For decades, Republicans have worked tirelessly to chip away at the rights of voters across America in order to cement their power and undermine traditionally Democratic demographics. In North Carolina, one the inaugural actions the GOP took upon gaining power in 2012 was ending same-day registration as part of a package of laws eventually struck down in court because they seemed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Restrictions on voting rights helped Donald Trump win in 2016 and the GOP has continued to push them. In Kentucky, after Republicans took control of the entire government in 2017 they quickly commenced with gutting unions (the governor had previously rolled back an executive order to restore the voting rights of former felons). In New Hampshire, following a close loss in a US Senate race last year, Republicans swiftly tried to implement what amounts to a poll tax on young voters (the bill has passed the legislature but Governor Chris Sununu may veto it).
Expanded voting rights are essential to building trust in democracy, holding politicians accountable, and correcting the racist exclusion that has so long plagued American democracy. But Democrats have another reason to fight for voter rights—it is the single most popular issue among their active base.
Over the last year, we have conducted a series of surveys in an effort to understand the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs behind the movement-building we have seen among progressives since Trump’s inauguration. The goal initially was to try to quantify just how influential progressives behind this increased engagement are feeling today, and what they see as their path forward.
The latest survey was conducted among 435 respondents identified as “political influencers,” our term for hyperactive partisans who exhibit a high level of activism. These people—most of them self-identified Democrats, all of them progressives—are involved in a number of political activities, from more traditional approaches to influencing (i.e., voting or signing a petition) to more committed activities (i.e., participating in a local community group or taking part in a demonstration). Political influencers are active and outgoing, and pride themselves on being well-informed and up to date; they like talking about politics and current affairs with friends, and doesn’t shy away from expressing opinions.
Gleaning insight into the attitudes and beliefs of political influencers is particularly important because they have an inordinate amount of influence over whether or not movement-building (or, for that matter, any grassroots political activity) is ultimately successful. Research has shown that the impact of an influencer can be significant, and includes an ability to change behaviors or opinions in others.
In our survey, we asked the political influencers we surveyed which three of nearly a dozen issues they would choose as their top priorities. We included two voting reforms: automatic voter registration (in which individuals are registered to vote when interacting with government agencies like the DMV) and restoring the portion of the Voting Rights Act recently struck down by the Supreme Court (by creating a new pre-clearance formula). Single-payer health care (44 percent), automatic voter registration (41 percent), and restoring the Voting Rights Act (36 percent) were the top priorities. In other words, two of the three top priorities among political influencers were related to restoring and strengthening voting rights.
Even more notable is the intensity of support for voting rights issues: 91 percent of the 435 Democratic influencers “strongly support” restoring the Voting Rights Act and 90 percent “strongly support” automatic voter registration. As the chart below shows, the strongest intensity among all issues assessed. (Single-payer health care is a rather unique issue in that it has relatively low “strong support” among the issues assessed but a strong intensity gap, with supporters far more likely to cite it as a top priority.)
In many cases, the Democratic Party seems to already be taking notice and moving in the right direction. Upon taking control of the state Senate in Washington when Manka Dhingra won a November special election, Democrats unveiled a wide-ranging voting rights agenda that is on its way to being signed by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. The suite of legislation includes pre-registration for young folks getting driver’s licenses, automatic voter registration (AVR), same-day registration, and a provision allowing cities to end to at-large elections (which can harm representation for people of color). These reforms will transform Washington’s democracy; research suggests that automatic voter registration in Oregon increased the diversity of the electorate and bolstered turnout. Other research suggests that same-day registration and pre-registration can both increase turnout by 3 percent or more. Even in purple states, there are possibilities for big reform through the ballot process. In Michigan, reformers are collecting signatures to put AVR and same-day registration on the ballot. Research by data science firm Civis Analytics suggests that these efforts have wide popular support.
