By Matt Vasilogambros
The 2020 presidential election is just months away and state legislators, courts and election officials are making final changes to policies governing access to the ballot.
States remain divided along partisan lines on expanding and tightening voting laws. In Democratic-controlled states, lawmakers are going even further this year in enfranchising formerly incarcerated felons, expanding early voting and implementing automatic voter registration.
But in Republican-controlled states, lawmakers are shuttering polling places on college campuses and imposing new rules on students who want to vote; limiting early voting and vote-by-mail opportunities; and adding new voter ID requirements. Voting rights groups are suing to prevent many of those laws from going into effect before November.
Any changes to ballot access, especially in pivotal swing states, could shape the outcomes in November, said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
“It’s going to be a big year that’s going to be focused on election systems,” she said. “There’ll be a lot of changes between now and the election.”
Where Democrats have made substantial legislative gains in the past two years, lawmakers have made expanding ballot access a top priority.
In New York, for example, where Democrats took control of the state Senate for the first time in a decade in 2018, legislators last year passed a series of measures that made voting more accessible, including the adoption of early voting and voting by mail.
But lawmakers want to do more. Earlier this month, the state Senate passed legislation that would bring automatic voter registration to the Empire State, while also expanding early voting locations and days.
Senate Democrats wanted to make sure this was their first order of business in 2020, said Elections Committee Chairman Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat who is expecting an “unprecedented” level of turnout in November.
“This election is probably the most consequential election of our lifetimes,” Myrie told Stateline. “We want to make sure that the process, both to register and to vote, is as easy and accessible as possible.”
Some GOP lawmakers oppose the legislation, saying it would open the door to the accidental registration of undocumented immigrants, who in New York can apply for driver’s licenses.
Republican state Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, who led the opposition to similar legislation last year, said he worries about security and the financial burden of expanding registration. “It’s not written in a way to truly protect the integrity of elections,” Schmitt said. “We really don’t know what the safeguards are going to be.”
If passed by the Democratic-controlled state Assembly and signed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the new system, which would register people to vote whenever they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles or other agencies, would go into effect in two years.
Last year, six states — Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada and Washington — passed or implemented similar automatic voter registration measures.
In Virginia, where Democrats gained control of the state legislature in November, Democrats will try to expand the early voting period to 45 days and make Election Day a state holiday.
And elsewhere, lawmakers in several states are looking to restore the right to vote for people with felony records. Legislators in Hawaii, Michigan and Oregon made it easier to vote by mail.
While the New Hampshire legislature passed a measure that would have allowed no-excuse absentee voting in the state, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed it in September.
Republicans steadfastly oppose similar measures, based on worries that ineligible voters may cast ballots and swing an election.
In Republican-led states, GOP lawmakers and officials continue to tighten voting laws in the name of election integrity.
These add to significant Republican efforts over the past decade, during which 30 states expanded voter ID laws and voter registration purges were commonplace.
In states Republican President Donald Trump needs to win to secure a second term, such as North Carolina and Wisconsin, Democrats and voting rights groups have taken their voting policy fights to court, challenging conservative-backed restrictions.
Just before the New Year, U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of North Carolina Loretta Biggs struck down a Republican-backed voter ID law in North Carolina, arguing that it was created with “discriminatory intent” toward minority voters.
“North Carolina has a sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression stretching back to the time of slavery, through the era of Jim Crow, and, crucially, continuing up to the present day,” she wrote in her 60-page ruling.
The constitutional requirement, which was ratified by North Carolina voters in 2018 and supported by some Democrats in the state legislature, was the state’s second attempt in the past decade to get a voter ID law on the books. In 2016, a federal appeals court struck down a 2013 law, ruling that the measure was written to racially discriminate.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, announced earlier this month that he would appeal the federal court ruling after the state’s March presidential primary to “avoid any further voter confusion.” Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for Stein, would not explain his reasoning for appealing the ruling. In a previous filing, Stein said the law was “the will of NC voters.”
Joseph Kyzer, communications director for Republican Speaker of the House Tim Moore, said he’s confident the law will eventually go through. “We certainly feel it’s important to fulfill the state constitutional requirement to have a voter ID law like 34 other states have,” he told Stateline.