The Good News from the Voting Wars

Published in The American Prospect Long Form on

How hard-won expansion of voting possibilities could raise turnout, boost the wave—and help our democracy

The 2018 midterm election is often depicted as a contest between crude voter suppression by Republican state governments and a national blue-wave mobilization of grassroots Democrats. But the story is actually more complicated and even more hopeful. In addition to the party organizing this year, a two-decade nonpartisan movement to expand access to the ballot is also bearing fruit across the country. The result could be a dramatic expansion of voting participation that swamps suppression efforts, enhances voter-mobilization efforts, and shatters the usual low expectations of off-year voting turnout.

The attempt at voter suppression, of course, is real. It is a dark part of the playbook that some—though by no means all—states under Republican control have promoted to retain their power. After the Tea Party wave of 2010, the most recent chapter in longstanding efforts to restrict the vote moved forward in earnest. Particularly in states with conservative Republican “trifectas” (both houses of the legislature plus the governor), restrictive initiatives got real traction beginning in the 2011 legislative sessions.

These efforts got a huge boost when the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in 2013, allowing states previously covered by Justice Department preclearance provisions to proceed as they wished. They have recently gained another enabler in the 180-degree reversal of the stance of the Justice Department, which was a powerful defender of voting rights under President Obama, but in the Trump-Sessions reign is siding with restrictive measures in numerous cases. According to the Brennan Center in its recent report “The State of Voting 2018,” 23 states have enacted one or more restrictive laws since 2011.

Extreme Gerrymandering. Partisan gerrymandering was implemented in a number of states, most egregiously in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, as well as in Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Texas. It is important to note that in Maryland and Illinois, Democrats used the redistricting process for partisan advantage as well.

Voter-ID Laws. Versions of ID laws can vary widely, and some can actually be reasonably drawn. But in the most egregious examples, strict photo-ID requirements without alternatives clearly have a severe chilling effect on poor voters, communities of color, and students. In all, 34 states have adopted varying forms of the policy, and of those, ten have what is described as “strict” voter-ID. The states to watch on how this may impact voting are Wisconsin, Iowa, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Kris Kobach’s Kansas. In Alabama, a challenge to the new photo-ID law by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was thrown out on summary judgment and is now on expedited appeal, with a decision expected soon.

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Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP

Texas is one of a number of states where an important, closely contested race or races could bring voter-suppression efforts into major focus. Here, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke shakes hands with supporters in Edinburg, Texas. 

Restricted Registration and Access. Several states rescinded same-day registration, put restrictions on voter registration drives, and limited the periods or places for early voting. North Carolina has been ground zero for these efforts, “surgically” (to quote a federal judge there) targeting African American voters, including by eliminating Sunday early voting, when African American churches traditionally sponsor “souls to the polls.” Texas, Iowa, and Alabama have made regressive changes in voting options as well.

Purges of the Rolls. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is the ideological leader of this effort. He has championed a Kansas-based Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck system, a highly error-prone and aggressive system of cross-state purging. In addition, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, for which Kobach served as vice chair for a brief period in early 2017 before it collapsed of its own incompetence, clearly had “cleansing” the rolls as its primary intent. (To be clear: Having clean lists and maintaining their integrity is an important and proper thing for election officials to do. But it is an area where the devil is really in the details.) States where voters may discover they have been wrongfully purged when they show up to vote in November could include Ohio, Georgia, Kansas (of course), Alabama, and others.

There are a number of states where an important, closely contested race or races could bring voter-suppression efforts into major focus. Here are a few:

Georgia. The race for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, who is the current secretary of state and a major devotee of purging African American voters, could definitely see multiple efforts to keep suspected Democrats out of the polling booth. Some schemes are both clumsy and transparent. In Randolph County, the county election board tried to close seven of nine polling places in heavily African American precincts, ostensibly because they were not ADA-compliant. This was immediately challenged from multiple directions, leading to the proposal being withdrawn in a board meeting that lasted less than one minute.

The Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke, coupled with several competitive House races, is an obvious place where undermining of the vote could take place.

Texas. The Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke, coupled with several competitive House races, is an obvious place where undermining of the vote could take place. In addition to gerrymandered districts, Texas has a strict voter-ID law that was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court, then slightly changed by the state legislature, and then approved by the court in one of the cases where the Justice Department switched sides.

North Carolina. The North Carolina legislature has enacted the whole range of voter-suppressive measures, including extreme gerrymandering, strict voter-ID laws, eliminating same-day registration, shortening early voting periods, politicizing the election administration offices, and changing voting procedures for court races, among others. Many of these have been blocked, and in August, a three-judge panel of the U.S. district court issued an order to redraw gerrymandered lines before the 2018 election, but then reversed that expedited requirement when the impossibility of the timeline became clear. The fight will continue after the election, as the legislature has put numerous amendments on the November ballot to cement these restrictions in the state constitution. Erin Dale Byrd, executive director of Blueprint North Carolina and a leader in the fight against the measures, says, “North Carolina has a long history of resistance, and so we will continue to fight against efforts to enshrine injustice in our laws and in our constitution.”

Wisconsin. Republican Governor Scott Walker is in a desperate battle to keep his job, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin is defending her seat, and retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat is up for grabs, so we should expect to see continuing Republican efforts to keep the vote down. Wisconsin was long known as a good-government state. It has had same-day registration for 40 years, and had first-rate nonpartisan election administration. In recent years, fair voting has been undermined by severe gerrymandering, a strict voter-ID law, and the dismantling and politicization of state election administration.

At the same time, there is a dramatic set of counter-trends whose combined effect is likely to overwhelm the barriers that some have worked so hard to erect.

Three major dynamics may shape a turnout that far exceeds expectations and challenges the conventional wisdom about midterm elections: surprisingly effective resistance to voter suppression; a major surge of energetic voter-mobilization efforts; and an impressive roster of policies expanding voter access and opportunity adopted by states across the country. The result: an engaged and highly motivated electorate with expanded opportunities to participate.

Resistance to Voter Suppression

The modern version of the voting rights movement began in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These successes were rooted in both local and national organizing efforts led by such on-the-ground groups as the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as legal challenges, most notably by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and its director, Thurgood Marshall. After the debacle of the 2000 election, new organizations enlarged this universe and adopted a proactive reform agenda as well. This infrastructure has been far more effective than most people understand both at pushing back against attempts at voter suppression and at expanding ballot access. 

There have been legislative fights, ballot initiatives, fights over implementation of new laws, and hundreds of court battles in response to the various assaults on the right to vote. In a number of states, legal actions challenged extreme voter-ID laws. Some of these have been blocked by courts, while others were rewritten to be less onerous. 

In Texas, court battles have resulted in a less burdensome version of the ID law. In Kansas in June, a federal district court struck down the state’s documentary proof of citizenship law, which had blocked the registrations of more than 35,000 applicants. The state has appealed the decision. And in Alabama, when the state attempted to close DMV offices after passage of a strict voter-ID law, public pressure forced them to abandon the effort. 

There has also been strong pushback against excessive voter purging. In Ohio, the effort to block the state’s purging regime in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute did not succeed at the Supreme Court. But the high court’s decision came less than 90 days before the Ohio special election. That meant blanket purging would be expressly illegal under the National Voter Registration Act. Secretary of State Jon Husted has already instructed boards not to cancel any registrations before November’s election. In addition, eight states have withdrawn from the Interstate Crosscheck program since 2013 as the result of opposition and challenges to the states for unfairly purging perfectly eligible voters.

Opposition to partisan gerrymandering has had real impact as well.

Opposition to partisan gerrymandering has had real impact as well. The most important victory came in Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court, based on the Pennsylvania Constitution, redrew congressional districts in a much fairer way. This success created three or four additional competitive seats.  

