How States Can Expand Voting Access

The 2018 blue wave showed the power of the progressive movement—we took back the House, flipped state legislative chambers across the country, and elected an unprecedented number of women of color to office. Republicans saw this power too, and responded with election fraud, voter suppression and middle-of-the-night power grabs in the states they lost.

Suppressing—or entirely preventing—voting access has been a central tactic in the oppression of marginalized communities, particularly Native communities and communities of color, since our country’s founding. The federal government failed to take serious action to prevent racial and ethnic discrimination in voting until the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Supreme Court gutted the VRA’s federal oversight powers in 2013, allowing states with a history of targeted, racist voter suppression to write discrimination back into their voting laws; as a result, resurgent voter suppression measures such as voter ID laws continue to disproportionately—and intentionally—impact voting access for communities of color. You can learn more about voter ID laws in our explainer here.

Progressive activists are fighting back with measures to make it easier to vote. Democratic lawmakers in the House introduced H.R. 1, a large voting rights, ethics, and campaign finance reform package, but the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to consider it. We need to put pressure on our federal representatives to pass these reforms, which would improve voting access for the entire country—but in the meantime, we also must take this fight to the state level. This guide focuses on progressive policies that will help you go on the offense and expand voting rights in your state.

To advocate for voting rights in your state, you should use this document to:

  1. Begin to learn what voting access is like in your state

  2. Learn about progressive policies that states can pass to improve voting rights and access

  3. Work with local voting rights advocates to push for reform in your state

What are your state’s voting laws?

Check out these resources from our partners to learn more about voting rights and access in your state:

If you live in a state that’s hostile to voting rights, you may need to spend time protecting democracy against attacks and working to correct bad policies like the voter ID laws mentioned in the introduction.

If that’s the case in your state, check out Voting Rights & Voter Suppression, our guide to navigating state and local laws & barriers to the ballot. It covers 4 simple steps you can take today to change how elections are run in your community and protect the right to vote for every eligible American.

What can states do to improve voting rights?

There are a variety of policies that progressive activists can pursue to strengthen voting rights at the state level. Some of these are already available in many states, such as early voting, and others are still quite rare. Check out your state’s voter access scorecard on the Franchise Project website to see which policies are already in place in your state.

Automatic voter registration

Automatic voter registration (AVR) changes voter registration from an opt-in system (people must affirmatively request to be registered to vote) to an opt-out system, in which eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote when they interact with a government agency unless they choose not to be. Once a person is registered to vote, the government agency electronically sends this voter information to election officials, bypassing paper forms. Electronic transfer helps to clean up voter registration rolls, which results in a lower rate of errors and less confusion when voters go to the polls. Because AVR creates a more accurate and up-to-date voter information system, it also decreases the likelihood of improper voter purges.

Oregon and Vermont implemented AVR in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and saw large jumps in voter registration as a result. Learn more about AVR and your state’s progress toward this system on our partner the Brennan Center for Justice’s website. Check out Common Cause’s analysis of the benefits of Colorado’s voting system.

Online voter registration

Online voter registration is an important way to make voting more accessible and voter rolls more accurate. This policy creates a secure online portal where people can register to vote, as well as check and update their registration records.

More information about online voter registration and your state’s current policy is available on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Same day voter registration

In most states, people must register to vote in advance of Election Day (whether it’s for a primary or the general election)—sometimes a month or more before they have to vote. Allowing voters to register and vote on the same day requires less planning on the voter’s part and, therefore, results in more people voting; states that implement same day voter registration typically see increases in voter turnout.

Learn more about this policy, and if your state allows it, on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting

Not everyone can find the time to vote on Election Day; voters must manage work, family, illness and other responsibilities or unexpected roadblocks to getting to the polls. There are two ways that states can alleviate this problem: allowing votes to cast in-person votes at polling sites or election offices before Election Day (early voting) or allowing voters to cast early votes by mail for any reason (no-excuse absentee voting).

