Evaluating Progressive State Election Bills

Evaluating Progressive State Election Bills
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Over the last few months, Republicans in states such as Texas and Georgia have attracted national attention for passing legislation that puts stricter requirements on voting. Other states have considered legislation aiming to expand voting rights. Virginia passed a law that the New York Times said would turn the state into “a voting rights bastion.” Illinois recently enacted an expansive voting-rights bill. In New Jersey, Democrats made changes to establish early voting. Just about any bill on voting is likely to attract partisan views on both sides, as the Texas and Georgia bills did. This article looks at newly enacted laws in Virginia, Illinois, and New Jersey and how they contrast with the legislation in Georgia and Texas.

Virginia’s Election Law

In January, Democrats introduced legislation known as the Voting Rights Act of Virginia (VRAV). Virginia state delegate Marcia Price proposed the bill to build on improvements that Virginia had recently enacted. Price wanted VRAV to be a comprehensive bill for voting rights rather than just another incremental improvement.  

Due to Democrats’ control of both the House of Delegates and Senate in Virginia, the legislation passed relatively easily. In early February, the legislation passed the Virginia House of Delegates. By the end of February, the State Senate voted to support the bill. In March, Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, recommended some slight changes, which both legislative houses easily enacted.

VRAV brought a series of changes. The bill seeks to outlaw discrimination in election governance by requiring local officials to get approval for voting changes through the Virginia attorney general. This remedy sought to address the elimination of preclearance procedures in the National Voting Rights Act following the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder. Additionally, the bill gives standing to individuals in voter suppression cases. The Virginia attorney general can also sue over voter suppression. Finally, in cases where a locality engaging in voter discrimination must pay a civil fine, those fines go to a fund that engages in voter outreach and education.

Republicans’ main argument against VRAV centered on how all the levels of approval that localities needed to obtain for election changes would create unnecessary bureaucracy and confusion.  

After VRAV’s passage, many media outlets noted how Virginia was the first Southern state to enact such legislation – an historical departure, as Virginia had been at the forefront of voter suppression in the past. Now, it had enacted legislation making it one of the most progressive states on voting rights.

Illinois’s Election Law

Members of the Illinois legislature started pushing for a new election bill in February, when Illinois General Assembly member Katie Stuart introduced HB1871. By March, the bill made it to the House General Assembly floor, and by the end of the month it had passed both houses of the state legislature. In April, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker signed the bill into law. At the signing ceremony, Pritzker noted, “[t]here are hundreds of active efforts to undermine the right to vote in nearly every state – the most horrific of which signed into law by Georgia’s governor – but here in Illinois, we hope to lead the way in strengthening access to the ballot so residents can have their voices heard.”

HB1871 passed relatively easily due to Democrats controlling both houses in Illinois. In terms of the exact provisions, HB1871 enacted drop boxes, which allow for voters to turn in mail-in ballots without postage. Election officials would then collect ballots at the close of business every day. The drop boxes would be secured by locks that could be opened only by election officials. The bill also gave the State Board of Elections the power to provide stronger security guidance and gave localities the ability to create “curbside voting,” which would allow voters to vote at vehicles in their area. The idea of “curbside voting” is to make voting more accessible to people with limited mobility. This option had previously been available only to people with disabilities, but HB1871 allows for greater exceptions to be determined by local election officials. Finally, the bill allows the State Board of Elections to spend more of the money provided by the federal “Help America Vote Act” on supporting enactment of HB1871.

Illinois Republicans opposed the law mainly because they believed that the locks for drop boxes were not secure enough. They argued that there should be additional mandates on standards that every locality should use for securing drop boxes. Similarly, Republicans wanted to require the State Election Board to come up with requirements for further security provisions, rather than just providing general guidance.

New Jersey’s Election Law

Following the 2020 election, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy and State Senate president Stephen Sweeney began discussing legislation to expand early voting. Later in November, a formal bill, S3202, was introduced in the Senate. By February, the bill passed the State Senate and then went through the General Assembly.

At Murphy’s signing ceremony, many of the bill’s supporters talked about how they believed it would increase voting access and update New Jersey’s election system. Voting rights activist Ryan Haygood discussed how, while “state after state across the country is pushing Jim Crow-like voter suppression laws,” New Jersey was “proactively taking pro-democracy steps to expand access to voting for all of its residents, including Black and other communities of color.”

S3202 allows for early voting up to ten days before the election and until the Sunday before the election. The bill also mandates that early voting locations be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The bill provides for up to $23 million for costs such as paying poll workers and setting up voting machines. However, the bill will have only $2 million permanently earmarked, with the rest coming from state budgets. S3202 also requires that three to five early-voting locations remain open in each county.

S3202 did not attract much public criticism from New Jersey Republicans, though many of them voted against it. Some progressive activists felt that the bill was not aggressive enough in changing New Jersey elections. New Jersey has a “unique” system that allows local parties to determine a “county line” in primary elections. “County lines” account for the group of candidates that have the local party’s support. Being on the county line places the candidate at the top of the ballot and gives him a marked advantage in the election.

How the Bills Compare with Texas and Georgia Bills

As noted in press coverage of the bills, the Democrats in Virginia, Illinois, and New Jersey generally sought to contrast these bills with the ones in Texas and Georgia. In terms of the general themes, supporters of all five bills claimed to be doing more to protect democracy, just through different means.

Interestingly, while New Jersey’s bill allows for early voting for ten days before the election, Texas starts early voting 17 days before the election, and Georgia’s early voting begins the fourth Monday before the election – so both states allow for greater early voting than New Jersey. The Georgia bill leaves ballot drop boxes in place but secures them inside a voting office, as opposed to leaving them outside and secured with a lock outside, as in Illinois. Both the Texas and Georgia bills enact greater mandates for Voter ID, something none of the other bills addressed. However, it’s worth noting that in the wake of a potential compromise on a national voting rights bill, many prominent Democrats have expressed “openness” to Voter ID.

Ultimately, the main difference between the bills pushed by the left and those supported by the right is that the liberal ones seek to expand voting rights while the conservative ones try to strengthen election security. By and large, these bills are not diametrically opposed, and could even be put together in a compromise bill, as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin seemingly tried to do. Time will tell what effect these laws will have on the national debate about our election system.

Todd Carney is a writer based in Washington, DC.  The views in this piece are his alone and do not reflect the views of his employer.

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