Some Democratic-led states seek to bolster voter protections
WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers in several Democratic-controlled states are advocating sweeping voter protections this year, reacting to what they view as a broad undermining of voting rights by the Supreme Court and Republican-led states as well as a failed effort in Congress to bolster access to the polls.
Legislators in Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico have introduced voting rights measures, while Michigan’s secretary of state is preparing a plan.
Among other things, the proposals would require state approval for local governments to change redistricting or voting procedures, ban voter suppression and intimidation, mandate that ballots are printed in more languages, increase protections for voters with disabilities, ensure the right to vote for those with previous felony convictions and instruct judges to prioritize voter access when hearing election-related challenges.
The measures are taking a much wider approach than legislation targeting a single aspect of voting or elections law. They seek to implement on a statewide basis many of the protections under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that many Democrats and voting rights groups say is being stripped of its most important elements.
If the legislation is enacted, the states would join California, New York, Oregon, Washington and Virginia in having comprehensive voting rights laws.
“It’s up to states now to ensure that the right to vote is protected,” said Janai Nelson, president of the the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Maryland's proposal includes a requirement for local voting changes to receive preapproval, mirroring core provisions of the federal law that was struck down by the Supreme Court a decade ago.
Maryland was not among the states, mostly in the South, that was covered under the provision known as preclearance before the court ended it. But lawmakers there saw it as important because of persistent concerns over how districts for local governing bodies have been drawn, said Morgan Drayton, policy and engagement manager at Common Cause Maryland.
“A lot of our maps here are drawn behind closed doors, and there’s not a lot of input from the public that’s able to be given," she said. "So this would do a lot to make these processes more transparent.”
In Maryland's Baltimore County, a lawsuit claimed the county council's map packed most Black voters into a single district. The state legislation would require jurisdictions in Maryland with a history of voter discrimination to have redistricting and election changes cleared by the state attorney general.
Democratic state Del. Stephanie Smith, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said that despite Maryland's racial diversity and history of diversity in its political leadership, "access to the ballot and equitable representation is uneven.”
“This bill strengthens our commitment to voting access and protections at a time of great stress on our democratic institutions,” she said.
Proposals in Michigan and New Mexico address harassment against election workers and voters, especially those in minority communities. One of several bills in New Mexico would protect election officials, from the secretary of state to county and municipal elections clerks, from intimidation. That would be defined as inducing or attempting to induce fear, and a violation would be punishable as a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said she will seek similar protections for voters, including prohibiting firearms within a certain distance of polling places.
“We need an explicit ban on voter suppression and intimidation,” she said.
Connecticut’s legislation would expand language assistance for voters who speak, read or understand languages other than English. Language assistance is covered under the federal law, but only specifies protections for Spanish-speakers and for Asian, Native American and Alaska Native language minorities.
Ballots offered in Arabic, Haitian Creole and other languages also are needed, said Steven Lance, policy counsel at the national NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
A language would be covered if the group speaking it is more than 2% of the citizens of voting age in a particular municipality or the group includes more than 4,000 citizens of voting age, under Connecticut's legislative proposal.
Residents also would have the right to ask the secretary of state to review whether a certain language should be covered, Lance said.
In New Jersey, advocacy organizations are pushing to expand voting rights legislation to include more groups that would be specifically protected from discrimination, including the state's sizable Arab American population.
“A reality is the federal VRA was originally crafted in 1965, and while there have been other bills in the decade since, the VRA doesn’t reflect the diversity of the population of New Jersey in 2023,” said Henal Patel, law & policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Some state voting rights bills also seek to create databases for information that has not always been readily available, such as polling place locations, voting rules and redistricting maps. The bills also would specify that state judges interpret voting laws in a way that ensures people maintain their right to vote.
Democrats in Minnesota are pushing numerous voting changes, including restoring voting rights to felons as soon as they are released from prison, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister so they are ready to vote as soon as they turn 18 and automatically registering people to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses.
Passing state voting rights legislation is only half the battle, said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Virginia Democrat who introduced a state voting rights act that passed in 2021 when Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office.
McClellan noted that ensuring voting rights historically was a bipartisan issue, but said Republicans are now focused on “fighting phantom voter fraud” — making this year's Virginia legislative elections all the more important.
“The entire General Assembly is up for election this year, and I think that’s going to be a big theme in the election — that if we want to protect our progress on voting rights, we’re going to need to make sure that Democrats keep the Senate and regain the majority in the House," McClellan said.
McClellan won a special election this past week to fill an open seat in the U.S. House, where she will make history as the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.
Associated Press coverage of race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
By Ayanna Alexander, The Associated Press