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center observed that “voter suppression works best when it comes as a surprise, or when people aren’t paying attention. People are paying attention now, and when interest is high, and mobilization is taking place, the impact of vote suppression can be dramatically reduced.”

The Fight to Expand Voter Access

In addition to resisting efforts at voter suppression, and with less fanfare, there have been major successes over the last ten years that have opened up access to the vote in many states, and in important ways.  

“There are two somewhat contradictory things going on simultaneously,” says Rick Hasen, who publishes the highly regarded Election Law Blog. “On the one hand, in some red states (think North Carolina), Republican legislatures are passing laws making it harder to register and vote. But on the other hand, some red states and blue states have made real progress in improving the voting process and access to the ballot, progress that often flies under the radar.”

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, who led election efforts at the Pew Charitable Trusts for many years, adds, “On balance, taking into account real restrictions that some voters face in a relatively small number of states, there are more options for almost all voters in the United States to register and vote than there have ever been before.” 

Some largely underreported examples:

Same-Day and Election Day Registration. This allows voters to register, update their registrations, or fix any problems on the day they vote. Studies consistently show that this policy lifts turnout by 3 percent to 7 percent. In 2000, there were six states that had Election Day registration. In 2018, it will be offered in 17 states plus the District of Columbia.

In 2008, there were two states that offered voters the option of online registration; in 2018, there are 38 plus D.C.

Online Registration. In 2008, there were two states that offered voters the option of online registration; in 2018, there are 38 plus D.C. This is a remarkable number, way beyond “blue” states, and is a major aid to participation, particularly for young people and for the digital platforms that are encouraging registration.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR). In just a few short years, 13 states and D.C. have adopted AVR. In Oregon, more than 200,000 voters were added in 2016. In California, Secretary of State Alex Padilla recently announced that almost 260,000 Californians newly registered at the DMV just between April 1 and June 30 (AVR went into effect April 23). An additional 120,000 updated their addresses.

Mail-In Voting. Oregon, Washington, Colorado, California, and almost all counties in Utah have adopted major expansions of mail-in voting (now referred to as “vote at home” by advocates like the National Vote at Home Coalition). In Oregon, “vote at home” combined with AVRto get ballots into the hands of 300,000 new voters, and in Colorado, it is combined with same-day registration and other reforms and has boosted Colorado’s turnout substantially. In addition, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington send ballots to everyone who has changed their address through the National Change of Address system.

Early Voting. In 37 states and D.C., there are significant options for voting during one- to four-week periods prior to Election Day, which have helped to substantially lessen the long lines and other Election Day problems in those states. According to the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in 2016, more than 47 million votes were cast in advance of voting day, either by mail or in person, and this figure is projected to grow significantly this year.

Voting Rights Restoration. According to Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, “In the last 20 years, two dozen states have taken steps to scale back disenfranchisement, enhance voter registration, and ease rights restoration.” Virginia, under Governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, has dramatically increased the number of people with felony convictions whose rights have been restored. Most recently, Louisiana and New York have expanded their restoration provisions, and Alabama significantly limited the number of crimes to which disenfranchisement applies. In Florida, Amendment 4 on the ballot is a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to 1.4 million people.

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AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File

In all, 34 states have adopted varying forms of the policy, and of those, ten have what is described as “strict” voter-ID. Here, an election worker walks past a voter ID sign at a Little Rock, Arkansas, polling place. 

Opening Access to Young People. In 17 states, it is now possible to pre-register 17-year-olds, and 16-year-olds as well in 13 of them, so they are automatically added to the voting rolls when they turn 18. And in Florida, a federal district court blocked the secretary of state’s decision to ban siting early-voting locations on state college campuses. 

Reforming Redistricting. Several states have created variants of citizen redistricting commissions, including California and Arizona, where commissions drew the lines in the 2011 cycle. More recently, Ohio, in two steps, created commissions and adopted safeguards against partisan drawing of congressional and legislative seats. Ballot initiatives to reform redistricting will be on the ballot in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, and Utah.

Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). This is voting list maintenance, done right. As Kobach’s Interstate Crosscheck is losing states, ERIC is gaining them. There are now 25 states that use ERIC. This system, originally created by the Pew Charitable Trusts, cleans state lists through interstate matching, but does so using safeguards to prevent erroneous purging, and requires states who join to reach out to unregistered voters, as well.

All tallied, this is a pretty impressive list. The positive changes in election procedures are of major importance because they set the playing field on which the races are fought. And the sheer number of states that have adopted varying combinations of these reforms shows that they are gaining popularity well beyond blue states alone.

How does this overlay with races that are competitive in 2018? This is a difficult and inexact thing to measure. By one rough calculation, taking the 25 states that have either same-day registration or automatic voter registration, or both, there are three Senate races, 30 House seats, and eight governor’s races that are considered competitive in the Cook Political Report. SDR/AVR states with multiple competitive races are Illinois (four House seats and the governorship), Minnesota (four House seats, a Senate race, and the governorship), and California (with seven competitive House seats). And of course, there are many state legislative races and statewide down-ballot races that will have major importance for legislation and redistricting efforts over the next few years.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which raises money for House races considered competitive, is famous for targeting funds only to campaigns where the DCCCbelieves the Democrat has a serious shot at winning. This year, the DCCC’s Red to Blue project lists more than 70 competitive races, many of which are in states that do not engage in ballot suppression.

So these voting expansion measures are widespread now and continuing to grow. It has been a staple of political science research that turnout in midterm elections doesn’t vary much. But it can and does vary in wave years. In the primaries to date, Republican participation was generally down and Democratic participation way up. The combination of under-reported process reforms and vigorous mobilization efforts under way could make 2018 an exceptional year both in partisan terms and civic terms.

Mobilize, Mobilize, Mobilize

The opening up of voter access provides a platform, an infrastructure that invites people into the process. But the fulfillment of the promise comes when voters are motivated to make use of the tools available. What drives this motivation?

Obviously, one impetus is when people are drawn into the process by important issues, new and exciting candidates, or antipathy to the behavior of people in public office. But more dramatically, when the new access opportunities are combined with serious organizing and mobilizing efforts, people are more likely to register, and to vote. The results of this synergy may soon be on display in a powerfully affirmative way.

Deepak Pateriya of the Center for Community Change Action notes that while the great majority of election-related funding still goes to radio and TV advertising, there is substantially increased support going to organizing efforts, and tremendous energy from established and new groups, some of them localized and some statewide, with significant coordination efforts under way. “Waves never happen by themselves; they are always the result of organizing.”

Matt Brix, the managing director of State Voices, which coordinates nonpartisan voter registration and voter engagement through 23 state “tables,” says this year seems different in several ways. More donors, at an increasing pace, are coming into the field; far more groups are making use of the new tools available to them; and new apps are being developed by groups that work in tandem with online registration offered by states.

Greg Speed is the president of America Votes, which coordinates voter-mobilization efforts by progressive organizations outside of the party structures and separate from campaigns, also organized by state-based tables. He says that the work is already at least 50 percent more robustly funded than in 2014, and he expects it to grow dramatically. The number of new groups out there fired up to register people and make sure they vote is astounding to him.

Both Brix and Speed also say the entire way the state organizations are able to operate this year is different because of the expanded voting opportunities. Says Speed: “Online registration, same-day registration, and early voting have dramatically increased the ways that local organizations can communicate with voters during the campaign, and how they can do GOTV [get-out-the-vote] work.”

Voter-mobilization efforts on the progressive and Democratic side, in addition to direct efforts by candidates and party operations, fall into several categories. Some of them have been operating for a long time. The labor unions, which have been the core of mobilization efforts historically, along with women’s and environmental organizations, will be in the field in newly energized ways.

