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As federal pro-voter reform stalls, advocates should prepare for state-level action

The war for democracy must be fought on two fronts

Supporters of the Democrats’ elections overhaul legislation rally outside the Supreme Court on June 9. With federal efforts at voting reform in limbo, attention should turn stateside, Streator and Ekeh write.
Supporters of the Democrats’ elections overhaul legislation rally outside the Supreme Court on June 9. With federal efforts at voting reform in limbo, attention should turn stateside, Streator and Ekeh write. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The 2020 election produced two mandates: one for President Joe Biden’s agenda and, perhaps more importantly, another for pro-voter reform. After the most participatory election in U.S. history, Americans voiced their support for voter access by voting — in record numbers.

However, recent months have shown that there is more work to be done. As of late May, state lawmakers had introduced nearly 390 bills with restrictive provisions, covering 48 states across the country. Since January, at least 14 states have enacted 22 new laws that curb voter access, while dozens of other restrictive bills are moving through state legislatures.

Reformers are now rightly calling on the federal government to act. Some pin their hopes on the House Democrats’ HR 1, also known as the For the People Act, which aims to establish national voter registration and mail-in voting standards. Others look to the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and require states like Georgia to receive federal approval before making changes to their voting processes.

Both proposals, supported by a wide range of coalition groups, are critical and worth pursuing. More than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) support bills like the For the People Act. Automatic voter registration, expanded mail-in voting and similar reforms receive overwhelming support from independents.

It is essential that reformers continue pushing for federal action. But West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to HR 1’s Senate counterpart, S 1, highlights the importance of alternative routes for reform.

One of those paths is at the state level. In 2018 and 2020, statewide ballot initiatives to secure electoral reform received significant support. Across both election cycles, voters approved nearly 20 initiative-based reforms, including strengthening voter registration, improving the redistricting process and making it easier for citizens to vote.

This speaks to the recent success of ballot initiatives writ large. From 2010 to 2019, citizen-initiated measures were approved at the highest rate of any decade since the first decade of the 20th century. Why stop now?

When they make the ballot, pro-voter initiatives tend to pass, especially in the case of redistricting reform. With the exceptions of a 2016 ballot initiative in South Dakota and two similar initiatives in Ohio (in 2005 and 2012), virtually every recent redistricting-related initiative that made the ballot was approved by voters. Moreover, pro-voter initiatives — regardless of subject matter — generally run well ahead of statewide candidate margins.

Such reforms are also highly targeted, and therefore highly effective. Based on a study from the Brennan Center, restricting access to absentee and mail-in voting is the primary target of the anti-voter legislation being introduced in state legislatures. Secondary targets include voter registration and early voting opportunities. However, pro-voter ballot initiatives to specifically address those issues — such as those in support of automatic or same-day voter registration and no-reason absentee balloting — have been approved in recent years.

Of course, the ballot initiative is not a silver bullet. Some reforms, even when passed, can be defanged (like Utah’s Proposition 4 from 2018) or undone entirely (see Missouri’s Amendment 1 from that same year). A partisan judiciary, legislative resistance to change and other factors can reverse positive change.

Statewide ballot initiatives are also expensive. Many campaigns raise millions of dollars to cover the costs of signature collection, let alone public awareness. Last year, billions of dollars were spent on California’s various ballot initiatives — from income and sales tax increases to changes in employee classifications. Such campaigns often need the support of seven-figure funders involved in pro-voter reform, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the 1630 Fund, in addition to high-net-worth individuals like Michael Bloomberg.

Yet pro-voter ballot initiatives appear to be the best way forward, in lieu of federal involvement. Fortunately, due to the resounding success of such reforms in recent years, there are many blueprints for future reformers to follow.

Perhaps the best example is Michigan’s Proposition 3, which implemented broad-based reform in the same way that a state-level voting rights bill sweeps positive change into existence. Among other provisions, the 2018 measure enacted automatic and same-day voter registration, no-reason absentee balloting and a straight-ticket vote for all candidates of the same political party. True to form, over two-thirds of Michigan voters supported Proposition 3. And, in 2020, nearly 5.6 million Michiganders voted, shattering the state’s previous record of just over 5 million ballots cast in 2008. Between 2016 and 2020 alone, Michigan saw a 14 percent increase in votes cast. It was a win for democracy, but also for the ballot initiative. 

Pro-voter reformers can take a cue from Michigan’s success story. In states such as Arizona, Florida and Utah, where progress is threatened, there is a way for the forces of democracy to push back.

In the meantime, reformers can and should still advocate federal action. The For the People Act may be stuck in the Senate, but it is still our best chance for significant progress in over a decade. Elected officials like Biden, with his bully pulpit, also have a role to play. Building Back Together, a nonprofit organization run by Biden allies, recently launched a voting rights initiative, identifying nine states as the “initial priority states” to tackle. Their focus on the states, while also urging federal reform, is the right approach.

With states continuing to pass restrictive voting laws, the war for democracy must be fought on two fronts: federal and stateside. Let’s rally the troops — before the next election.

Campbell Streator is the executive director of Every Vote Counts, a student-led group dedicated to increasing voter turnout and expanding voter access nationwide.

Harold Ekeh is a co-founder and executive board member of Every Vote Counts.

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