States of election reform

Lawmakers behaving badly will fail to build winning coalitions

Two entries I posted last week about election reform argued against bills sponsored by congressional Democrats and Republicans that would nationalize election management. They’re overly prescriptive, unlikely to get through the Senate, and possibly unconstitutional. The action on election law remains with states, where they belong.

Just because state legislatures can alter election laws doesn’t mean they should — especially if those changes make it harder for eligible voters to cast ballots. Several Republican state legislatures (and governors) are behaving badly. Like Major Biden, they may need some time off to consider what they’re doing.

Election moves by Georgia, Iowa, and Arizona tend to motivate rather than intimidate left-leaning activists. They also leave a (justified) impression that Republicans think they can’t win high-turnout elections. So they have to make it harder for people who aren’t obsessed with politics 24/7 to vote. It’s undemocratic (pun intended). It also shows a lack of confidence by the GOP in its belief that its ideas and policies are worthy of widespread support.

Progressive activists understand that changes appearing to “disenfranchise voters” probably would backfire. Democrats and unaffiliated liberal and centrist voters would mobilize, just as the “Stop the Steal” garbage boosted Democratic turnout in Georgia, costing Republicans two U.S. Senate seats and the Senate majority.

“Democrats and progressives are very, very good at voter engagement, and voter education,” Greg Speed, president of the Democratic-leaning America Votes, told NBC News. “And we will be back, post-pandemic, knocking on doors, talking directly to our voters about how they will be able to safely, securely cast their vote, even as we fight back against all these suppression efforts.”

State-level action

In Georgia, the Senate passed a bill ditching no-excuse absentee voting (with exceptions for age, military service, and a handful of other categories); limiting early voting to weekdays during “normal business hours” and a single Saturday during the cycle. No Sunday “souls to the polls” campaigns popular at black churches. (Counties have the option of extending early voting hours but don’t have to.) The bill’s likely to pass the House. Gov. Brian Kemp will sign it.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds just signed a bill into law that would reduce early voting from 29 days to 20; close polls at 8 p.m. rather than 9 p.m., and bar absentee ballots that arrive after the polls close on Election Day from being counted (even if they were postmarked before Election Day).

Meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court just heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging election law changes in Arizona. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said a couple of parts of the Arizona law disenfranchises voters.

For one, it tosses “out-of-precinct” votes — ballots cast by voters who show up outside their precinct on Election Day. The Arizona law scraps the entire ballot of those voters, even votes cast for offices that aren’t affected by the voter’s home address, such as president, governor, U.S. senator, or member of Congress.

A second provision puts strict limits on who, other than the voter, can deliver an absentee ballot to election officials. Lax rules on third parties have led to “ballot harvesting” schemes, which are legal in some states. Arizonans in low-income communities or who live on tribal lands say problems with transportation and mail service make ballot harvesting essential.


SCOTUS held oral arguments on the Arizona law last week and will decide the case by the end of the term.

To be sure, some parts of these laws are fine. I have no problem with limits on ballot harvesting — so long as they don’t wind up penalizing voters with legitimate transportation problems or unreliable mail service. Illegal ballot harvesting upended the 2018 election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. After a state investigation and court action, a new election for the 9th District was held the next year.

Also on the plus side, Georgia is doing away with “signature matching” of mail ballots because the process is dicey, at best. Instead, the new law assigns voters an ID number (tied to driver licenses or Social Security numbers) and uses that number to match applications to ballots. 

N.C. unlikely to join

The good news for North Carolina: Liberal access to the polls appears safe, for several reasons. 

  • If the General Assembly tried to significantly roll back pandemic-related expansions, then those changes would pass with only Republican votes. Gov. Roy Cooper would veto them. Republicans lack the supermajority needed to override a veto unless they get some Democratic support. Unlikely.

  • Rollbacks that somehow got past Cooper would wind up in court, temporarily blocked, and probably not resolved until the 2022 cycle has ended.

  • Right-of-center activists respond to incentives, too. Tar Heel State Republicans took advantage of expanded early voting and mail-ballot options. They beat expectations, as (TEASER!) a forthcoming op-ed I co-authored with a prominent N.C. progressive activist will explain. (Publication date either Thursday or over the weekend. Don’t worry. I’ll link on the site.)

Of course, next year the GOP could regain legislative supermajorities. All bets would be off. 

But building a resilient governing coalition requires more than winning elections. It needs a positive, principled agenda that rejects personality cults and attracts voters who may not consider themselves conservative, or even ideological. A message that appeals rather than repels. Excluding eligible voters from the polls won’t do the job.

Back to school!

Gov. Roy Cooper, bipartisan leaders of both legislative chambers, and state Superintendent Catherine Truitt announced a deal to reopen most schools to full-time, in-person instruction. The Senate and House could get the bill to Cooper by Thursday. If he signs quickly, it’ll take effect in early April.

Cooper was losing leverage, as larger districts (Wake, Mecklenburg) were reopening despite steadfast teacher union opposition. Still, at a Wednesday news conference, the governor made a valid point: He could have used his emergency powers to force districts to reopen. Instead, making a deal with lawmakers and state election officials is a sign of goodwill — and has the force of law.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll agree on a budget during his second term.

Today’s birthday

Is there another? Happy 80th.