Programming Note: The Voting Rights Roundup will be taking a break the week of June 25 but will return the following week.
● Congress: In a major development for the fate of congressional voting and election reform legislation, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is now refusing to rule out supporting the For the People Act (also known as both H.R. 1 and S. 1) after recently saying he would oppose the bill if it lacked bipartisan support. Critically, Manchin released a list of reforms he supports and some of those he opposes, creating a roadmap for a potential compromise.
Separately, in leaked audio recording of a meeting with donors, Manchin further hinted he could back possible changes to the filibuster rule that could deter GOP obstruction. Manchin has steadfastly opposed eliminating the filibuster, and while he reiterated that position publicly on Wednesday, his leaked comments are a sign that voting reforms might still have a shot at passing, particularly if further Republican opposition to voting reforms and bills such as the commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection convinces Manchin that there's no other option but to change Senate rules.
Manchin's new memo identified several key aspects of H.R. 1 that he supports either in whole or in modified form, including provisions that would:
- Mandate 15 consecutive days of early voting, including two weekends;
- Ban partisan gerrymandering and "use computer models," the latter of which isn't further specified;
- Establish automatic voter registration through state driver's licensing agencies;
- Require states to promote registration for groups such as people with disabilities;
- Ban false statements intended to discourage voting;
- Improve federal funding for training election officials;
- Require that states notify voters of polling place changes at least a week before Election Day;
- Adopt prepaid postage for absentee ballots;
- Allow voters to vote if they show up at the wrong precinct but in the right jurisdiction for races that they are eligible to vote on; and
- Require disclosure for "dark money" campaign donations and ads.
Manchin's position on no-excuse absentee voting was more opaque, with his memo stating that the bill should "[r]equire states to send absentee by mail ballots to eligible voters before an election if voter is not able to vote in person during early voting or election day due to eligible circumstance and allow civil penalty for failure." Separate reports, however, indicated he opposes mandating that all states that still demand an excuse (now just a small minority) remove that requirement for absentee voting.
Although Manchin's exclusion of existing provisions from the For the People Act in his memo doesn't necessarily indicate he opposes them, he did specifically express opposition to the bill's provisions that would set up a system of public financing for campaigns, which has been one of the main focuses of Republican attacks.
Perhaps most controversially, he urged a national voter ID requirement. While the voter ID bills passed by Republican-run states have enraged progressives due to their undisguised aim of suppressing turnout among communities of color, the suppressive effect of such a requirement could be greatly reduced if the federal government were to create a free and widely available national ID card. Democrats may understandably not be keen to include such a compromise, but it may be well worth the cost if it means securing a much more important ban on congressional gerrymandering and major expansion of other voting access measures like automatic registration.
Finally, Manchin also addressed the content of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would revive the invalidated "preclearance" regime of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court's conservatives struck down on pretextual grounds in 2013.
Manchin has long said he wants to see this legislation passed and has proposed imposing a nationwide preclearance system that would require all jurisdictions seeking to change their voting procedures to first obtain approval from the Justice Department or a federal court to ensure they don't discriminate along racial or ethnic lines. Manchin's new memo, however, called for additional changes that could undermine the efficacy of the bill, such as reducing the attorney general's power to deem a jurisdiction's "actions as a voting rights violation without a judicial finding of discrimination," which could potentially mean bogging down disputes in court for years.
While Manchin's latest demands are likely to disappoint Democrats and democracy reformers who have called for as wide-ranging a bill as possible, Democrats hold little leverage over the West Virginia senator, whose vote is essential to overcome both GOP procedural obstruction and opposition to reform on the underlying merits. Manchin's move to detail changes that could win his vote is a key first step toward reaching some sort of compromise that could one day pass Congress, though many more hurdles remain. One of those hurdles is quickly approaching after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Democratic senators this week that a procedural vote to advance voting legislation will take place on Tuesday.
● Louisiana: Democrats have blocked the Republican majority in Louisiana's state House from passing a constitutional amendment that had won bipartisan support in the state Senate to add two seats to Louisiana's Supreme Court and redraw the malapportioned districts for the first time in decades, with a requirement to redraw the districts after every decennial census thereafter.
With a two-thirds supermajority needed in order to advance, Democrats had supported the amendment in the upper chamber because expanding the court would have made it easier to draw an additional district where Black voters could elect their chosen candidates. House Democrats, however, balked after Republicans stripped out a provision to require mapmakers to consider race when drawing the districts.
