● Maryland: The National Federation of the Blind has filed a federal lawsuit that contends blind voters face discrimination under Maryland's current voting system and risk having their right to a secret ballot violated.
The state's default system for voting uses paper ballots that voters fill out with a pen, which blind voters can't use. A secondary system relies on electronic voting machines known as "ballot marking devices" that read out options to voters via a headset and then print out a paper ballot, allowing visually impaired voters to cast ballots without assistance.
The plaintiffs argue, however, that because the marking devices print a ballot that is of a different shape and size than the regular paper ballots, the secrecy of the ballot is violated if only one or a few voters in a given precinct cast ballots via these machines. Furthermore, they contend that local poll workers are often unfamiliar with how to use the machines because fewer voters cast their ballots that way, which can in turn hinder voting access by voters with disabilities.
Election officials have previously agreed to require that at least five voters in each precinct cast a ballot using marking devices in order to protect ballot secrecy, but plaintiffs contend that this rule has often gone unenforced. (All voters, not just the blind, are permitted to use the devices.) To remedy the problem, plaintiffs want the state to make marking devices the default for all voters.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Harris County, TX: Harris County, Texas—home of Houston and roughly 2.6 million eligible voters—will soon become the largest jurisdiction in the country to let voters cast a ballot anywhere in the county. That change will see the county adopt "vote centers" in lieu of traditional neighborhood polling places, a move that has been a priority for Democratic County Clerk Diane Trautman after she defeated her Republican predecessor in 2018. Proponents of this system, which has also been adopted by local officials from both parties in other parts of Texas, say it improves voting access and boosts turnout.
● Oregon: Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has signed a new law that will have the state prepay the cost of postage on mail ballots starting in 2020. Since Oregon votes almost entirely by mail, this measure will make voting even more convenient for most voters.
● Florida: In a new filing, the plaintiffs challenging Florida Republicans' new poll tax, which bans citizens with past felony convictions from voting if they still owe court fines and fees, have asked a federal district court to issue a preliminary injunction to block the GOP's new law from going into effect while litigation remains ongoing.
● Massachusetts: Voting rights advocates have filed a ballot initiative to begin the process of putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to end felony disenfranchisement in the state of Massachusetts.
While the state restores voting rights to those who have completed their sentences, those who are currently incarcerated are not permitted to vote. However, that practice only dates back to 2000, when voters passed a ballot measure to ban prisoners from voting. Bans like these are commonplace in the U.S., but nearby Maine and Vermont both allow prisoners to vote, as do many other democracies.
However, there are some major hurdles to placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Massachusetts. While proponents only need about 80,000 signatures—a relatively small number, since the state saw 3 million voters cast ballots in the last presidential election—that alone won't put the amendment on the ballot. They'll also need at least one-fourth of state lawmakers to vote in favor of the amendment in a joint legislative session, and then another vote with at least one-fourth again voting "aye" following the next election. If all those hurdles are met, the measure could appear on the 2022 ballot.
● Mississippi: In a setback for voting rights, federal district court Judge Daniel Jordan, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a ruling that sided largely with Mississippi officials who are defending a challenge to the state's lifetime voting ban for many citizens convicted of felonies.
The case at hand involved a pair of consolidated lawsuits. The first sought to invalidate the state's list of crimes that disqualify those convicted of felonies from voting (except murder and rape) because, plaintiffs said, it had been enacted with discriminatory intent; the second suit argued that the list of disenfranchising crimes violated the Eighth and 14th Amendments. In both cases, though, Jordan sided with the Republican defendants.
Still, Jordan let proceed to trial a challenge to the extremely limited process the state does have in place to restore voting rights, which the plaintiffs argue is arbitrary and intentionally discriminatory. However, Jordan's ruling also gave the parties the chance to appeal before a trial can be held, meaning a higher court could revive the dismissed claims or dismiss the surviving one.
Felony disenfranchisement in Mississippi took on its modern form during the Jim Crow era and was part of a series of measures intended to discriminate against black voters. Today, one in 10 adults is banned from voting for life, and African Americans are disenfranchised at three times the rate of whites.
The process for regaining voting rights after the completion of a felony sentence is exceptionally burdensome: Citizens must petition lawmakers to pass legislation that individually restores their right to vote. That only happened 335 times between 2000 and 2015, even though an estimated 166,000 Mississippians remain disenfranchised despite having served their sentences.
Consequently, Mississippi today has the highest disenfranchisement rate of any state in the country, which is why advocates are pursuing this litigation. However, if the suit fails, the state also allows ballot initiatives, which reformers could use to try to amend Mississippi's constitution.
● Texas: Civil rights advocates have filed a federal lawsuit contending that Texas is violating both the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing "untrained local election officials to arbitrarily and subjectively" reject absentee mail ballots for allegedly not bearing signatures that match those on file. Plaintiffs want the court to impose specific changes, such as requiring Texas officials to notify any voter whose signature is deemed non-matching to give them a chance to "cure" the defect.
Plaintiffs contend that 1,873 mail ballots were rejected statewide in 2018, and although that's a relatively small number (Texas requires an excuse to vote absentee, so mail voting isn't as common there as it is elsewhere), the problem is widespread in many other states. Similar laws allowing over-broad rejections of absentee ballots have been successfully challenged in recent years in states such as Florida and New Hampshire, and other states such as Kansas have passed legislation to require timely voter notification of potential signature problems. However, many states still don't give voters a chance to fix rejected signatures.
● Election Security: Politico has published a new interactive story on the state of voting systems in the country, looking at which states and local jurisdictions use paper ballots filled out by hand, voting machines that produce paper-based ballot records, or machines that don't produce a paper record at all.
Ever since Russia attempted to hack U.S. election systems in the 2016 elections, election security experts have sounded the alarm over paperless voting machines and related security vulnerabilities. Experts have advocated for paper ballots or machines with paper trails that voters can verify as a way to protect from security threats and to bolster confidence that election results are accurate by enabling routine audits.
Although some states, such as Democratic-led Pennsylvania and Virginia, have moved to replace paperless voting machines, 14 states still entirely or partially use such machines today. Often times, decisions over voting systems are made at the county and local level, leading to a patchwork of different voting methods. Politico's interactive feature provides more details on the progress or lack thereof at the state and county level to replace remaining paperless voting machines with more secure alternatives.
● Georgia: In a surprising development, Georgia state officials have awarded a contract for new electronic voting machines to Dominion Voting, eschewing rival firm Election Systems & Software.
The latter company's close ties to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp had drawn scrutiny and criticism that Republicans were setting up a $150 million taxpayer giveaway to a politically connected company (the ultimate price tag for the Dominion machines turned out to be $107 million). However, critics of the state of Georgia election security are far from satisfied with the new equipment, which prints a barcode paper ballot that humans can't read.
The plaintiffs who are suing the state to require the use of paper ballots are in fact continuing with their efforts, noting that the old paperless machines will still be in use in this November's municipal elections. In an explosive court filing last month, plaintiffs accused Republican election administrators of destroying evidence to cover up security failings, and a new report in the Guardian revealed another bombshell: ES&S employees were designing electronic ballots from their home offices rather than in a secure location, potentially allowing those ballots to be hacked.
A federal district court is expected to soon rule whether to require paper ballots, and a victory for plaintiffs could have reverberations in other states that still use paperless voting machines.