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Leila Pedersen on June 13, 2013 - 3:03pm
With 2013 legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this is the first in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different policy areas across the fifty states.
Following last year’s devastating attacks on voters’ access to democracy, conservatives have held true to their mission to make voting harder in a number of states. Thankfully, in response to previous threats, progressive advocates and legislators came together this year to support a proactive, positive agenda for reform. As a result of coordinated campaigns, many states were successful in passing legislation that protects the right of eligible citizens to register and vote.
Below are some of the highlights of 2013 state legislative sessions, including both positive legislation that expanded voting rights and could serve as models for other states, as well as attacks on voters that will set states back in the fight for an inclusive and representative democracy.
2013 Victories: Modernizing Registration, Expanding Early Voting, and Restoring Voting Rights
In 2013, legislators from both sides of the aisle came together to support legislation to modernize election and enhance voter access. A total of 45 states introduced 195 laws to make voting easier, a number of which are still pending. At least 10 states introduced bills that would relax existing voter ID or proof of citizenship laws, but only Oklahoma was successful in passing such legislation, including military IDs as acceptable proof of identity for voting purposes.
In a coordinated effort to bring elections into the 21st century, three states (Colorado, Nevada, and New York) introduced omnibus bills that mimic reforms found in the federal Voter Empowerment Act introduced by U.S. Rep. John Lewis (GA) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY). In one of the most celebrated wins of the session, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Colorado Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act which includes a number of provisions that will make it easier for state residents to register and vote. After years of advocacy on this issue, strong bipartisan support ultimately gave this bill the strength it needed to make it to the governor’s desk. The legislation will allow Colorado to join other states by expanding access to mail ballots and allowing voters to register on Election Day. Additional reforms include portable registration, which makes it easier to move, cast a ballot, and have it count; the elimination of the state’s “inactive” voter rule, which labels voters inactive after missing just one election; and allowing 16 and 17 year olds to preregister to vote. County clerks — election administrators from both parties — compromised with lawmakers and advocates in order to pass reforms that work for voters and help administrators conduct elections fairly and efficiently. Colorado’s bipartisan, comprehensive election reform package and the manner in which advocates organized to get it passed should be seen as a model for other states.
Two states (Virginia and West Virginia) joined the 15 states that already have laws allowing eligible citizens to register to vote online. Online registration also passed both chambers of the Illinois legislature and now sits on Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk, where he is expected to sign the bill into law. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also signed legislation that allows voters to update existing registration records electronically. Texas came close to passing online voter registration, but the legislation ultimately died due to procedural issues.
Early voting has been widely praised for reducing long lines on Election Day and granting voters the flexibility to cast their ballot in person before Election Day. The number of voters who cast their ballot before Election Day at early voting centers in-person rose dramatically in 2012. In response, lawmakers in more than 20 states introduced legislation to enact or expand in-person early voting. Legislation championed and signed by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley will expand early voting and allows eligible citizens to register and vote on the same day at early voting centers. Florida also expanded early voting, after having seen it cut so drastically that voters waited in line for hours on Election Day in 2012. After an early voting measure passed both chambers in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the measure calling it “hasty, counterproductive” and, at a cost of $25 million, too burdensome for taxpayers. (In a blatant abuse of political power, Gov. Christie later turned around and scheduled a $24 million special election to replace deceased U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg.) Although Minnesota fell short of enacting in-person early voting, the state did pass no-excuse absentee voting, which allows all registered voters to access and cast a ballot by mail prior to Election Day.
Although felons in Vermont and Maine never lose their right to vote, the other 48 states and District of Columbia have widely divergent rules about when and how felons regain the right to vote. In a surprising move by conservative Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginia resolved to streamline the process by restoring voting rights for felons who have completed their sentence and satisfied state conditions.
As more states move toward modernizing their registration and electoral processes, we expect that some will pass legislation piece by piece while others will opt for more comprehensive reforms as in Colorado. Regardless of the pace at which states implement reforms, every state can do something to improve the registration process by encouraging elections to keep pace with modern technology. Additionally, lawmakers should strive to champion policies that encourage civic engagement among disenfranchised communities, making their voices heard and represented on Election Day and beyond.
