NEW ORLEANS – For the past two years, Democrats in battleground states have played defense against Republican efforts to limit access to voting and deepen doubts about the legitimacy of the nation’s elections.
Now it’s the Democrats, who retained all but one of the governorships they hold and won control of the state legislatures in Michigan and Minnesota, who are poised to go on the offensive in 2023. They are pushing a slew of proposals that include creating automatic voter registration systems , pre-registering teenagers to vote before they turn 18, returning the right to vote to felons released from prison, and criminalizing election misinformation.
Since 2020, Republicans, inspired by former President Donald Trump’s election lies, have tried to make it harder to vote for anyone who doesn’t cast an in-person ballot on Election Day. But in the midterm elections, voters across the country rejected the most prominent Republican candidates who embraced false claims about American elections and promised to bend the rules in their party’s favor.
Democrats who won re-election or will soon take office have interpreted their victories as a mandate to make voting easier and more accessible.
“I’ve told them to think big,” Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota said of his instructions to fellow Democrats on ballot issues now that his party controls both chambers of the state Legislature.
Republicans will retain unified control next year of state governments in Texas, Ohio, Florida and Georgia. In Texas and Ohio, along with other places, Republicans are weighing additional restrictions to vote when they meet in the new year.
Democratic governors in Arizona and Wisconsin will face Republican-controlled legislatures largely hostile to expanding voting access, while Josh Shapiro, the Democratic governor-elect of Pennsylvania, will likely end up presiding over a chamber with a GOP- majority and one with a narrow majority. Democratic majority.
And in Washington, DC, the Supreme Court is weighing a case that could give state legislatures vastly expanded power over election laws — a decision with huge implications for state lawmakers’ power to draw congressional maps and set rules for federal elections.
Democrats have widely interpreted that case — brought by Republicans in North Carolina — as dangerous to democracy because of the prospect of aggressive GOP gerrymandering and the potential for state lawmakers to determine the outcome of the election. But it would also allow Democrats to write themselves into permanent power in states where they control the levers of elections.
The Supreme Court’s deliberations come as many Democrats are pushing the party to be more aggressive in expanding voting access — especially after the Senate failed to advance a broad voting rights package this year.
Adam Pritzker, a cousin of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and co-founder of the States Project, a Democratic group that pumped more than $60 million into state legislative races this year, warned against what he described as his party’s reflexive complacency. “The Democrats never cease to amaze me,” he said. “They go from waving the white flag in states to then thinking we won and then wanting to take their foot off the gas pedal. It just seems a little dangerous to think that way.”
Walz was among more than a dozen Democratic governors and governors-elect who gathered in early December in New Orleans, where the topic of defending and expanding voting access was a frequent topic of conversation in the ballrooms and hallways of the Democratic Governors Association’s annual winter meeting.
Republicans have sought additional voting restrictions for decades. Those efforts increased after the 2020 election, when several Republican-led states passed new laws with measures that included requiring voters to show photo identification, removing control from local election boards and curtailing some early voting.
The effect of these voting laws is still unclear. In Georgia, which passed a major election law in 2021, voter turnout was high, but mail-in voting plummeted under the new requirements.
The most popular Democratic plan on voting access is to join the 20 states that have enacted or approved automatic voter registration, a system that adds anyone whose information is registered with a state agency — such as a department of motor vehicles or a social services agency — to the electoral rolls, unless they opt out. Oregon, which in 2016 became the first state to adopt the practice, had the highest percentage of voter turnout in the country last month, a distinction held in recent elections by Minnesota.
Steve Simon, a Democrat who won re-election as Minnesota secretary of state, said automatic voter registration and preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds before their 18th birthday would be at the top of the voting access agenda for his state’s Democratic lawmakers.
Simon lamented how Minnesota had been surpassed in turnout by both Oregon and Maine, but he said his proposed changes would help put his state back on top.
“We’ll probably be third, but we’re on the medal stand,” Simon said. “They are worthy successors and temporary holders of the traveling trophy.”
In Michigan, voters in the past two midterm elections have approved constitutional amendments that expanded early and absentee voting, created an independent redistricting commission and expanded the use of drop boxes.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at the recent governors’ convention that she was considering supporting automatic registration and making it easier for out-of-state students attending Michigan universities to register to vote. (Republicans in some states have tried to make it harder for out-of-state college students, who tend to lean Democratic, to vote, arguing they should cast ballots in their home states.)
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a fellow Democrat, said that while her office worked to implement the election changes approved by voters, she would like to see sweeping new rules and penalties for disseminating and amplifying misinformation that interferes with voting — things like flyers or mailings with incorrect dates for an election or misleading language on petitions collected for proposed vote changes.
“The biggest threats to our democracy right now continue to be the deliberate spread of misinformation and threats and harassment of election officials that come out of those efforts,” Benson said. “We owe it to voters on all sides to ensure that we seek accountability for anyone who would intentionally try to block someone from voting through misinformation.”
Benson said she believed the measures she sought would withstand any First Amendment challenges.
In Pennsylvania, Shapiro has rare powers to appoint the chief election official, unlike most other states where elections are held by other elected or appointed boards.
He promised a “pro-democracy” election and said he was optimistic Republicans would agree to change the state law that prohibits the processing of absentee ballots and early voting before Election Day. Trump’s allies used the law to sow chaos in the state after the 2020 election, falsely claiming that absentee ballots counted after Election Day were evidence of vote fraud.
Shapiro, whose defeated Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano, ran on a platform of major new voting restrictions, said he was willing to consider some GOP proposals and “meet in the middle” if it meant expanding voting access.
“I’m certainly willing to have an honest conversation about voter ID as long as it’s something that’s not used as a barrier to voting,” Shapiro said. “I’m not willing to negotiate with people who are engaged in conspiracy theories and spouting nonsense about 2020. I’m willing to talk to people who come to the table with an honest belief about how we can expand voting rights and participation.”
Democratic governors in states that are not national political battlegrounds expressed less motivation to make major changes to their voting laws. Wes Moore, governor-elect of Maryland, said he didn’t see much to change. Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas, which has a Republican-led legislature, said “most Kansans are pretty happy with the way it’s working now.”
And in Oregon, the first state in recent years to introduce a range of methods to expand access to voting, including universal voting by mail, Governor-elect Tina Kotek said she would aim to impose limits on campaign contributions from people and companies. Nike founder Phil Knight spent millions trying to defeat her.
In two other battleground states, Arizona and Wisconsin, there is likely to be far less room for Democratic governors to work with Republican lawmakers.
Wisconsin Republicans spent much of the past two years passing more than a dozen ballot proposals that ended up being vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who won re-election last month. Republican leaders have said they won’t reintroduce those bills only for Evers to veto them again in 2023.
“I think it’s done,” Evers said of the state’s striking battle over voting laws. “They might try to pass some laws to make it harder to vote. And they know I will veto them.”
And in Arizona, where Republican Kari Lake has yet to concede defeat in the governor’s race, Governor-elect Katie Hobbs described a relationship with Republican state Senate leaders so strained that she has had no communication with them and has no plans about that.
Hobbs said that while she was “hopeful that we can find some common ground” on voting issues, she was not optimistic.
“These people are claiming fraud when there is none, these people rioted at the Capitol, they are the ones who have broken the trust,” she said in New Orleans. “You cannot condone these people who have been misled by the people they have sustained as leaders. These so-called leaders must be held accountable.”
© 2022 The New York Times Company