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With newfound powers, statehouse Democrats race to expand voting rights

<i>Al Goldis/AP</i><br/>Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the crowd during inauguration ceremonies on January 1
Al Goldis/AP
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the crowd during inauguration ceremonies on January 1

By Fredreka Schouten, CNN

After strong electoral results in the midterm elections, Democrats in some key states are moving quickly this year on voting rights — pushing ambitious plans to expand access to the ballot ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

In the presidential swing state of Michigan — where Democrats have gained the governorship and both legislative chambers for the first time in roughly four decades — Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and a group of legislators recently announced a package of voting-related priorities. They range from criminalizing the harassment of election workers to carrying out a voter-approved expansion of early voting.

Newly empowered Democrats in Minnesota, meanwhile, are advancing a suite of election changes through the legislature that include instituting automatic voter registration and restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies.

And in Arizona — a battleground state where Democrats flipped key statewide offices — the new Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes recently announced plans to shift the focus of an “election integrity unit” established by her Republican predecessor from investigating voter fraud to “protecting voter access” and fighting voter suppression.

“No one thinks it’s going to be easy, but there’s a general feeling in the air that change is possible,” said Lilly Sasse, campaign director of We Choose Us — a 26-group coalition that’s backing the election package introduced by Democratic lawmakers this month in the Minnesota legislature.

Republicans control more state legislative seats across the country, but Democrats defied the political odds in 2022 by not losing any of their legislative majorities. The midterms also saw Democrats gain four new trifectas at the state level, winning the governorship and both legislative chambers in Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan.

‘Hard reset’ in Michigan

In Michigan, Democrats benefited politically in 2022 from a surge in liberal voter turnout to back a successful ballot measure that enshrined abortion rights in the state Constitution, along with new legislative maps drawn by an independent commission.

Democratic state Sen. Jeremy Moss, the newly minted chair of the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, said Michigan lawmakers now are engaged in a “very hard reset” after repeated attempts by the Republicans who previously controlled the state legislature to pass new voting restrictions and seek ways to circumvent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto pen.

Last year, Whitmer and two other top Democrats in the state — Benson, the top elections official; and Attorney General Dana Nessel — defeated a slate of Republican challengers who falsely claimed that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election. (President Joe Biden won the state by more 154,000 votes.)

“Now, we have proof on our side of the aisle that Michigan voters want to back away from these falsehoods and lies,” Moss said.

And last November, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment that eased voting rules in several ways. Among other things, it established nine days of early, in-person voting, mandated ballot drop boxes and required pre-paid postage to return absentee ballots. It also allowed voters to sign a statement affirming their identity if they don’t have photo identification.

Democratic priorities during the newly convened legislative session include passing legislation to implement parts of the new constitutional amendment. Other proposals seek to make it a crime to spread election misinformation or to harass and threaten election workers. Moss said he’d like to ban the practice of paying petition-gathers per signature, saying it provides an incentive for fraud.

A scandal over fraudulent signatures knocked several Republican candidates off the ballot in Michigan last year.

Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, said she will ask the legislature to tap into a projected $9.2 billion budget surplus to provide $100 million to help local jurisdictions to carry out elections.

She also is launching a bipartisan elections policy working group to review and suggest election proposals on a rolling basis. It is slated to hold its first meeting Wednesday.

“There’s a sense of urgency and a sense of opportunity,” Benson told CNN.

No room for error

Democrats in Michigan and Minnesota hold narrow majorities in their legislative chambers, leaving little room for any defections in their ranks as they scramble to enact their election priorities in the weeks ahead.

In Minnesota, Democratic legislators this month introduced an elections package that includes measures that would automatically register qualified Minnesotans to vote when they get a new driver’s license, give 16-year-olds the option of preregistering to vote and grant the franchise to people convicted of felonies as soon as they are released from prison.

Currently, ex-felons in Minnesota must complete all parts of their sentence, including any probation, parole or supervised release before they can register to vote.

But Democrats also are moving on a parallel track and advancing some of their priority bills as standalone measures. A separate bill restoring voting rights for ex-felons, for instance, has cleared an election committee and is slated to be considered by a House judiciary panel Thursday.

Its sponsor, state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, said he and his fellow Democrats don’t want to squander this opportunity. He’s spoken with lawmakers who served in the legislature a decade ago when Democrats last held a trifecta in state government. “There is really some regret that we didn’t get this done then,” he said.

Roughly 50,000 Minnesotans would have their voting rights restored under the proposal, Frazier said. “What we are telling them by not allowing them to participate in the electoral process is that even though they are back in the community ‘You’re still not whole, ‘” he said.

If successful, Minnesota would join 21 other states that automatically restore the right to vote to some or all ex-felons once they are released from prison, according to a tally by the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks election laws at the state level.

In three jurisdictions — Vermont, Maine and Washington, DC — convicted felons never lose the franchise, even while incarcerated. In Oregon, another state where Democrats control the governor’s seat and both legislative chambers, a bill introduced this month would grant voting rights to those still in prison.

In New York, another Democratic stronghold, the state Senate has swiftly passed an array of election bills this month that allow ballot drop boxes, portable early voting locations and other ways to ease voting.

Voting rights activists are watching the action in the states closely — particularly after Biden and his fellow Democrats failed last year to pass sweeping federal voting rights legislation when their party controlled both chambers of Congress.

Republicans now control the US House of Representatives, making the prospect of passage virtually impossible. GOP House members, who cast the elections bill as federal overreach, voted as a bloc against it last year. In the US Senate, Democrats failed to change the chamber’s filibuster rules to advance the measure on a simple majority vote.

“This is what we’ve been saying: ‘When you get that power, when you control that trifecta, you’ve got to use it,'” said Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, who has argued for federal intervention. “Hopefully, these states will do what Democrats at the federal level were not able to do.”

Still on ‘defense’

The moves among Democrats in Minnesota and Michigan follow a raft of voting restrictions enacted in other key states after the 2020 election sparked unfounded claims of a stolen election from Trump and his allies.

Last year alone, at least seven states enacted 10 restrictive voting laws, according to the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.

And lawmakers continue to propose new laws this year that critics say would make it harder to vote or serve to intimidate voters.

In Texas, where the Republican-controlled legislature has passed sweeping voting restrictions, new proposals this year focus on rooting out election crimes and would bestow additional enforcement powers to the state attorney general or new “election marshals.”

In Ohio, home to what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested US Senate races of the 2024 cycle, a law signed this month by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, requires photo ID to vote and sets tighter deadlines for requesting and returning mail ballots. Several liberal-leaning groups already have challenged the law in federal court.

Veteran progressive strategist David Donnelly said pro-voting groups will remain deeply engaged in “defensive work” this year, despite electoral gains in places like Michigan.

Donnelly is the lead strategist for two organizations, the Pro-Democracy Center and the Pro-Democracy Campaign, that spent $32 million ahead of last year’s midterms on organizing efforts to promote ballot access.

Roughly $4 million of that went to groups that were active in Michigan and Minnesota during the midterms — including a $250,000 grant to Promote the Vote, the organization that backed the successful Michigan constitutional amendment.

“It’s good to shift from being on defense everywhere to being on offense in some places,” Donnelly said, “but it doesn’t mean that the defensive fights aren’t as critical as they were last year.”

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