on offense in 2013:
1. Online voter registration. Less than 63 percent of Americans aged 18-34 were registered to vote in 2009, yet a Nielsen survey found that these young citizens were by far the most electronically connected, with 88 percent having an Internet connection at home. Modernizing the voter-registration process and allowing people to register online would be a boon for the overall number of voters in our country.
2. Election Day registration. Most states bar their residents from registering in the weeks just before an election—at a time when media coverage is at a fever pitch and less-engaged citizens are just starting to tune in. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, stop allowing people to register 30 days before an election. Election Day registration eliminates that barrier, helping a significant number of Americans vote. In 2008 alone, more than 1 million individuals registered on Election Day in these states. Studies have found that Election Day registration boosts turnout on average by 7-percentage points to 14-percentage points.
3. Require public schools to help register voters. Young Americans continue to vote at far lower rates than the rest of the citizenry. This year, for instance, only half of the voting-eligible population between the ages of 18 and 24 cast a ballot, compared to more than two-thirds of senior citizens. One simple way to encourage students to vote is for states to require that public schools provide voter-registration services.
4. Expand early voting. Early voting is one of the most important realms of voting rights over the past decade. It offers citizens more flexibility to vote at their convenience—not everyone can take off an hour or two from work on the first Tuesday of November—and allows election officials to spread the process of counting ballots over a number of days or weeks, rather than getting inundated all at once. It’s also a major boon for minority turnout. Many African American churches, for instance, participate in a “souls to the polls” voting drive on the Sunday before Election Day helping boost black early voting rates. Currently, 16 states don’t offer early voting.
5. Allow voters to cast a ballot in any county polling location. One of the most exciting new developments in the past couple years is the advent of polling centers. Rather than restricting voters to one assigned precinct where they must cast their ballot, a handful of counties now allow residents to vote at any polling location in their home county. Travis County, Texas, home to Austin, for example, conducted a study of its new policy after it was introduced in 2011 and found that allowing voters to cast a ballot at any of the county’s 207 polling locations led directly to a 1.4 percent increase in turnout. Approximately one in three voters ended up going to a different polling location than their usual one.
6. No-excuse absentee voting. For many Americans taking time off during the work day to vote is not an option. Fortunately for them an increasing number of states are enacting “no-excuse absentee” laws that allow anyone who requests an absentee ballot to receive one, not just individuals who will be out of town or have another reason barring them from voting on Election Day.
7. Strengthen penalties for knowingly deceiving voters. Though voter fraud is largely a myth, one form of actual election hijinks occurs when individuals or groups purposefully deceive certain voters about when or how to vote. These deceptive practices are unfortunately commonplace, such as fliers plastered in urban areas telling Republicans to vote on Tuesday and Democrats to vote on Wednesday. States should not only specifically ban deceptive practices, but classify them as a felony.
8. Outlaw voter caging. Voter caging is when an operative or group sends letters to a “target’s” home and uses any returned mail to challenge that voter’s eligibility on the presumption that they don’t live at the listed residence. For years, political operatives have used voter caging as a tactic to suppress turnout among largely minority populations. Because it’s a process that is riddled with problems, states should affirmatively ban the practice of voter caging. There are dozens of reasons why a piece of mail would be returned that are more plausible than a voter intending to commit voter fraud, including as clerical errors or military deployment, and serves primarily to suppress legitimate voters.
9. Reform the voter-challenge process. Poll watchers became a household term in the 2012 election as campaigns and outside groups like True The Vote trained thousands of volunteers to challenge voters’ eligibility anytime they suspected irregularities. When a poll watcher makes a challenge most states place the burden of proof on the voter to prove he or she is eligible to cast a ballot, a process that does little to disincentivize frivolous challenges. States therefore should pass legislation shifting the burden of proof from the voter to the challenger. In addition, states should impose penalties on individuals and groups who make frivolous challenges.
10. Restore voting rights to ex-felons. Felons in most states aren’t just barred from voting while in prison; a handful of states strip them of their voting rights for the rest of their life, even after completing their sentence. As a result, 3.1 million Americans were disenfranchised in 2008. If we as a society want to reintegrate people with felony convictions back into society after they finish their prison terms, it makes little sense to permanently brand them with a scarlet letter.
11. Enact constitutional language affirming an equal right to vote. When Wisconsin passed voter ID legislation in 2011 the only thing stopping its implementation in the 2012 election was the state constitution’s language affirming Wisconsin residents’ right to vote. Every state constitution has different language regarding the right to vote. Still, the most important thing voting-rights advocates can proactively do to prevent further attacks on voting rights such as voter ID is to strengthen their state’s constitutional language regarding the right to vote.