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Colleen McGrath/The Herald-Mail via AP

Voting judge Charlotte Siebert, left, leads Judy Wintermoyer over to a voting booth at Maugansville Elementary School Tuesday, June 26, 2018, during Maryland's primary election for the 2018 gubernatorial race. 

So, too, will be the infrastructure of racial justice voter-engagement efforts that have been developed over decades. In the African American community, the NAACP, the NAACP National Voter Fund, and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation have now been joined by newer efforts including Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives, Black Voters Matter, and Black Youth Project 100. The Latinx civic engagement universe includes longstanding efforts like UnidosUS, Voto Latino, and Mi Familia Vota, and has been joined by the Latino Victory Project as well as localized efforts like Make the Road, Casa de Maryland, and Promise Arizona. The Asian American community efforts are also growing in organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and APIA Vote. Immigrant voting efforts like FIRM and New American Leaders are joining the fray as well.

Complementing those efforts are organizations that have been created in the last ten years as part of the “progressive infrastructure,” including America Votes, MoveOn, and State Voices. Then there are the major networks in the community organizing movement, like the Center for Community Change, the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, Faith in Action (formerly PICO), and others, which have made civic engagement and voter participation an increasingly core part of their work. Finally, there are a number of coalition efforts in different states made up of multiple groups coordinating their efforts.

Looking at younger voters, there is also major new energy and effort on college campuses. University challenges have come on the scene, where schools are now competing to have the highest registration rates. The Harvard Kennedy School and others have committed to have 90 percent registration levels for this fall’s elections. The related ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge has participation from more than 400 institutions. A report just out from Tisch College at Tufts, which has been a leader in college civic engagement efforts, gives university leaders ten steps they can take to boost registration and participation on campus. And NextGen America, Tom Steyer’s well-funded creation, is working on campuses in 11 swing states.

Finally, a new and vibrant addition to the field is the plethora of organizations, some national, some local, loosely known as “the Resistance,” that have sprung up in response to the Trump presidency and the searing issues that have arisen in the wake of the 2016 election. These include the student movement around guns led by the Parkland students; the women-led groups formed after the Women’s March the day after the inauguration; and the newly electorally focused resistance, like Indivisible, Swing Left, Flippable, the Arena, Emerge America, the Sister District Project (focused on state legislatures), and others. The number of new groups since November 2016 is staggering.

Put together, these mobilization efforts have the capacity to result in a major increase in turnout, and they are tapping a level of enthusiasm on the part of voters themselves that will make the task that much easier.

Put together, these mobilization efforts have the capacity to result in a major increase in turnout, and they are tapping a level of enthusiasm on the part of voters themselves that will make the task that much easier.

On the Democratic side, these mobilization efforts have already had powerful impact. In the Georgia primary, where Stacey Abrams excited voters, turnout surged 69 percent from the 2014 off-year primary for governor—from 328,000 to 550,000—while Republican turnout was basically flat. And in the Texas primaries, where Senate contender Beto O’Rourke excited voters, Democratic turnout doubled from the 2014 cycle. In deep-red Idaho, turnout more than doubled in the primary to select a Democratic candidate for governor who has almost no chance of winning. And in the special election in Ohio’s 12th District, Democratic turnout from the May primaries increased by about 130 percent, while Republican turnout increased by 50 percent.

If there is a blue wave substantially driven by larger voter turnout, there will be many contributors to it. Democrats will obviously be helped by voter energy driven by antipathy to Donald Trump and the policies the administration has implemented that have hurt so many. Many good candidates and the large-scale mobilization efforts will be justly credited as well.

But an important and largely overlooked factor will be the long-term, consistent, and hard work of organizations in the voting-rights and election-reform movement that have pushed back against efforts at voter suppression and have created a more open and more accessible set of rules that allow all voters far fuller access to the process. The challenges they have worked through, and the victories they have won, will be good for the Democrats indeed. For the long term, those victories will be a major gain for American democracy.