Election Reforms Really Mattered in 2018

AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File

Patricia Wagoner looks over the ballot while voting, Tuesday, November 6, 2018, in Gates Mills, Ohio.

Donald Trump gets a lot of the credit for boosting nationwide turnout out in the 2018 midterms. So, too, do the energetic political campaigns run by so many challengers, and the unprecedented levels of mobilization conducted by a diverse array of grassroots organizations. But another major factor was the significant number of positive policy changes in how elections are run.  Driven in part by tenacious grassroots activists over the last fifteen years, many of those reforms provided new opportunities for people to register and vote.

A new report, “America Goes to the Polls 2018,” points the way toward voting reforms that should be high on the agenda for progressives seeking an expanded electorate and a democracy that truly works for all Americans. The report, based on the newest compilation of officially reported figures compiled by Professor Michael McDonald of the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida, ranks the states in terms of turnout, and measures 2018 against the last 40 years of midterm elections. 

Overall, 118 million people went to the polls nationwide during the 2018 midterms, an election turnout rate of 50.3 percent. While that figure is nothing to be complacent about, it represents the highest turnout since 1914 in a midterm election. The 2014 midterm election had a turnout rate of only 37 percent, so last year’s election was a 42 percent increase over the 83 million people who voted in 2014—making 2018 the largest increase in turnout from one midterm to another in American history.

Of the top ten states in turnout, seven have same-day registration (SDR). SDR is a policy that has worked flawlessly for 40 years and has enfranchised countless numbers of voters who otherwise would have been turned away from the polls. With New Mexico adopting SDR in its just-completed legislative session, at least 20 states and the District of Columbia will offer it in 2020.

Four states offer full “voting at home” (also known as vote by mail). Election officials send official ballots to all registered voters two to three weeks before the election, and voters can mail them in or drop them off in person at designated sites. Three of the states that use these methods are among the top ten turnout states.  If you add this to states with SDR, nine of the top ten turnout states offer one or both, including Colorado, which offers both and moved up to number two in the rankings. Utah, which fully utilized voting at home for the first time this year,also recently adopted same day registration. Its ranking in the report jumped from 44th in 2014 to 23rd in 2018, the largest advance of any state.

Automatic voter registration (AVR), the newest reform to come on the scene, has now been adopted by 17 states.  With automatic voter registration, people who apply for a driver’s license are automatically placed on the voting rolls, unless they choose to opt out. In 2018, five states reported their results in terms of registration. But, remarkably for a reform so new, those states added on average over four times as many new registrations in 2018 as did the 22 states without AVR or Same-Day Registration. Vermont, which has both, now has registered 92.5 percent of its eligible voting-age population.  

Interestingly, in a (somewhat) non-presidential election year, the report found that in comparing states with competitive Senate and gubernatorial races with states that did not have either of them, there was overall very little difference in participation rates between them, a pretty good indicator of the importance of vote-encouraging policies.

The report alsomakes the case that with the proven success and practicality of SDR, and with an effective cross-state matching system, advance registration cutoff deadlines are, in and of themselves, acts of voter suppression. ERIC, the Electronic Registration and Election Center, allows states to eliminate duplicate registrations between states and uses multiple screens to ensure that people are not erroneously taken off the rolls. There really is no reason or excuse for advance cutoff deadlines that still exist in 30 states. Not surprisingly, eight of the ten worst-ranked states have the earliest cutoffs, ranging from 25 to 31 days before an election.

In many ways, it isn’t necessary to tell progressives and democracy advocates that these voting and structural reforms are important. In another sign of the building momentum, states around the country are moving ahead with voting reforms this year. It is early in most legislative sessions, but some real successes have already taken place.

New York’s new reformist legislature passed a set of voting reforms already, including pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds and early voting. Lawmakers also took the constitutionally-required first steps for same day registration and expanded mail-in voting. State voting rights advocates are pushing for more—automatic voter registration and public financing of state elections are still very much in play. In its recently-completed short session, the New Mexico Legislature passed same day registration and upgraded the state’s automatic voter registration processes. These changes will be in effect for 2020. The Virginia legislature has passed bills enabling early voting. Lawmakers there have also mandated that election officials notify people if their voter registrations have been rejected.

According to the Brennan Center, the public policy and law institute affiliated with the New York University Law School, 589 voting-expansion bills have been submitted in state legislatures this year, compared to only 63 vote-restricting bills—a remarkable turnaround compared to the last ten years, when states were flooded with bills to make voting more difficult. And, as of mid-March, 34 bills expanding registration and voting opportunities had been passed through at least one house of the legislature in seventeen different states. 

Meanwhile, it is no accident that after a long time of being regarded as a second-tier issue, protecting and reforming our democracy is front and center in Congress for House Democrats through HR 1, which is an impressive and comprehensive compilation of election reforms that are substantively important—and politically vetted in states across the country.

“America Goes to the Polls 2018” provides solid evidence that policies which open up registration and voting, especially when combined with a motivated electorate and real on-the-ground organizing, can make an enormous difference in voting participation. It remains to be seen if the momentum for reform continues in 2020 and beyond, but this report should be required reading for anyone thinking about how to improve American democracy for the long haul.

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