In 2013, more than 160 members of Congress joined in support of the Voter Empowerment Act of 2013. The stated goals of this act are: ensuring access to the ballot, preserving integrity in voting systems, and demanding accountability in election administration. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, passage of the act would “modernize voter registration by facilitating secure ways to take advantage of existing technology,” potentially including automatic, online, or same-day voter registration.
Barring federal momentum on this issue, it is up to the states to act to ensure an accessible, accountable electoral system. State policy recommendations in this area are as follows.
Young, potential voters are notoriously hard to reach. Preregistration takes advantage of the intersection of high school civics courses and interactions with states’ Motor Vehicles Departments when applying for a driver’s license to not only reach them but to register them as well. For states serious about increasing youth civic participation, preregistration is a crucial step.
From reading up on candidate positions to tweeting about breaking news, civic engagement is rapidly moving to an online environment. To meet this demand, it is crucial that states make the voter registration process as accessible as possible by providing an online registration option. Online voter registration provides three key advantages: voter convenience, particularly for military and overseas voters; more accurate voter rolls and a reduction in registration errors; and a significant cost savings over paper registrations. States that do not currently offer online registration should create this option, with an eye to eliminating barriers that voters with disabilities may face when attempting to register online.
Same-day registration creates a portable option for voters who have moved but not reregistered, and states with same-day registration available “consistently lead the nation in voter participation.” Additionally, same-day registration leads to a reduction in provisional ballot usage—and its racially discriminatory effects—as voters have the opportunity to update their registration status rather than vote provisionally. States that do not currently offer same-day registration or other policies to achieve portable registration should create this option.
As detailed in this report, the Crosscheck system is not only riddled with errors, but the lists provided also have an outsized effect on communities of color. Given that the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s 2014 report recommended that states participate in an interstate compact to share voter registration information, states seeking an avenue to maintain accurate voter rolls are advised to join the ERIC system. Not only does the ERIC system provide the ability to clean a state’s voter rolls, but it also gives state election officials the opportunity to build the rolls as well, providing lists of potentially unregistered voters as an outreach opportunity.
Some states have fully and comprehensively integrated Motor Voter provisions into the operation of their Motor Vehicle Departments; others have merely checked a box. Demos provides five key ways through which states can ensure full compliance and integration:
In addition, states should seek opportunities to similarly integrate voter registration into citizen interactions with other public agencies. This will ensure that individuals who cannot or do not drive also have the opportunity to conveniently register to vote, along with the same change-of-address provisions above.
Even states with modernized, accessible voter registration procedures still have structural barriers in place that limit citizens’ ability to fully participate in the process. From voting laws that disadvantage communities of color to campaign finance laws that favor the wealthy and well connected over average Americans, states must ensure a fair playing field in order for all voices in the political process to be heard. State policy recommendations in this area are as follows.
Nationwide, there has been a concerted attack on in-person early voting hours—with a particular focus on evening and weekend hours, the hours most likely to be used by Communities of Color and by voters who do not have the luxury of leaving work to vote during daytime hours. To eliminate this clear barrier to participation for already disadvantaged voters, states should reverse cuts to early voting, expand early voting days and hours whenever possible, and ensure ample evening and weekend voting hours.
The ability to vote from home should not be open only to those who submit a qualified excuse to the satisfaction of the state. Rather, states should ensure that anyone who wishes to cast an absentee ballot has the opportunity to request, receive, and cast a ballot by mail.
Whatever form voter ID laws take—photo or non-photo, strict or non-strict—these restrictions lead to decreased voter turnout and disproportionately affect poor and minority voters. States should end voter ID laws to ensure that every eligible voter is able to cast a ballot.
According to The Sentencing Project, “denying the right to vote of an entire class of citizens is deeply problematic to a democratic society and counterproductive to effective reentry.” States should provide either automatic restoration of voting rights or a transparent, affordable, well-publicized process to restore ex-offender voting rights after prison sentences have been served.
Ballot initiatives, conceived as an opportunity for regular citizens to “shape public policy and regain power from the corporate interests,” are a critical piece in ensuring full voter participation—not just in electing representatives but also in exercising direct democracy. States that lack initiative provisions should create the opportunity for citizens to place issues on the ballot via initiative.
This report’s analysis has shown how skewed district maps at both the congressional and legislative levels can be when compared with raw two-party vote shares for those same offices. It is beyond the scope of this report to recommend specific processes for this map-making, but with the 2020 Census approaching and redistricting plans already taking shape, lawmakers must determine how to create maps that reflect and amplify rather than limit and dilute the voices of the voters.
Public financing can both help end the underrepresentation of women and Communities of Color in elected office and ensure that average citizens, not just the wealthy and well connected, have a voice in the political process. States should implement public campaign financing options, understanding that the true gauge of success is the extent to which the system is effective enough to be attractive for candidate participation. Thus, these campaign financing options must be built in such a way that candidates accepting public funding are not disadvantaged against traditionally funded candidates. Furthermore, such systems should seek to incentivize small-dollar donor participation to ensure that candidates seek a broad base of support, rather than relying on a handful of wealthy and well-connected individuals.
As Demos writes in its report “Money Chase,” “The core consequence of our big money campaign finance system is a set of skewed policy outcomes that serve the donor class at the expense of average voters.” Implementing public campaign finance options, as discussed above, is one key policy solution; however, this is not enough. From judicial elections calling court decisions into question to lawmakers-turned-lobbyists who build up a client list before even leaving office, it is critical that citizens know who is attempting to influence the political process and that they have the opportunity to hold their lawmakers accountable. State policy recommendations in this area are as follows.
While this report touches only on individual donors, states must assess the whole range of campaign contributors and targets, setting appropriate limits for each. The cost of a campaign varies wildly among states and, within states, among levels of election; it is beyond the scope of this report to prescribe a specific, blanket dollar figure. The limits should, however, be low enough to encourage broad participation, to ensure that nobody can exercise undue influence on politicians and the political system, and—where available—to encourage candidate participation in public campaign financing programs.
State disclosure laws are a critical firewall to ensure that voters have the opportunity to know who may be influencing their elections and their public officials. State independent spending disclosure laws should be strengthened to include the following, taken from the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ “Essential Disclosure Requirements for Independent Spending” scorecard:
States should require former elected officials to take a two-year cooling off period before lobbying. These requirements should be written broadly to encompass all statewide and legislative elected officials and the full scope of advocacy activities.
The Sunlight Foundation has identified “Ten Principles for Opening Up Government Information.” States should take these principles into account to ensure that members of the public are able to access information about how their government operates. These are as follows:
Judicial recusal laws are crucial to maintaining an independent judiciary. States should strengthen these laws to address the following eight categories, taken from a previous CAP report:
These policy recommendations are meant to serve as a general outline of recommended reforms for states seeking to improve their category grades and overall ranking. In addition to these specific, factor-based policy recommendations, states should look to the findings of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, whose 2014 report “The American Voter Experience” lays out additional, complementary recommended reforms in the areas of voter registration, access to the polls, polling place management, and voting technology.
The authors of this report applaud the many ongoing efforts in the states to make progress on these issues legislatively, through administrative or executive actions, via ballot measures, and in the courts. From Maine’s ballot initiative effort to pass campaign finance reform that will be first-of-its-kind since Citizens United, to Nevada’s work to push back against attempts to pass voter ID laws, to Virginia’s easing the process for restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders, the wide variety of work being done by state advocates represents critical progress toward making the democracy system more accessible, more representative, and more free from influence politics.