Conservative Attacks: Suppressing and Restricting the Vote
Even in the midst of extraordinary progress, the attacks to civic participation have anything but ceased. Voter ID legislation continued to propagate in states across the country in 2013. True the Vote, a conservative group “dedicated to eradicating voter fraud,” issued a report claiming that Voter ID laws actually increased turnout rates in 2012 – findings that were later debunked in a report by FairVote that revealed huge methodological flaws in the original study. Although polls show that most voters favor voter ID laws, they also show that voters do not think it should be a priority, and that public support drops the more the laws are explained. Despite the adverse impact such laws have on turnout, especially among historically disenfranchised voters, Virginia, North Dakota, and Tennessee passed laws in 2013 that require voters to show photo ID at the polls. Arkansas also passed a restrictive ID law after the legislature overrode the Governor’s veto. Strict ID laws in Missouri passed the House, but did not move to pass before the legislature adjourned.
States with Same Day Registration (registration during early voting periods) and Election Day Registration (registration on Election Day) lead the nation in voter turnout. Despite the reform’s direct link to expanding democracy, at least seven states introduced bills that would roll back registration opportunities this year. Montana’s legislature decided to leave the decision to the people, who will vote on a referendum to repeal Election Day Registration in 2014.
Early voting also took a hit in Nebraska, where the legislature reduced the number of days voters can vote early in person. And Indiana passed legislation that authorizes challengers to demand additional proof of identification beyond what is already required to register and access a ballot at the polls.
Many state legislatures have yet to adjourn and are still considering a wide variety of reforms that would result in the dramatic disenfranchisement of eligible voters. After solidifying itself as a battleground state in 2012, North Carolina is facing a coordinated assault led by conservatives in the state who put partisan politics above democracy. Extreme legislation has been introduced in the state that would undo years of progress: bills requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls, reducing the number of early voting days and eliminating Sunday voting, eliminating same day registration, getting rid of straight-ticket voting, and even levying a “democracy tax” that is nothing more than a poll tax that penalizes students and their parents if their student registers to vote in her college community. These policies, promoted by conservatives, target specific types of voters, such as young people and minorities, and make it harder for historically disenfranchised voters to get to the polls and cast a ballot. (To learn more about voter suppression efforts in North Carolina, read this fact sheet from our friends at Democracy North Carolina.)
Similarly, Wisconsin is currently fighting against an omnibus voter suppression bill that attempts to require voter ID, cut early voting, and generally make it more difficult for residents to vote. Thanks to some amazing work done by advocates, it appears that strategic amendments may succeed in eliminating the most egregious components of this bill.
On a brighter note, many states are still considering positive electoral reforms. Initially hesitant, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell is now supportive of a Same Day Registration bill that would allow voters to register through Election Day. The New York General Assembly passed early voting legislation but it is expected to face opposition in the Senate. Pennsylvania’s Senate also passed an online registration bill which, even if it doesn’t pass the House this year, has a good chance of being re-introduced next session. In an ambitious move toward automatic registration, Oregon is still considering HB 3521 which would work with public service agencies to send all eligible Oregonians a postcard notifying them that they are registered to vote. Voters may opt out of registration by simply mailing the postcard back. If passed, advocates expect registration rates for newly eligible voters to go from 7 percent to 93 percent.
Until Congress commits to doing the work of modernizing elections and protecting disenfranchised communities from suppression and deception, electoral reform will be left up to the states where voting laws are as diverse as the legislatures themselves. As legislatures adjourn, progressives are looking forward to 2014 to continue the fight for freer, fairer, and more accessible elections at the local, statewide, and national levels.
Charles Monaco on June 7, 2013 - 6:16pm
Echoing the protests that took place in state capitals in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere in 2011, the last few weeks have seen a drumbeat of resistance to the actions of a conservative legislature in a different region of the nation. North Carolina's General Assembly this spring has been the site of growing weekly rallies against the extreme agenda advanced by conservatives this session.
