“If you need a reminder that elections have consequences, check out what’s happening in Minnesota,” former President Barack Obama recently shared. “Earlier this year, Democrats took control of the State Senate by one seat after winning a race by just 321 votes. It gave Democrats control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.”
With that narrow — but consequential — power, Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party advanced a host of progressive policies, including voting reforms. While some state legislatures are still meeting, others have wrapped up for the year. Minnesota, along with New Mexico and Washington, have led the way on improving voting access so far.
Minnesota Democrats restored voting rights to over 55,000 people and passed a myriad of pro-voting reforms.
The Democracy for the People Act was the centerpiece of Minnesota’s voting and election priorities this legislative session. Signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz (D) on May 5, the bill allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, establishes automatic voter registration at many state agencies, permits voters to opt in to a permanent absentee voter list, strengthens penalties for voter intimidation and expands access to non-English voting materials.
The introduced version of the Democracy for the People Act included a provision to restore voting rights to people on felony probation or parole, but when the larger bill wasn’t moving quick enough, Minnesota Democrats accelerated a separate piece of legislation to get that done.
That bill, signed into law on March 3, restored voting rights to over 55,000 Minnesotans on parole, probation or community release due to a felony conviction. “Restoring voting rights to those convicted of a felony crime but no longer incarcerated is one of the ways to help facilitate reintegration into our communities by giving these individuals their voices back to participate in the electoral process,” bill sponsor Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL) noted at a public hearing in early January.
Previously, Minnesota law restored voting rights only after the completion of an entire sentence, which could span years after release from incarceration as a full sentence often includes parole, probation or community release. The new law also requires correctional facility officials to provide robust notice of voting rights as part of the re-entry process following incarceration.
“As other states act to restrict voter access and, in some cases, punish and expel dissenting elected officials — in Minnesota, we are passing comprehensive nation-leading democracy policy,” Rep. Emma Greenman (DFL), a voting rights lawyer and lead sponsor on the Democracy for the People Act, told Democracy Docket.
Greenman explained that she’s proud that this legislation comes at an important moment in the country’s history: “We choose to act boldly and decisively to expand the freedom to vote, protect our democratic institutions, and strengthen the power of voters — not money or corporations.”
Finally, buried within a 313-page state government budget enacted just last week, Minnesota lawmakers included several more reforms to expand voter access. Among other improvements, the budget bill established 18 days of in-person early voting (previously, Minnesota only allowed people to vote early by mail or in person absentee), restricted problematic challenges to voter registration, expanded employees’ right to take time off of work to vote and included an additional option for students to prove residency for voting purposes.
The budget bill also authorized the state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an alternative to the Electoral College that would ensure that the winner of the national popular vote becomes president. Now, 16 states and Washington D.C., have signed onto the interstate agreement. Minnesota moves our country 10 electoral votes closer to electing our president by popular vote.
New Mexico enacted a Native American Voting Rights Act and more.
“In New Mexico, we have long been a national model for protecting voter access and deploying innovative election security solutions,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D) wrote for Democracy Docket in February 2022. This year, New Mexico further cemented its place as a leader in voting rights.
On March 30, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 4, the New Mexico Voting Rights Act, into law, marking the first omnibus law enacted in the 2023 legislative session. Though not a Voting Rights Act by the technical definition, the legislation improved access to the ballot box across the state.
Mirroring the policy change enacted in Minnesota, H.B. 4 restored voting rights to individuals with felony convictions upon release from prison. This change immediately impacts upwards of 11,000 New Mexicans on parole or probation. The omnibus voting law also established automatic voter registration, created a permanent absentee ballot list and expanded drop box use.
Additionally, H.B. 4 created dedicated protections for Native American voters in a subsection titled the Native American Voting Rights Act. “I would say that this is a win for tribal leaders. This is a win for our tribal voting advocates, policymakers, and for each and every Native American voter across the state,” Ahtza Chavez, executive director of New Mexico Native Vote, told Democracy Docket in March.
The law permits the use of governmental buildings as mailing addresses for voter registration purposes, ensures that pre-existing political lines are respected when adjusting precinct boundaries on tribal lands, outlines the process for Native leaders to request voting locations and more.
