While restoration of the federal Voting Rights Act languishes in a split Congress, an already deep divide in Americans’ access to voting has widened over the past year.
In part, that’s because blue states aren’t waiting.
According to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, more bills expanding access to voting were introduced this year than any in the past decade — 606 overall, at least one in every state legislature in the country.
Forty-seven new state laws expanding access to voting were enacted in 23 states — 13 of which are controlled by Democrats and four which have split control. That’s more than twice the number of “expansion” laws as last year. A quarter of these new laws — six each — came from Michigan and New York.
“With the lack of action at the federal level to restore the Voting Rights Act, it’s really great to see states implementing protections to ensure that there’s not discrimination in voting,” said Jessica Jones Capparell, director of government affairs at the national League of Women Voters.
Last year, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found unequal access to voting and political representation in all 50 states. Twenty-six states — all under Republican control — made access to voting less equal for people of color, younger voters, immigrants, people with disabilities and others following former President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election defeat, the investigation concluded.
Many of the disenfranchisement tactics adopted in recent years — from extreme racial gerrymandering to restrictions on voter registration efforts — would have been prevented by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 prior to major U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the past decade that have gutted most of it. The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling, for instance, took away the requirement that states and jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination must receive federal approval before changing voter rules.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, a Democrat from Alabama, reintroduced the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in September as the lead sponsor. The bill would modernize and reauthorize key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court removed. But it is unlikely to pass as long as Republicans maintain their narrow control of the U.S. House.
While voting rights advocates are pleased that “expansion” laws have been more common nationwide this year, some red states have continued to aggressively adopt legislation that advocates say is designed to make it more difficult for people of color, younger Americans and people with disabilities to vote.
More restrictive laws were enacted this year than any other during the past decade besides 2021: 17 laws across 14 states. The majority of these states are Republican controlled; one is led by Democrats, two have divided governments and then there’s Nebraska, which has a Republican governor and a nonpartisan Legislature dominated by Republicans.
“There remains a stark divide between states. On one side are those that are broadening democratic participation,” the report from the Brennan Center for Justice notes. “On the other are those making it harder to vote and easier for partisan officials to interfere in democratic processes. Many states passing new restrictive laws are the places where it is already hard to vote.”
Major themes this year for voting and election suppression laws include new requirements for voter ID, attempts to roll back access to absentee and mail-in ballots, and threats to election funding, Capparell said.
Some states enacted laws both limiting and expanding voter access this year. Texas, for instance, passed legislation allowing fewer polling places in some locations and sharply increasing state power over elections in Democratic Harris County. But it also enacted laws mandating expanded in-person early voting access, adding the option to rectify early voting application mistakes and providing further accommodations for people with disabilities.
In some blue states, meanwhile, the lack of federal progress has led to new or strengthened state versions of a voting rights act.
In Michigan, that momentum was driven by citizen initiative after the state’s formerly Republican-controlled legislature blocked expanded access to voting by mail and other measures. A package of voting expansion laws known as “Prop 2” took effect this year after Michiganders passed it in a November 2022 referendum.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, signed a package of voting rights legislation this September. It includes six laws that strengthen early voting practices, enhance electoral education and protect New Yorkers’ right to vote. This follows the state’s enactment of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York last year.
Capparell of the League of Women Voters said state-level voting rights acts can be modeled after and replace some of the protections that the Supreme Court stripped from the federal law.
For example, Connecticut’s new law includes a “pre-clearance” provision requiring towns with a history of discrimination based on race to get approval from the state ahead of time for major changes in the administration of elections that could have an adverse impact on people of color.
A similar provision in the federal law was struck down by the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, allowing states to close hundreds of polling places in communities of color and adopt other disenfranchisement tactics.
The Latest from the League
WASHINGTON – Today the League of Women Voters of the United States CEO Virginia Kase Solomón issued the following statement in response to the House reintroduction of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act:
The League sent a letter to members of the U.S. House and Senate urging them to move the Voting Rights Advancement Act forward.
The League sent a letter to the U.S.