Only one district of the seven used to elect justices to Louisiana's Supreme Court allows Black voters to elect their preferred candidates, even though Louisiana's population is one-third Black and it would be eminently feasible to draw a second Black-preference district. Though Democrats had supported expanding the court in order to ensure a second Black district, that still would have left the court with fewer such districts (two of nine) than the Black share of the state's population (three of nine).
Republicans, meanwhile, were likely interested in passing this amendment in order to moot an ongoing federal lawsuit that is seeking to compel the drawing of a second Black district under the Voting Rights Act.
● North Carolina: North Carolina's Republican-run state legislature has passed a bill with some bipartisan support to allow dozens of local governments to postpone this fall's local elections for offices that are elected using districts in order to allow more time for redistricting thanks to the delayed release of key census data. Instead, those localities would move their elections to coincide with the March 2022 primary by extending the terms of some officials.
While the proposed change is a one-off measure intended to address census delays, the bill also permanently moves elections in the state capital of Raleigh to November of even-numbered years, starting in 2022, and extends the terms of current incumbents by a year. This provision's inclusion has proved divisive for Democrats: Every Democrat in the state House backed the bill, but all of Raleigh's Democratic senators shortly thereafter opposed it, arguing that city officials had violated requirements to obtain public input.
If Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signs the bill into law, combining these election dates with federal races could lead to higher turnout and will likely save money on election administration. However, the provision switching the dates of Raleigh's elections also eliminates runoffs, allowing a winner to prevail with only a plurality.
Voting Access Expansions
● California: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill intended to strengthen California's automatic voter registration law by changing the way in which prospective voters are given the chance to opt out of registration. Currently, eligible voters who do business with California's Department of Motor Vehicles are automatically registered unless they choose to opt out at the time of the transaction, known as a "front-end" system. This latest bill would instead shift that opt-out opportunity to a subsequent mailed notification, a "back-end" system that proponents hope will encourage more new voters to remain opted in.
● Connecticut: Democratic legislators have returned for a special session and passed a spending bill that includes several voting expansion provisions that had failed to pass as a separate bill during this year's regular session. Those provisions include:
- Automatic voter registration at multiple state agencies;
- Ending the disenfranchisement of anyone with a felony conviction who is not in prison by restoring the rights of people on parole;
- Requiring employers to give their workers two hours of unpaid time off to vote.
- Allowing online applications for absentee ballots; and
- Making absentee drop boxes permanent after their temporary adoption last year during the pandemic.
The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont for his expected signature.
● Delaware: State House Republicans have blocked Democrats from passing a constitutional amendment to remove Delaware's excuse requirement for absentee voting, with Republican opposition denying Democrats the two-thirds supermajority needed for it to pass. The Democratic-run legislature had previously passed this amendment prior to the 2020 elections, the first of two times required for it to become law, and many of the same Republicans who voted against it this month had supported the measure when the House passed it in 2019.
Democrats are two seats shy of the necessary supermajority in the state House, and while this latest vote dims hopes of passing the amendment, it isn't completely dead just yet. Two Republican members didn't vote either for or against the measure, and since Democratic Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst also voted against it in order to allow her party to bring up the amendment again at a later date, it's possible that those two Republicans could provide the votes needed for passage.
However, legislators are scheduled to adjourn this year's session at the end of June, and if those Republicans don't come on board either later this year or by next year's session, Democrats will have to hope they can gain a two-thirds supermajority in a future election. That would entail pushing back the earliest date the amendment could take effect, since constitutional amendments in Delaware must pass in identical form in two consecutive legislative sessions with an election taking place in between.
● District of Columbia: A majority of members on the Democratic-run Washington, D.C. Council are sponsoring a newly introduced bill that would give voting rights in local elections to non-citizens with permanent resident legal status, best known as green card holders.
A few smaller jurisdictions around the U.S. in recent years have granted voting rights in local elections to non-citizens, and San Francisco, California, has let non-citizens vote in school board elections, but no jurisdiction as large as D.C. has yet done so in local government races. Noncitizen voting was widespread in the U.S. during the 19th century but largely ended by around 1920 during an era that saw lawmakers pass major restrictions on immigration based on race and nationality.
● Louisiana: Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed a bill passed by Louisiana's GOP-run legislature with widespread bipartisan support to extend the early voting period in presidential elections from seven to 11 days.
● Nevada: Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed multiple bills passed by Democratic legislators that aim to expand access to voting in Nevada, including measures that:
Abolishing the presidential caucus in favor of a primary will both make it easier to vote and let Nevada's diverse electorate weigh in before heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional first states. However, officials in those other states will almost certainly take action in retaliation that could involve moving up their own elections, which risks the national party committees imposing sanctions on states if they violate party rules governing election timing.
