Voting Rights & Access: Citizen Initiatives Made a Splash in 2018

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For months or years leading up to November’s elections, Americans across the country called, canvassed, and petitioned their way onto state ballots. These individuals and groups were taking advantage of state laws that permit citizens themselves to propose and decide on policy initiatives— a form of direct, rather than representative, democracy.

Most states have some variation of this process. In some states, citizens initiate policy proposals, while in others, state legislatures refer the proposals to the ballots. A handful of states have procedures so difficult that they are rarely undertaken. Nevertheless, voters in 37 states decided on 155 ballot measures on Election Day. Many of those measures embodied the nation’s most divisive subjects, like health care, abortion, environmental regulations, and most prevalently election and voting issues.

Voters in nine states considered initiatives that would impact voting requirements and access, and the results showed some revealing divergences. As shown on the map below, Nevada, Michigan and Maryland voted to implement same-day or automatic voter registration. These efforts are intended to ease the registration process and encourage voter turnout, and they reflect a popular opinion: two-thirds of Americans say that everything possible should be done to make the voting process easier for every citizen, and nearly six in ten Americans say that even a single eligible voter unable to cast a ballot would be a “major problem.”

Despite these national trends, stances on the issue break by ideology: over half of conservatives say citizens should have to prove they want to vote by registering early. It’s no surprise, then, that a starkly different set of voting access initiatives, ones intended to increase voting or registration requirements, also gained traction. In North Carolina and Arkansas, citizens approved amendments that would require voters to present photo identification when casting ballots. North Carolina’s amendment was particularly contentious. In 2013, the North Carolina State Legislature passed a statute requiring voters to present a photo ID, but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the statute, suggesting it was drafted with racially-discriminatory intent. But the Election Day referendum has emboldened state Republicans, who will have veto-proof control in the legislature until January. They will likely use this lame-duck session to put the ballot amendment into action, and they will almost certainly face legal pushback.

A few states south, however, ex-felons regained their voting rights. Floridians voted, 65% to 36%, to automatically restore the right to vote for people convicted of certain felonies after they’ve served their sentences. The initiative will impact a staggering number of people; approximately 1.5 million residents, or 10 percent of Florida’s adult population, are barred from voting because of a past felony conviction. The initiative came on the heels of a federal judge’s February announcement that Florida’s current process for reinstating felons’ voting rights was unconstitutional. That process required ex-felons to appeal to the governor for the restoration of their voting rights, which, according to the the federal judge, gave “elected, partisan officials extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people.” The amendment’s impact on future elections could be profound, especially in a state known for narrowly decided outcomes.

The most controversial elections-related initiatives dealt with redistricting, or the decennial redrawing of congressional districts. Redistricting is generally a contentious and highly partisan process, controlled in most states by legislatures and often used to protect incumbents or boost a party. The practice is known as gerrymandering, a term first coined in 1812 after a Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, approved a district said to be shaped like a salamander (dubbed a “Gerry-Mander” by a political cartoonist).

More recently, redistricting has received attention from federal courts in response to suits filed by Democratic Party-affiliated groups. After Republicans picked up 20 state legislatures in the 2010 elections and shaped the post-Census redistricting, many states faced accusations of illegal partisan gerrymandering. In January 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, agreeing with plaintiffs that the state’s districts were illegally gerrymandered, overturned the map. In August, a US district court ordered districts to be redrawn in North Carolina, too.

At the same time, more Americans have joined a public movement calling for a non-partisan  redistricting process, largely via the creation of independent commissions tasked with redrawing legislative boundaries. Several states have already established these commissions, and this year, Colorado, Michigan and Missouri followed suit. A similar amendment on the Utah ballot hasn’t officially been called yet, but it looks likely to pass. The formation of these commissions couldn’t be more timely; redistricting occurs after censuses, and the 2020 Census is just around the corner.

To learn more about this year’s state ballot initiatives or key takeaways from the midterms, listen to our November webinar, or check out our Presentation Center content.

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