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Attacks on Voting Rights – a Midterm State Legislative Report

For many state legislatures, March marks the half-way point of their legislative session, some are already adjourned and some seem to never end. Regardless of the length of their sessions each state has focused some of their energy on voting rights and elections – 2230 bills relating to elections, both good and bad, have been introduced in state legislatures across the country since January. That equals approximately 26 new bills per day or more than 1 new piece of election legislation per hour and we’re well on track to exceed the 2357 bills introduced in 2012.

We all remember the long lines, confusion over what, if any, identification was needed to vote, registered voters not listed on the voter rolls, election results that took days to determine the winner in last November’s elections; and the need for election reform was self-evident. With the majority of American’s in favor of reforms that improved access to the ballot box, many thought these notable problems would create a window of opportunity for real reforms to help ensure every eligible voter could cast their ballot and have it counted without any unnecessary barriers. For the most part legislatures did not take advantage of this opportunity to reform the election systems in their states and in some cases they simply ignored the facts and moved forward with anti-voter legislation.

Take Virginia for example, in the span of a few short weeks the legislature passed and the governor signed two anti-voter bills into law; one makes it more difficult for organizations like the League of Women Voters to register citizens, and the other not only creates more onerous photo identification criteria to vote, but also risks removing eligible voters from the voting rolls and makes absentee voting more difficult. The League of Women Voters of Virginia helped lead the charge to defeat these bills by testifying before the various committees, corresponding with the governor and reaching out to legislators. The silver lining is that these battles are not over and LWV VA will continue to lead the fight against them. Assuming that the Voting Rights Act survives an awaited ruling by the US Supreme Court, both of these new laws will need to be pre-cleared by the federal government before going into effect.

Other states continue their assault on voters with new photo ID legislation and the League in these states, including Missouri, North Carolina, Alaska, and Montana, is working hard to defend voters’ rights. So far the map for photo ID hasn’t changed since the last legislative session, but with many bills still pending and legislatures still in session, the risk for voters’ remains.

Thankfully, not all the news is bad. The Arkansas legislature passed a restrictive voter photo ID bill, but the governor vetoed it citing its disenfranchising effects on the state’s voters. Unfortunately, the state Senate voted to override the governor’s veto on Wednesday evening without debate. It is likely that the House will vote to override the veto on Thursday. Each chamber needs only a simple majority to override a veto in Arkansas. Arkansas is not covered by Section 5 of the voting rights act but the ACLU has indicated they believe the law is unconstitutional and will sue if the house votes to override the Governor’s veto.

We remain hopeful that several other states will pass election reform measures that are pro-voter such as expansion of early voting, secure on-line registration, permanent and portable statewide voter registration and improvement of poll place management.

At the half-way point of the legislative sessions we are faring pretty well, but it remains clear that the assault on voting rights is and will continue to be unrelenting.