New Mexico also enacted a bipartisan law that expands penalties for intimidating election officials and a 172-page law that addresses more technical aspects of the election code. However, included within that large piece of legislation are provisions to mandate the use of vote centers, expand the criteria for returning a mail-in ballot on behalf of another voter and create cure procedures for rejected mail-in ballots.
Washington State lowered the barriers to voter registration and bolstered its pathbreaking state-level Voting Rights Act.
This spring, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed two bills to make registering to vote even easier. Washington has offered automatic voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Health Benefit Exchange since 2018, a policy that 21 other states have also enacted. Signed into law on May 15, a new law expands the number of state agencies that offer automatic voter registration by including any state agency that requires prospective voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship. Additionally, the law shifts the timeline for opting out of automatic registration.
Washington is one of 42 states with online voter registration. However, in all but a handful of states, voters need a driver’s license to take advantage of this convenient option. This legislative session, Washington joined that short list of states making online voter registration accessible to all, allowing voters to register to vote online using the last four digits of their Social Security number and not just a driver’s license or state-issued identification.
Earlier in the spring, Washington expanded the enforcement mechanisms of the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA). In light of the U.S. Supreme Court weakening the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) over the past decade, Washington enacted the WVRA in 2018 as a way for voters to challenge discriminatory voting practices in local government. A state VRA is characterized by the way it empowers voters through the legal system; common provisions include preclearance regimes that mirror the now-defunct Section 5 of the federal VRA, new causes of action and more. Four other states — California, New York, Oregon and Virginia — have enacted similar state-level VRAs. This session, the Legislature built upon its 2018 law to further empower voters and improve enforcement mechanisms in the WVRA.
Among other tweaks to the election code, Washington’s Democratic trifecta successfully passed laws to ban firearms at polling locations and allow 17 year-olds to vote in a primary election if they turn 18 before the corresponding general election.
In 2023, a handful of other states enacted pro-voting bills so far.
While Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington tackled major reforms, several states have passed individual bills to improve voting access. Colorado will soon, once signed by the governor, streamline voter registration and voting access for Native Americans on tribal lands, help facilitate voting for eligible incarcerated voters and require polling locations on more college campuses. Maryland created a cure process for mail-in ballots and required election officials to pre-process mail-in ballots before Election Day.
A handful of positive reforms made it through Republican legislatures or divided governments as well: Montana ended prison gerrymandering, the practice of counting incarcerated individuals as residents in the location where they are incarcerated on Census Day instead of their home community. Nevada added protections for election workers, Tennessee required high schools to provide graduating seniors with information about voter eligibility and voter registration and Virginia repealed its witness requirement for mail-in voting, which previously required another individual, not just the voter, to sign a mail-in ballot envelope.
More Democratic trifectas — Connecticut, Delaware and Michigan — are poised to pass meaningful voting reforms.
In states where legislatures are still meeting, there’s some promising bill movement. Connecticut is poised to create an in-person early voting period, removing itself from the unfortunate distinction of being one of only four states — along with Alabama, Mississippi and New Hampshire — that does not currently offer early voting. This year, Connecticut may also pass a state-level VRA. The Legislature successfully advanced a constitutional amendment that will go before voters in November 2024 to allow no-excuse mail-in voting.
In Michigan, like Minnesota, Democrats gained trifecta control of state government in the 2022 midterms. During that same election, Michigan voters approved a ballot measure to enact several pro-voting reforms. Now, the Great Lakes State is looking to codify parts of that constitutional amendment, already passing a bill to extend the deadline for military and overseas voters to return mail-in ballots.
Michigan lawmakers are expected to establish a mail-in ballot racking system, ban firearms at polling locations and create a state-level VRA. “Last year Michigan citizens voted overwhelmingly to enact an explicit right to vote in our state constitution,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said in a comment to Democracy Docket in March. “In furtherance of that right, and in recognition of the ways courts have weakened the federal Voting Rights Act in recent years, we are working with lawmakers and community leaders to explicitly ban voter discrimination, intimidation and suppression in our state.”