Find out what your state’s policies are, and more information on both early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Voting rights restoration

The right to vote should never be revoked, but most states strip or suspend voting rights from people with criminal convictions. All states, with the exceptions of Maine and Vermont, disallow prisoners from voting. And the rules governing voting rights after incarceration vary dramatically from state to state. This system is undemocratic.

Many states bar people with felony convictions from voting. In most states with criminal disenfranchisement laws, people are eligible to vote again after completing their prison term, parole, or probation. In Iowa and Kentucky, however, people with criminal convictions in their past are banned from voting for life. No matter the degree of severity, all criminal disenfranchisement laws are undemocratic and disproportionately harm people of color due to racial inequities in the criminal justice system.

If your state currently disenfranchises prisoners or people with felony convictions, you can work on restoring their voting rights. The Brennan Center for Justice has a state-by-state map of criminal disenfranchisement laws on their website, as well as more information on state efforts to repeal these provisions. Second Chances Florida, an Indivisible partner, ran an extremely successful ballot campaign to restore voting rights to former felons in 2018 - their website is a great place to start brainstorming.

Prevent voter purges

To comply with federal law, every state must maintain computerized, up-to-date voter registration rolls. This can sometimes mean removing voters who are no longer eligible to vote in an area—if they have moved, for instance. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) sets federal standards for removing, or purging, voters from voter rolls, and gives citizens and civic organizations the power to sue election officials for improper purging.

Sometimes those officials make mistakes, and better electronic records and automatic voter registration can reduce the frequency of those errors. Not all of these incorrect removals are accidents, however. In recent years, particularly after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, some states have begun to abuse this removal power to disenfranchise eligible voters. Some states even remove voters because they haven’t voted recently.

The NVRA provides some protection against this blatant voter suppression. States can—and must—go further to protect voters from incorrect or suppressive purging. For instance, states should provide notice to voters before removing their names from the voter list; offer convenient opportunities for voters to correct or update their information on and before Election Day; and adopt automatic voter registration to keep their voter rolls accurate and up-to-date. For more information on voter purges and the NVRA, visit the Brennan Center for Justice’s website.

Election security

Election security has been all over the news following widespread Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and the associated hacking of political organizations and state voter rolls. Protecting the integrity of voter information and electoral results has never been more critical.

There are a variety of ways that our states can make election systems more secure. More information on election security can be found in this Center for American Progress report, including proposed solutions and how your state was faring before the 2018 midterms. A more in-depth list of state election security policies can be found on the National Conference of State Legislators website. Some security measures include:

  • Testing electoral systems and properly training staff before elections,

  • Securing ballots and voting equipment to ensure its safety,

  • Halting the use of electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper record,

  • Auditing election results to ensure accurate vote counts, and

  • Securing voter registration data to prevent hacking or tampering, including investing in cybersecurity and IT experts.

How can you advocate for voting rights in your state?

  1. Read Indivisible States. Our new Indivisible States Guide outlines how to be an effective advocate in your home state.

  2. Connect with partner organizations. At all levels of advocacy (federal, state, and local), it is critical that you work in collaboration with value-aligned partner organizations to be a respectful part of the movement and maximize your collective power. Here are a few partners that you may be interested in connecting with to advocate for voting reform in your state:

    1. Access Democracy

    2. American Civil Liberties Union

    3. Brennan Center for Justice

    4. Common Cause

    5. Fair Elections Legal Network

    6. League of Women Voters

    7. Rock the Vote

    8. Spread the Vote

Check out our other resources to learn more about how to build local partnerships and how to ensure that those partnerships are inclusive.

Important considerations for voting rights advocates

Educate yourself about racist past and present of voter suppression, as discussed in the introduction to this guide. As voting access expands, more people will participate in elections—which is great! But this also means that more people may accidentally register to vote or vote erroneously. Communities of color and immigrant communities, especially undocumented immigrants, are far more likely to be prosecuted for these accidents. When choosing policies to advocate for, work with racial and immigrant justice advocates to ensure that these policies will not increase their communities’ vulnerability to prosecution.