The enactment of these new laws follows on Sisolak's earlier signing of another new law that will permanently adopt universal mail voting after its temporary adoption last fall due to the pandemic.
● New York: Shortly before adjourning this year's regular legislative session, New York's Democratic-run legislature passed multiple bills to improve voting, including measures that would let voters request absentee ballots online and "cure" supposed problems with their provisional ballots, known in New York as affidavit ballots; currently this latter process is only available for absentee ballots. However, Assembly Democrats failed to approve a Senate-passed bill that would have made absentee ballot drop boxes permanent after they were temporarily introduced last year due to the pandemic.
In addition to the above measures, Democratic lawmakers also passed two other election-related bills recently. The first would let voters track the status of their absentee ballots and applications, while the second would require election officials to begin processing absentee ballots shortly after they receive them rather than waiting several days after Election Day to begin doing so. All four bills now need Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature before they can become law.
● Florida: Voting advocates have filed what is now the fourth federal lawsuit challenging Republicans' new voting restriction law, which among other things adds new limits on absentee ballots and drop boxes along with banning giving food or water to voters waiting in line. We've previously detailed the other three lawsuits here.
This latest lawsuit takes aim at part of the law that adds restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts. The plaintiffs claim that the law requires them to include warnings on registration forms that misleadingly tell potential registrants that the organization might not meet the deadline for delivering the forms, even though there's no evidence that such groups have regularly failed to comply with relevant deadlines.
● Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Republicans just unveiled a major new voting restriction bill, which they've already passed out of a state House committee. The legislation would roll back many of the voting access expansions that GOP lawmakers approved in a bipartisan deal in 2019. Among other things, the bill would:
- Implement a voter ID requirement (voters who lack ID could sign a sworn statement that they're eligible to vote under penalty of perjury);
- Eliminate the state's permanent absentee voting list;
- Move the voter registration deadline back to 30 days before Election Day—the maximum allowed under federal law—from the 2019 law's 15 days;
- Require signature verification for absentee ballots; and
- Ban private grants for election administration.
The bill also contains some policies that would strengthen voting access and election procedures, including measures that would:
- Create six days of in-person early voting, but not beginning until 2025;
- Let counties begin processing mail ballots five days before Election Day instead of waiting until Election Day, which caused delays in 2020 that helped fuel Donald Trump's conspiracy theories;
- Allow absentee ballot drop boxes for a week before Election Day;
- Let voters fix problems with absentee ballots that are missing a signature;
- Enable counties to open satellite elections offices where voters could cast an in-person absentee ballot, akin to regular early voting;
- Require counties to obtain electronic poll books, which would help facilitate the adoption of early voting and eventually same-day voter registration (a policy Democrats support but Republicans generally oppose).
Republicans hold gerrymandered majorities that they could use to pass this bill over any Democratic opposition. However, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf sounded very skeptical toward the proposal and unless some of the voting restrictions are removed, he'd likely veto it, a move the GOP lacks the votes to override.
Republicans, though, have another plan to try to get around Wolf's veto pen by passing these changes as constitutional amendments. Such amendments require legislative approval in two consecutive legislative sessions with an election taking place in between, followed by a voter referendum. Crucially for the GOP, the governor has no role in the amendment process.
To that end, Republicans in a state Senate committee have passed a constitutional amendment that would require voter ID, which could potentially go before voters as soon as 2023 and take effect ahead of the 2024 elections. Republicans previously enacted a strict voter ID statute in 2012 but a court struck it down.
● Texas: Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that would restrict the use of post office boxes for voter registration, which could prevent homeless people or voters living in remote rural areas with limited mail service from registering. In response, Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, whose firm has been involved in a prolific amount of litigation in recent years, indicated he would sue over this latest law.
● South Dakota: A federal court has issued a preliminary injunction blocking a Republican-backed law that required paid signature collectors to register with the state, indicating that it likely violated the First Amendment. The plaintiffs had argued that posting petition circulators' information online could open them up to harassment.
South Dakota is one of many states where Republicans have tried to restrict the ballot initiative process to thwart progressive policies and democracy reforms in recent years, including upcoming efforts to put Medicaid expansion and an independent redistricting commission on the 2022 ballot. Republican legislators have already placed their own constitutional amendment on the ballot during next year's primary that would raise the voter threshold needed for passage from a simple majority to 60% for any initiative that would tax or spend more than $10 million during a five-year period, which could affect measures such as Medicaid expansion.
Correction: In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly stated that the Texas bill banned the use of P.O. boxes for registration entirely.