The "Moral Monday" protests, led by a broad coalition of organizations including the North Carolina NAACP, have seen attendance rise from the hundreds to over 1,600 this past Monday in the biggest such gathering yet. A total of over 300 arrests for civil disobedience have been made so far, including over 150 in last week's protest alone. As their numbers have grown, they've also been the subject of increasing national attention.
Dr. Timothy Tyson, a history professor at Duke University and one of the first 17 people arrested at the first rally in April, told The Grio that the participants are increasingly coming from different regions and event different states. "People are coming from all over the state, even different parts of the country,” said Tyson. "I used to recognize most of the people. Now it’s a huge crowd." Some of the newest faces include a group of clergy members who are set to join the protesters' ranks this week.
Protesters have been rallying against a broadside of attacks launched by conservatives in North Carolina's legislative session this year -- legislation that has gone after voting rights, unemployment benefits, public schools, the social safety net, and much more, and which all began to move swiftly after conservatives gained unified control of the governor's seat and both houses of the legislature this January. Recent attacks have included attempts to weaken the ability of cities and localities to govern themselves, and the likely repeal of the Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, which gave inmates sentenced to death the chance to have their sentences reduced to life in prison if they could prove racial bias.
As protesters' numbers increase, conservatives in the state are being forced to react. This week, Gov. Pat McCrory called the protests "unlawful" and "unacceptable," and said he was uninterested in meeting with representatives of protesters to discuss their concerns.
The Tar Heel state has become one of the brightest flashpoints on a national map of state policy that, as the New York Times editorialized this week, is quickly becoming "a patchwork of conscience and callousness." If it's up to this growing movement of North Carolinians, conscience will eventually win out in their state.
Charles Monaco on April 24, 2013 - 5:24pm
A bipartisan majority of state senators in Colorado approved a resolution Wednesday calling on Congress to pass federal immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. The passage of the resolution, by an overwhelming margin of 33-2, comes after similar resolutions have been introduced in many states in recent weeks, and as the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee continues to hold hearings on the comprehensive immigration proposal put forward by a the Senate "Gang of 8" last week.
The language of the Colorado resolution calls for comprehensive reform that will "provide a fair, equitable, and realistic mechanism for aspiring citizens who have grown up in this country to become citizens and be able to fully contribute to our joint future."
“It is important that we come together, Democrats and Republicans, to urge Congress to address one of the biggest issues facing our country today,” said State Senator Irene Aguilar, a sponsor of the resolution, in a statement. “We need reform that is fair and humane, provides a roadmap to citizenship, strengthens our national security, protects American workers, and helps our economy thrive." The resolution now moves on to the Colorado House, where it is expected to pass.
Colorado has recently been cited as a state where sweeping demographic changes are quickly altering the political landscape — a fact which has already been made clear this session. Earlier this year, Colorado's legislature approved a bill ensuring tuition equity for undocumented immigrant students, which is set to be signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper next week. And the Colorado Senate also debated a bill today that would allow undocumented immigrants access to driver's licenses.
Colorado is one of at least 16 states where similar pro-reform resolutions have been introduced in recent weeks. Bipartisan and in some cases unanimous majorities of legislative chambers have passed resolutions calling for comprehensive reform this year in states including Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and most recently California.
Charles Monaco on April 9, 2013 - 3:13pm
Three years ago this month, Arizona's SB1070 was enacted, setting off a wave of copycat anti-immigrant state bills despite the increasingly dubious constitutionality of such laws and an increasing consensus about their destructive economic consequences. Three years later, with Congress on the precipice of debating federal immigration reform, the debate over immigration policy in the states has shifted dramatically. That shift can be seen in the number of states that have adopted policies like tuition equity for all immigrant students — which was signed into law in Oregon and Colorado in recent weeks and which continues to gain momentum in other states. But it can also be seen in the number of states where resolutions have been introduced this session urging Congress to pass a comprehensive reform package that includes an accessible and realistic path to citizenship.
