Democrats, feeling new strength, plan to go on offense on voting rights
By Reid J. Epstein
For the past two years, Democrats in battleground states have played defense against Republican efforts to curtail voting access and amplify doubts about the legitimacy of the nation’s elections.
Now it is Democrats, who retained all but one of the governor’s offices they hold and won control of state legislatures in Michigan and Minnesota, who are ready to go on offense in 2023. They are putting forward a long list of proposals that include creating automatic voter registration systems, preregistering teenagers to vote before they turn 18, returning the franchise to felons released from prison and criminalizing election misinformation.
Since 2020, Republicans inspired by former President Donald Trump’s election lies sought to make voting more difficult for anyone not casting a ballot in person on Election Day. But in the midterm elections, voters nationwide rejected the most prominent Republican candidates who embraced false claims about American elections and promised to bend the rules to their party’s advantage.
Democrats who won reelection or will soon take office have interpreted their victories as a mandate to make voting easier and more accessible.
“I’ve asked them to think big,” Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota said of his directions to fellow Democrats on voting issues now that his party controls both chambers of the state’s Legislature.
Republicans will maintain unified control next year over state governments in Texas, Ohio, Florida and Georgia. In Texas and Ohio, along with other places, Republicans are weighing additional restrictions on voting when they convene in the new year.
Democratic governors in Arizona and Wisconsin will face Republican-run legislatures that are broadly hostile to expanding voting access, while Josh Shapiro, the Democratic governor-elect of Pennsylvania, is likely to eventually preside over one chamber with a GOP majority and one with a narrow Democratic majority.
And in Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court is weighing a case that could give state legislatures vastly expanded power over election laws — a decision with enormous implications for the power of state lawmakers 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 legislators to determine the outcome of elections. 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 deliberation comes as many Democrats are pushing the party to be more aggressive in expanding voting access — especially after the Senate this year failed to advance a broad voting rights package.
Adam Pritzker, a cousin of Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois 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. “Democrats never cease to amaze me,” he said. “They go from like waving the white flag in states to then thinking that we won, then wanting to take the foot off the gas pedal. It just seems a little bit 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 gathering.
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, stripping control from local election boards and curtailing some early voting.
The effect of these voting laws remains unclear. In Georgia, which passed a major election law in 2021, turnout was strong, but mail 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 on file with a government agency — such as a department of motor vehicles or a social services bureau — to the voter 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.
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’ gathering that she was considering backing automatic registration and making it easier for out-of-state students attending Michigan universities to register to vote. (Republicans in some states have sought to make it harder for out-of-state college students, who tend to lean Democratic, to vote, arguing that they should cast ballots in their home states.)
In Pennsylvania, Shapiro has rare powers to appoint the top election official, in contrast to most other states, where elections are run by other elected officials or appointed boards.
He pledged to pick someone “pro-democracy” and said he was optimistic that Republicans would agree to change the state’s law that forbids the processing of absentee ballots and early votes before Election Day. Trump’s allies used the law to sow chaos in the state after the 2020 election, falsely claiming that absentee ballots tallied after Election Day were evidence of vote-rigging.
Shapiro, whose defeated Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano, ran on a platform of vast 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 that is something that is not used as a hindrance to voting,” Shapiro said. “I’m not willing to negotiate with people who are engaged in conspiracy theories and spewing nonsense about 2020. I’m willing to talk to people who come to the table with honest beliefs on how we can expand voting rights and voting participation.”
In two other battlegrounds, Arizona and Wisconsin, there is likely to be far less space for Democratic governors to work with Republican legislators.
Wisconsin Republicans spent much of the past two years passing more than a dozen voting bills that wound up being vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who won reelection last month. Republican leaders have said they will not reintroduce those bills only for Evers to veto them again in 2023.
“I think it’s done,” Evers said of the state’s pitched fight over voting laws. “They may try to pass some laws to make it more difficult to vote. And they know I’ll veto those.”
And in Arizona, where Republican Kari Lake has yet to concede defeat in the governor’s race, Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs described a relationship with Republican state Senate leaders that is so strained, she has had no communication with them and does not plan to.
Hobbs said that while she was “hopeful we can find some common ground” on voting issues, she was not optimistic.
“These people are claiming fraud when there is none, these people mounted an insurrection on the Capitol, they’re the ones who have broken the trust,” she said in New Orleans. “You can’t coddle these people that have been misled by the people they have upheld as leaders. These so-called leaders need to be held accountable.”