Jeremy Bird, President, Do Big Things
Michigan. Illinois. Wisconsin. Nevada. New Mexico. Maine. Kansas.
Last Tuesday, Democrats flipped Governors’ seats in seven states. They also kept the Governor’s seat in PA, CO, CT and several other states. In all, nearly 140 million Americans now have a Democratic Governor.
Democrats also flipped at least seven state legislative chambers, flipped nearly 400 state legislative seats and now have 14 states with Democratic trifectas—Governor, state senate, state house. These 14 states represent more than a third of the United States’ population.
As importantly, pro-voting Democratic Secretaries of State (SOS) were elected in Colorado, Michigan and, once the final votes are tabulated, Arizona. And a number of ballot measures that passed — some with bipartisan support — restored and expanded voting rights to communities from Florida to Michigan to North Carolina.
As we often forget in the heat of campaigns, elections are not political games. Elections have consequences. Real policy consequences that impact millions of lives. Lobbyists, activist groups, citizens and others are lining up to set the priorities for these new state elected leaders.
But, as we start talking about all of these important policy challenges and opportunities — expanding Medicare, real gun safety legislation, fighting economic inequality, criminal justice reform — we must tackle the one issue that impacts everything else in our democracy: the fundamental right to vote.
Democrats set to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives have already begun planning to put voting rights on the agenda at the start of the 116th Congress, with H.R. 1 expected to include provisions for automatic voter registration and ensuring redistricting falls under the purview of independent commissions rather than the state legislatures that have gerrymandered so many voting maps to date. They recognize the importance of the issue — and the urgency of acting now to address it.
Despite historic midterm election turnout, what we saw this election cycle was a disaster for our democracy. No one should have to wait in line longer than 15 minutes to vote in the 21st century. No one should have to register to vote 30 days before an election. No voter should be “purged” from the rolls simply for not voting in previous elections.
In Georgia, an incompetent and corrupt Secretary of State/candidate for Governor, broken voting machines and other voter suppression tactics caused four-hour long lines to vote along with countless anti-democratic voting barriers.
For our democracy to survive, we have to change our voting systems, and we need to do it now.
In 2018, Americans have sent a car-sized rover 33.9 million miles to Mars that tweets out selfies, and African Americans on Earth wait hours to vote on broken machines? This injustice has to stop.
The good news? We know what to do to protect voting rights and bring more people into the political process.
Some of these pro-democracy laws can move quickly through state legislatures, and they should end up on new Governors’ desks in the first quarter of 2019. Some of the longer term fixes will take time, but we can and must prioritize these.
First, all new Governors and state legislatures should push for Automatic Voting Registration (AVR) in their states, where citizens are automatically registered to vote in their state when they register with any government agency, like the DMV. Thanks to a $9-million dollar ballot campaign in Nevada, led by the pro-voting group iVote (who we continue to be honored to work with) and a host of partners, the Silver State’s voters just became the 17th state to enact AVR.
Second, these new electeds should work to pass same day registration laws immediately to cover all of those not registered through AVR. There is no reason a citizen should have to register 30 days before an election. Many states — blue, red and purple — have had this law on the books for years. We have the technology and the models for this to work successfully. On Tuesday, in Wisconsin, 61% of voters turned out, in part because of the state’s same day registration laws. This is true in red states, like North Dakota, as well.
Third, these newly elected leaders should expand early vote options. Early vote by mail and early vote in person should be open to everyone, regardless of age, and should be pushed aggressively in order to avoid lines on Election Day and to test systems so there are no last minutes problems. Early vote sites should exist in multiple locations in each county instead of one per county like we have seen in Ohio and other states.
Fourth, states should invest money in upgrading voting technology and ensuring that there are more than enough voting machines in each precinct — assuming the highest turnout scenarios possible. There should also always be a backup system to allow for recounts and to protect the integrity of our elections. There is no reason we can’t budget to fund the most fundamental right of our citizens.
Fifth, legislators should invest significant resources and staffing into civic engagement around voting. States should take the lead from Minnesota (64% turnout in 2018, once again leading the nation) and offer extensive civics classes that explain voting and demonstrate how it works for high school students. This should not be some throw away feel good program; it should be a robust, strategic program designed to increase political participation among young people. And, these states should also follow the lead of other states, like CA, that have legalized pre-registration of 16 and 17 year olds.
Sixth, for the states that have not already done this, follow the voters of Florida and reinstate voting rights to those formerly incarcerated who have served their time.
There are other small but significant things these new leaders can do to help with more expansive, inclusive voting laws. Polling hours, for example, should be expanded. The fact that the polls close at 6:00 pm in Kentucky is ludicrous. Citizens who live in Iowa can vote until 9 pm. Kentucky voters should not have fewer hours to vote than Americans in Iowa.
More early vote hours, more weekend early vote hours, and longer poll opening times on Election Day are simple reforms that could go a long way in making our elections more participatory.
And, finally, yes we should #CountAllTheVotes. No matter whether an election is close or not. Too often absentee ballots or provisional ballots are simply not counted. This practice has to end. We should all stop making predictions of who is going to win and claiming precincts have “100% reported” until all votes are actually counted. If we move to more vote by mail, like we see in CA, CO, WA, OR and AZ, we will always see elections results coming in over a period of days. It is better to get it right than to predict winners when ballots are still to be counted. And, we will never have an accurate count of political participation if all ballots are not counted.
While President Trump and his conspiracy theory allies try to dupe the media into parroting their bogus “voter fraud” claims, newly elected pro-democracy state leaders should move aggressively to create laws that encourage participation from all Americans. It’s the right thing to do, and it should be first on the menu.