Today, members of PSN's National Immigration Working Group, a group of lawmakers from across the country committed to supporting pro-immigrant policies at the state and federal level, announced that they plan to introduce a number of state resolutions supporting federal reform that would bring the total number of such resolutions introduced in statehouses this year up to sixteen. States where plans to introduce resolutions were announced today include Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, and North Dakota. They would join states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Oregon, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas who have all already seen one or multiple resolutions introduced this year.
Colorado State Senator Angela Giron, Chair of the National Immigration Working Group, noted that many of these resolutions have been sponsored by state legislators who have been leaders on fights in their states, both against anti-immigrant bills and in favor of positive immigration policies. "As we look at the landscape in the states as Congress is set to debate immigration reform, I think it is safe to say the tide has turned," said Sen. Giron. "The fact that state lawmakers are now standing up should send a message to Congress: Americans support a path to citizenship for all 11 million aspiring citizens currently living in the shadows that is as inclusive and accessible as possible."
Even more indicative of the shift in the debate over immigration in statehouses is the fact that, where these resolutions are receiving a vote, they are often passing with bipartisan or even unanimous support. Just last week in Nevada, a resolution urging Congress to "include a realistic pathway to citizenship" and to "create an immigration process that strengthens our nation’s economy and allows aspiring citizens to continue making contributions to our communities, our State and our nation" passed unanimously. According to Nevada State Senator Tick Segerblom, that type of vote would have been nearly impossible to imagine three years ago. "Congress needs to listen to what's going on out here in the states," said Sen. Segerblom. "The American people are ready for this."
Resolutions in New Jersey and New Mexico have also passed with bipartisan support.
Meanwhile, in both Washington D.C. and communities across the nation (including state capitals), tens of thousands of supporters are expected this week at rallies and other events in support of a path to citizenship. As Congress inches closer to beginning what is certain to be an historic debate, state lawmakers and their constituents alike appear intent on making sure their voices are heard.
Charles Monaco on March 30, 2013 - 9:14am
Of the 15 states whose residents have less upward mobility than the national average, 14 are so-called "right-to-work" states.
Charles Monaco on March 29, 2013 - 5:49pm
After years of debate and delay, paid sick days may soon become a reality for approximately one million New Yorkers who do not currently have access to them. After bottling up a bill that had earned strong backing among the public and her colleagues, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced in a turnaround this week that she had struck a deal with proponents of paid sick days in New York City and would allow the bill to come up for a vote, where it will likely win enough support to override an expected veto from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and become law.
The compromise legislation will reportedly require all New York City employers with over 20 employees to provide paid sick days beginning a year from now in April 2014, with that threshold dropping to 15 or more employees in October 2015, at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked and up to 5 days per year. Other provisions in the still-unfinalized bill are said to include a "trigger" which would prevent the law from taking effect if the city economy were to decline precipitously as well as a requirement that all smaller businesses not covered by the law provide unpaid time off for employees who get sick. The New York Times reported that the legislation will make it clear that, "whether the sick leave is paid or unpaid, companies will be legally forbidden from firing workers for taking such time off."
While the changes to the original language of the bill will mean New York City's law will be weaker than laws currently on the books in major cities like San Francisco and Seattle, the threshold for the size of employers will be lower than it is next door in Connecticut. (The National Partnership on Women and Families has an informative resource comparing the various paid sick days laws that have so far been enacted across the nation.)
The movement in New York City on paid sick days adds momentum to a number of paid sick days campaigns currently underway in the states. Legislatures in states including Vermont, Maryland, Massachussets, and Washington are all considering paid sick leave legislation this session, while in the month of March alone, New York was the third U.S. city to pass a sick leave measure, following Portland, Ore. and Philadelphia.
The winning streak on paid sick days and other workers' rights legislation in municipalities over the last few years has clearly been alarming to big corporations, who have been actively backing state efforts to preempt and repeal local paid sick days measures. Just one day before the deal in New York City was announced, a state Senate committee in Michigan approved a bill that would prevent cities from enacting similar sick leave requirements. Other states including Florida, Mississippi, and Washington are seeing similar bills pop up this year, all following in the footsteps of Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker signed a repeal of Milwaukee's paid sick days measure into law in 2011.
