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State Legislators Plan To Go On Offensive For Voting Rights

By Josh Israel

"State Legislators Plan To Go On Offensive For Voting Rights"

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Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams

Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams

State legislators from at least 22 states will gather in Washington, DC on Wednesday to strategize about how to advance voting rights protections nationally. Two of the legislative leaders attending the policy summit, organized by American Values First’s Voting Rights Project, told ThinkProgress that they are hopeful they can devise a national strategy to fight back against the voter suppression efforts that have been pushed nationally by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and True the Vote.

Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams, who will moderate the conference, said Tuesday that she hopes the legislators and advocates at the summit will focus on “how we move from being on the defensive to promoting a strong agenda for advancing voter rights.” In a Republican-controlled state like Georgia, she observed, often the function of the minority is “raising awareness” of issues like voting rights.

“Thirty-three states, in the last year, tried to restrict voting rights… more than 90 pieces of legislation were proposed,” Abrams notes. While she notes that her Democratic colleagues were not able to stop Georgia from enacting a strict photo ID law for voters, she has found bipartisan support for other proposals to make it easier for citizens to vote. “I’d like to believe in the better angels of both parties,” she says.

Florida House Democratic Whip Alan B. Williams echoed her belief that voting rights should not be seen as a partisan issue. “The last time the Voting Right Act was reauthorized,” he notes, “George W. Bush was president. And in the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan reauthorized [the law]. This isn’t just a bastion of Democrats’ ideology. This is something that was continued and pushed forward by Republican presidents.”

Before the 2012 elections, Florida Republicans passed an array of legislation aimed at making it harder to vote. Largely thanks to reduced early voting hours, voter purges, and voter registration restrictions pushed by Republican legislators and Gov. Rick Scott (R), the state made national news for its election chaos and marathon voting lines.

But the negative attention the state received spurred Florida legislators to rethink the restrictions — and to pass some bipartisan fixes. “They didn’t want to be the owners of an election law that put us in the eyes of the nation,” Williams observed. “I give our current Speaker some credit — he was willing to open that table up to not only Republicans, but Democrats.” While Williams would have gone further, he says, “it was a start.”

Williams and Abrams each shared several ideas for commonsense, incremental progress — proposals that could gain bipartisan support even in states with Republican control or divided government. Among their ideas were making voter registrations more portable for those who move within the same state, making Election Day a state holiday, investing in more electronic poll books for election officials, adding official student ID cards to the lists of valid voter identification forms, and allowing for more online voter registration. “We can’t approach this with a typewriter mentality, in an iPad world,” Williams noted.

Abrams added that even in GOP-dominated Georgia, voters have access to “no-excuse” absentee voting and early voting options. “Vote by mail has worked in Washington State for more than a decade. Colorado has just started same-day registration. We have enough good examples out there that we can not only talk about in theory, but how in practice this has helped developed a more mature voting population.”

Michael Sargeant, president of American Values First, told ThinkProgress that he hopes the summit yields as national strategy “that works, state by state, for protecting the right to vote.” He hopes to take the success stories and best practices from legislatures around the country to create an online toolkit for state legislators working to protect the right to vote and combat voter suppression efforts.

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