By J.B. Wogan
Several ballot measures in states this year illustrate the ongoing split personality of American election reform, where states look to either impede or assist people’s ability to influence government with their vote.
Ballots in at least five states -- Connecticut, Montana, Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas -- focus on some kind of election reform. Most states have made voting harder in the past decade by enacting voter ID laws, ostensibly to guard against voter impersonation, a problem that the public believes to be more widespread than the evidence suggests. For example, a five-year crackdown by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush resulted in only 86 people being found guilty of voter fraud across all 50 states, according to a 2007 investigation by The New York Times.
In part because many of these voter ID laws have already passed, the majority of the legislative activity in 2014 actually focused on making voting more convenient. For example:
- Lawmakers in Massachusetts gave residents who are 16 or 17 the ability to preregister to vote.
- The Utah legislature allowed early voting 15 days or more before an election and allowed residents to register to vote up to 7 days before an election.
- Nebraska lawmakers established an online voter registration system.
Three of the ballot measures in November would follow the same trend by either protecting or facilitating the act of voting:
- A constitutional amendment in Illinois would preempt discriminatory election laws by establishing higher legal protections for the voting rights of minorities -- racial, ethnic, religious, or income.
- In Connecticut, voters will decide whether to remove constitutional restrictions that currently prevent early and absentee voting without a reason, such as being out of town on election day.
- In Missouri, a proposed constitutional amendment would create a six-day early voting period by mail or in person.
The Missouri measure does expand the days and times for residents to vote. Groups that favor greater access to voting, such as Missouri Jobs with Justice and the state's League of Women Voters, however, say the measure doesn’t go far enough, especially because the voting period excludes evenings and weekends. A parallel effort to place a citizen petition on the ballot would have mandated six weeks of early voting, including weekends, but it failed to gather enough signatures.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri challenged the measure's summary statement for the ballot, arguing that it's deceptive. The measure is dependent on state appropriations, meaning that lawmakers and the governor could choose not to fund early voting. A district court appelate judge agreed, ruling Sept. 15 that the measure's summary statement needed to include the caveat, "but only if the legislature and the governor appropriate and disburse funds to pay for the increased costs of such voting."
Based on interviews with state and local election officials in states with early voting, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School argues that early voting brings a host of benefits, including shorter lines and less administrative burden on election day. Nonetheless, eight states have cut back on early voting since 2010. One recent example is North Carolina, where the legislature decided to cut a week of early voting, eliminate same-day registration during early voting and reduce the hours of early voting on the final Saturday before election day.
As with early voting, at least 10 states have made voter registration more difficult since 2010, either by eliminating registration on election day, requiring proof of citizenship to register or placing new limits on registration drives. In that vein, a Montana measure in November would stop last-minute voter registration by pushing back the deadline to register from election day to 5 p.m. on the previous Friday. A similar ballot measure failed in Maine in 2011, when the state legislature tried to repeal election-day registration and voters rejected the change by a 21-point margin.
One other state measure might limit citizens’ ability to influence government through elections, but not because of new voting requirements. Instead, an Arkansas measure asks voters to approve a more stringent standard for placing citizen-led petitions on the ballot. It would require that 75 percent of signatures submitted to place an initiative on the ballot be valid on the first try, or else the effort would fail. Currently, the state allows campaigns 30 days to collect more valid signatures if the initial submission has too many invalid signatures.
“It’s an area where the citizens can touch their government and make a difference,” said Arkansas state Rep. Bob Ballinger, who opposes the measure. “I’d hate to lessen their ability to do that.”