New Jersey was close to implementing a comprehensive voting rights bill called the Democracy Act in 2015, but it was vetoed by Chris Christie. The bill would have included AVR, same-day registration, early voting, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds when they apply for a driver’s license, and increased accessibility for folks who don’t speak English. Now that Democrats have expanded their lead in the legislature and won the governor’s mansion following the 2017 election, they are pressing forward with a more aggressive and progressive agenda. Democrats are even putting forward a more over-the-horizon proposal which would allow incarcerated individuals to vote from prison, currently only the law in Maine and Vermont.
We love these initiatives, but our research suggests that the Resistance is ready to go further. Progressives should begin working to expand the number of places where people can automatically register, from public assistance to prisons. In Rhode Island, Democrats have taken key steps toward expanding AVR by including a provision in the law to analyze what other source agencies could register voters. This matters a lot. According to data from the Census, in 2016 40 percent of the individuals who registered at public assistance agencies were women of color (and 69 percent were women), compared with 15 percent of those who registered at the Department of Motor Vehicles. That shows us that automatic voting registration that’s limited to the DMV will leave a lot of folks behind, and those people will disproportionately be low-income women of color. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea of Rhode Island told us that including unemployment offices and social services as source agencies are essential "to ensuring the right to vote regardless of social and economic backgrounds" and noted that focus on the DMV can harm both the old and young.
Another path forward is to create easier access for folks to get to their polling place. In Colorado, Representative Mike Weissman has introduced legislation that would give workers time off for any day of voting (not merely election day, as allowed for in current law). “The scheduling of work has become a lot more unpredictable for many people,” he said.
Not all blue states have been leaders on voting rights. In New York, a group of “independent” Democrats have for years been in an alliance with the GOP and have killed attempts to adopt same-day registration, AVR, no-fault absentee voting, and even early voting. (Left-wing Democrats are attempting to unseat these politicians.) In Delaware, a state where Democrats are fully in control of the legislature and governorship, some formerly incarcerated people are still disenfranchised for life. Delaware doesn’t have AVR or early voting either. In New Mexico, right-wing Democrat Debbie Rodella has worked with Republicans to block AVR, though she now faces a primary challenge.
Democrats shouldn’t be worried about a potential backlash that might come with these policies. They should seize this moment and the strength of the Resistance movement to usher in reforms that revitalize and strengthen voting rights across the country. Voting is an American value, and one that faces a frontal assault from the most reactionary forces in our country. Making it easier to register and vote is extremely popular: In Alaska, a ballot initiative to automatically register individuals using the Alaska Permanent Fund passed with 65 percent of the vote in 2016, while Hillary Clinton pulled in just 37 percent. Data provided to us from Civis Analytics suggests that automatic voter registration has an average support (excluding undecideds) of 59 percent in states that have a ballot initiative process (enough to pass in 20 of 22 ballot initiative states). In Florida, a recent survey pegged support for rights restoration for former felons at 71 percent.
The Republican Party has seen the writing on the wall. Its ability to implement a regressive political agenda is significantly curtailed when voters have fair and free access to voting. In response, it has spent millions in a decades-long attempt to make the US less democratic, rather than their policies more popular. It’s up to progressives to take the mantle of voting rights, and aggressively fight for an expansive vision of voting.
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Note: The authors conducted a national survey of 435 political influencers. The survey was conducted from November 29 through December 5, 2017. For this survey, a Political Influencer is someone who has engaged in five or more of the following activities: presented his or her views to an elected leader (i.e., through letters, emails or calls); written a letter to an editor; urged someone outside his or her family to vote; used social media to discuss politics; urged someone outside his or her family to take part in a demonstration; urged someone to get in touch with an elected official; made a speech before an organized group; served as officer of an organization or club; run for public office; taken an active part in a political campaign; signed a petition; voted in an election; donated to a campaign or issue advocacy organization; participated in a community group that advocated for a specific issue; or taken part in a demonstration or protest.
These insights represent a diversity of voices across geographies, ages and professions. Notably, political influencers are not limited to traditional political circles and more often than not come from seemingly unrelated industries. Political influencers on the left are disproportionately white, female and college-educated.
Sean McElwee is a researcher and writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.
Matt McDermott is a director at Whitman Insight Strategies. He can be found on Twitter.