Every state legislature controlled by Democrats should enact at least one comprehensive set of pro-voting laws in 2022. Then, they should do it again in 2023 and 2024.
Ever since the Senate failed to enact comprehensive voting rights reform, Democrats have been asking what is next. While some have focused on fixing the Electoral Count Act, that too requires Senate Republican support. If we have learned anything in the last year, it is that we should never entrust democracy to any process that requires Republicans to act in good faith. Furthermore, simply changing that one law will do nothing to address voter suppression and do little to diminish the risk of election subversion.
Fighting against new Republican voter suppression laws is important, but it is largely about maintaining the status quo — protecting existing voting laws that disenfranchise too many voters and discriminate against minority and young voters. While it is vitally important, it is not enough.
That is why I am proposing a strategy to affirmatively increase voting rights and raise the standard of what we should expect from blue states. By improving voting rights in their states, Democrats will “level-up” what is expected as the norm for voting rights and accessibility.
For this proposal to work, we need Democrats to accept that every state — including the ones they control — can improve voting rights for their citizens. They need to acknowledge that no state has a perfect system for voting and every state can and must do better.
Washington State and Colorado are among the most progressive states for voting. In 2019, Colorado Democrats moved immediately to expand voting rights following a successful election. But a review conducted last year of Colorado’s rejected mail-in ballots revealed that voters under the age of 34 accounted for two-thirds of the 29,000 rejected ballots, while voters over the age of 65 accounted for only 2%. Similarly, a recent study showed that Black voters in Washington have their mail-in ballots rejected four times as often as white voters. Both states should make the necessary reforms to improve voting rights in their states — and do so immediately.
Too often we have ignored the problems facing voters in blue states, focusing exclusively on the voter suppression laws passed by Republican legislatures. This is a missed opportunity. By improving voting rights, Democrats can improve voting rights for their citizens and raise the bar for what is considered normal and acceptable elsewhere. Finally, showing that expanding voting opportunities works undercuts the Republicans’ false narrative of voter fraud.
When states run by Democrats do not reform restrictive and discriminatory voting laws, they directly aid in the suppression of voting rights elsewhere.
For example, when Georgia was sued over its ban on providing free food and water to voters waiting in line, it pointed to a similar ban in New York law. While the New York law is quite old and different in scope, it is indefensible and should be repealed. Yet, though the NAACP of Brooklyn has sued to strike down the law, it remains in place. New York’s law harms its own citizens and gives Georgia Republicans who are targeting Black voters with their similar prohibition an easy talking point.
More recently, New York was sued over its dismal history of rejecting absentee ballots for reasons unrelated to a voter’s eligibility. New York has repeatedly failed to provide opportunities for voters to fix many relatively simple defects in their absentee ballots. Some ballots are invalidated due to no fault of the voter at all — such as where a voter followed an election officials’ incorrect directions, or because the U.S. Postal Service failed to stamp a postmark on the ballot envelope. New York has known of this problem for some time but has not fixed it.
In Michigan, it is a crime for organizations, such as a church, student group and even Uber, to provide free rides to the polls. This unique law — no other state has such a prohibition — harms minority and young voters. Republicans and voter suppression groups cite this law to perpetuate a false anti-fraud narrative to tarnish and restrict “get out the vote” activities elsewhere. Yet, a multi-year court battle over the law continues.
While Republicans have made reforming voting rules to disenfranchise voters a priority, fewer Democrats have used their majorities to make voting easier. While there are some exceptions there is still more to be done everywhere. If Democrats in a state do not know what changes to make, I and others are ready to assist them with new innovative ideas to make voting easier. But inaction should not be an option and lack of information should not be an excuse.
None of this excuses Congress from meeting its responsibility to enact comprehensive voting rights legislation. Only federal legislation can protect voting rights nationwide, in both red and blue states. And Democrats at the national level should not give up. But, while it is easy to focus on the actions of a handful of senators in Washington, D.C., now is the time to focus our attention on what state elected officials and state legislatures in Democratic controlled states can accomplish.