But the victory in New York City this week should inspire progressives elsewhere looking to advance what is, as a reminder, a broadly popular policy. The ripples may already be spreading south to Philadelphia, where Mayor Michael Nutter is coming under increasing pressure as he is expected to announce within days whether he will veto a paid sick days bill for the second time in his mayoralty. As Demos' Amy Traub notes, this week's win in New York was "the result of years of tireless organizing and advocacy" on the part of multiple organizations and individuals, and a hopeful reminder that, despite rampant corporate influence in the legislative process, "the game is not entirely rigged."
Charles Monaco on March 15, 2013 - 1:20pm
It's already March, but it felt a bit like Groundhog Day this week as U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveiled — for the third straight year — a conservative House budget proposal steeped in austerity, divorced from reality, and as unpopular as ever. Notwithstanding an Election Day that saw majorities vote against both Congressman Ryan’s policy priorities and Congressman Ryan as a Vice Presidential candidate, the newest incarnation of the Ryan budget still includes massive cuts to key domestic priorities, assumes the repeal of parts of Obamacare, turns Medicare into a voucher system, cuts Medicaid by over $750 billion, and hands out even more huge tax breaks for the wealthiest few — all while claiming to balance the budget in ten years. It’s a document that has rightly been described as “a tale of fantastical illusion,” but also one that reflects the destructive conventional wisdom that continues to see austerity and short-term deficit reduction as priorities for the nation ahead of getting Americans back to work.
To significantly less fanfare, another budget proposal was released this week that actually does redirect the debate away from austerity and toward job creation. The Congressional Progressive Caucus’ “Back to Work Budget” proposal starts by repealing the cuts in both the sequester and the Budget Control Act that are already set to curb economic growth significantly this year. It continues by investing in real job creation — including direct aid that aims to close state budget gaps caused by the Great Recession for two years, allowing states to directly rehire some of the hundreds of thousands of cops, teachers, and public sector workers who have lost their jobs lost over the last decade. It also extends emergency unemployment compensation for the jobless in high unemployment states, invests in infrastructure, returns Pentagon spending to 2006 levels, and aims to reduce the deficit by $4.4 trillion by closing tax loopholes and instituting a financial transaction tax.
In all, the CPC budget includes a range of proposals that are predicted to create 7 million jobs in the first year alone if enacted. While the CPC points out in their summary of the budget that “this is what the country voted for in November,” a point even Congressman Ryan appears hard pressed to argue, the proposal clearly faces a hard road in a conservative House of Representatives still opposed to the most minor of compromises. But at the very least, as part of a national discussion that views far-right fantasy budgets along the line of Ryan’s as “serious” proposals, the “Back to Work Budget” is an important contribution to debates happening both in D.C. and in state capitals across the nation going forward. And as Paul Krugman points out in a column today, it also has the benefit of being grounded in actual economics and real numbers:
The National Priorities Project also has a very useful comparison of the major budget proposals floating around right now — including the Ryan budget, the CPC budget, and the Senate proposal by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) — and how they all compare to popular opinion.
Charles Monaco on March 1, 2013 - 6:00pm
At least 6 of the 9 states covered in full by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act saw voter suppression efforts passed by their legislatures in 2012.
Charles Monaco on February 25, 2013 - 9:03am
With the across-the-board cuts in the federal budget sequester set to go into effect starting Friday, the White House is releasing a series of fact sheets outlining exactly how hard the cuts would hit state economies. Among the ugly consequences, according to the Huffington Post:
The Washington Post also has a helpful interactive infographic breaking down the White House numbers.
These reports come after a series of other warnings of the state-by-state effects of the sequester, including reports from the Center for American Progress, National Education Association, and the National Priorities Project.
Click below for PDFs of the reports highlighting the effects of the sequester in your state:
From the Dispatch
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