WASHINGTON — After crying foul over Republican efforts to modify election laws in key states, Democrats are launching their own wide-ranging push to change the way Americans vote, kicking off the latest battles in a fight over voting rights that’s as old as the republic itself.
Last week, operatives tied to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee launched what they call a 50-state initiative to promote changes that would make it easier to cast a ballot. The effort is being run by American Values First, a group organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code and headed by Michael Sargeant, the DLCC’s executive director. Democrats will push legislation similar to a Colorado measure signed into law this year that requires all voters to receive mail-in ballots.
Legislators in at least seven states will propose bills that would also tweak election laws in other ways. In some states controlled by Democrats, the measures have a good chance of passing. In states where Republicans are in charge or control is divided, Democrats plan to use the bills as political cudgels, painting the GOP as opposed to basic voting rights.
The new push comes in response to Republican initiatives to rewrite election laws in key states. Republicans in North Carolina and Florida moved to cut the number of early-voting days. Arizona and Florida imposed new restrictions on groups that sign up voters for absentee ballots. And Republican-led legislatures from New Hampshire to Michigan to Florida passed legislation requiring voters to show photo identification before they receive a ballot.
Democrats have criticized the new rules as overly restrictive, making it more difficult for an eligible voter to cast a ballot. Their legislative response: Make it easier for eligible Americans to register to vote and to receive a ballot by mail.
“What we’re promoting is ease of access,” Sargeant said. “People are getting mobilized now to push back against these far-right attempts to limit democracy. Some of these efforts [by Republicans] have been ignored for too long, and now people understand that this is not something you can sit back and watch. You have to get involved and stop it.”
Sargeant wouldn’t comment on the new group’s budget. American Values First launched last week in Atlanta during a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Colorado law, which passed on party-line votes in the Democratic-controlled legislature, requires all residents to receive mail-in ballots. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed the measure in May over protests from Republicans led by Secretary of State Scott Gessler. Two other states, Washington and Oregon, already hold all-mail elections; implementation of the laws in those states coincided with their shift from presidential swing states, in 2000 and 2004, to pillars of the Democrats’ West Coast stronghold.
In Oregon, a bill that would have automatically registered eligible voters when they received driver’s licenses failed by a single vote in July when a Democratic state senator surprised her colleagues by voting against it. Rep. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat, said he will reintroduce the bill when the legislature’s 2014 session kicks off in January.
“It’s a pretty simple bill,” Frederick said in an interview. “Unlike some of the Republican efforts, there’s actually a problem to be solved. This is not something we’re making up.”
Minnesota Democrats this year rolled back a provision that required voters to give an excuse for receiving an absentee ballot. Gov. Mark Dayton (D) signed that bill in May, making his state one of nearly three dozen to offer “no-fault” absentee voting.
State Rep. Steve Simon (D), who heads the committee that oversees state elections, said he will push other reforms this year, though Dayton has said he will sign voting legislation only if it has bipartisan support.
Efforts to change election rules are less likely to succeed in states where Republicans control at least one lever of government. Maine’s Democrats, who rule both legislative chambers, will push to expand access to absentee ballots and early-voting locations, but Republican Gov. Paul LePage is unlikely to sign anything that passes. And Democrats in Nevada passed bills to extend the deadline for new voters to register and to add polling places; both were vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican.
Republicans say the DLCC’s new push is little more than an effort to raise money off an issue that matters to the Democratic base.
“What concerns me is that the vaunted Democrat-Obama machine brags about tens of millions spent on the ground game trying to turn out votes yet now doesn’t seem satisfied with that,” said Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “They seem to want to loosen and make the system as lenient as possible. You still have to protect the integrity of elections.”
The battle over who gets to vote, and how, is nothing new, said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies voting patterns. Issues like military voting and national voting qualifications were debated as the Constitution was being drafted.
“Partisanship seems to rule when it comes to the ballot box. This is nothing new in American politics,” McDonald said. “We can go all the way back to the founding of the country to see these types of laws being debated.”
McDonald said he didn’t expect most of the voting-law changes — whether voter ID measures or bills to universally register voters or ease access to absentee ballots — to have a dramatic effect on turnout. Canada adopted a measure similar to Oregon’s proposed universal registration in the 1990s, he noted, and turnout decreased in subsequent years.
That suggests that while both parties can tinker with the rules, they still need to identify and motivate their supporters.
“You can lead that proverbial horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink. Voters need to have an interest in the election before they go through the hoops of casting a ballot,” McDonald said.