With newfound powers, Democrats are racing to expand voting rights statewide



CNN

After strong electoral results in the midterm elections, Democrats in some key states are moving quickly this year on voting rights — pushing ambitious plans to expand ballot access ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

In the presidential swing state of Michigan — where Democrats have secured the governorship and both houses of the legislature for the first time in nearly four decades — Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and a group of lawmakers recently announced a package of voting priorities. They range from criminalizing the harassment of election workers to implementing a voter-approved expansion of early voting.

Meanwhile, newly empowered Minnesota Democrats are working to advance a raft of electoral changes through the legislature that include creating automatic voter registration and restoring voting rights for people convicted of felonies.

And in Arizona — a coastal state where Democrats have flipped key state offices — new Democratic Attorney General Chris Mayes recently announced plans to shift the focus of her Republican predecessor’s “Election Integrity Unit” from investigating voter fraud to “protecting voter access” and fighting suppression. voters.

“No one thinks it will be easy, but there is a general feeling that change is possible,” said Lily Sasse, campaign manager for We Choose Us — a coalition of 26 groups that support the election package put forward by Democratic lawmakers this month in the Minnesota legislature.

Republicans control more state legislative seats across the country, but Democrats defied the political odds in 2022 by losing none of their legislative majorities. The midterm elections also saw Democrats win four new statewide trifectas, winning the governorship and the legislatures of Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan.

In Michigan, Democrats benefited politically in 2022 from increased liberal voter turnout to support a successful ballot measure that enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution, along with new legislative maps drawn by an independent panel.

Democratic state Sen. Jeremy Moss, the new chair of the Senate Election and Ethics Committee, said Michigan lawmakers are now engaged in a “very hard reset” after repeated attempts by Republicans who previously controlled the state legislature to pass new voting restrictions and seek Ways to circumvent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pen veto.

Last year, Whitmer and two other top Democrats in the state — Benson, the top election official; and Attorney General Dana Nessel — defeating a slate of Republican challengers who falsely claimed that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election. (President Joe Biden won the state by more than 154,000 votes).

“Now, we have evidence from our side that Michigan voters want to undo these lies and lies,” Moss said.

And last November, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment that eased voting rules in several ways. Among other things, it established nine days of early in-person voting and mandatory ballot boxes and required prepaid postage for the return of absentee ballots. Voters were also allowed to sign a statement confirming their identity if they did not have photo ID.

Democratic priorities during the newly convened legislative session include passing legislation to implement parts of the new constitutional amendment. Other proposals seek to criminalize spreading election misinformation or harassing and intimidating election workers. Moss said he would like to ban the practice of paying per-signature petitions, saying it provides an incentive for fraud.

A scandal over fraudulent signatures kept several Republican candidates from the polls in Michigan last year.

Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, said she would ask the legislature to take advantage of an expected $9.2 billion budget surplus to provide $100 million to help local jurisdictions run elections.

It is also launching a bipartisan election policy working group to review and propose election proposals on a rolling basis. It is scheduled to hold its first meeting on Wednesday.

“There’s a sense of urgency and a sense of opportunity,” Benson told CNN.

Democrats in Michigan and Minnesota hold narrow majorities in both houses of the legislature, leaving little room for any defections in their ranks as they scramble to enact their electoral priorities in the coming weeks.

In Minnesota, Democratic lawmakers this month introduced an election package that includes measures that would automatically enroll eligible Minnesotans to vote when they get a new driver’s license, give 16-year-olds the option to pre-register to vote and enfranchise people convicted of crimes. felonies as soon as they get out of prison.

Currently, ex-felons in Minnesota must complete all parts of their sentence, including any probation, parole, or supervised release before they can register to vote.

But Democrats are also moving along a parallel track, introducing some of their priority bills as standalone measures. For example, a separate bill restoring voting rights for ex-felons has passed the Election Commission and is scheduled to be considered by a House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Its sponsor, Rep. Cedric Frazier, said he and his fellow Democrats don’t want to miss this opportunity. He spoke with lawmakers who served in the legislature a decade ago when the Democrats had a trio of state government. “There really is some regret that we didn’t get it done at that time,” he said.

Frazier said nearly 50,000 Minnesotans would have their voting rights restored under the proposal. “What we’re telling them by not letting them participate in the electoral process is that even though they’re back in society, you’re still not perfect,” he said.

If successful, Minnesota would join 21 other states that automatically restore the right to vote to some or all ex-felons once they are released from prison, according to a tally by the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks statewide election laws.

In three jurisdictions—Vermont, Maine, and Washington, D.C.—convicted felons never lose their privilege, even while they’re incarcerated. In Oregon, another state where Democrats control the governor’s seat and both houses of the legislature, a bill introduced this month would give voting rights to those still in jail.

In New York, another Democratic stronghold, the Senate quickly passed a raft of electoral bills this month allowing for ballot boxes, portable early voting sites and other ways to make voting easier.

Voting rights activists are watching the action in the states closely — particularly after Biden and his fellow Democrats failed last year to pass sweeping federal voting rights legislation when their party controlled both houses of Congress.

Republicans now control the US House of Representatives, making the prospect of passage of the law virtually impossible. House GOP members, who have called the election bill a federal bypass, voted as a caucus against it last year. In the U.S. Senate, Democrats failed to change the filibuster rules to push the measure to a simple majority vote.

said Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which has argued for federal intervention. “We hope these states will do what Democrats at the federal level have not been able to do.”

The moves between Democrats in Minnesota and Michigan follow a raft of voting restrictions enacted in other key states after the 2020 election that prompted unsubstantiated allegations from Trump and his allies.

Last year alone, at least seven states enacted 10 restrictive voting laws, according to the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Lawmakers continue to propose new laws this year that critics say will make it more difficult to vote or intimidate voters.

In Texas, where the Republican-controlled legislature has passed sweeping restrictions on voting, new proposals this year focus on rooting out election offenses and would give additional enforcement powers to the state’s attorney general, or new “election guards.”

In Ohio, home to what is expected to be one of the most contentious Senate races of the 2024 cycle, a law signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine this month requires photo ID to vote and sets stricter deadlines for requesting and returning mail. ballot papers. Several liberal-leaning groups have already challenged the law in federal court.

Veteran progressive strategist David Donnelly said pro-vote groups will remain deeply engaged in “defense work” this year, despite electoral gains in places like Michigan.

Donnelly is the lead strategist for two organizations, the Pro-Democracy Center and the Pro-Democracy Campaign, which spent $32 million before the middle of last year organizing efforts to promote ballot access.

Nearly $4 million of that amount went to groups that were active in Michigan and Minnesota during the midterms—including a $250,000 grant to Promote the Vote, the organization that supported Michigan’s successful constitutional amendment.

“It’s nice to switch from defending everywhere to attacking in some places, but that doesn’t mean the defensive battles aren’t as decisive as they were last year,” said Donnelly.

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