Thursday, February 17, 2022

Electionline Weekly February-17-2022

Legislative Updates

Federal Funding: Thirty-three Democratic senators urged President Biden to include $5 billion for grants to state and local governments to improve election security in his budget proposal for next year. “Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and we know that you share our commitment to ensuring our elections are well funded so that all Americans can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” wrote the senators led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MNL who chairs the Senate rules and administration committee, which has oversight over federal elections. “We must continue to help both state and local election officials modernize their voting equipment, improve the administration of elections, and strengthen cybersecurity for election systems,” the letter said in urging Biden to include the funding in his upcoming fiscal year 2023 budget proposal. The vagaries of Senate rules mean any action this year would have to be bipartisan, and Republicans appear to be highly skeptical of any new election spending. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who helped engineer a $380 million federal investment in elections in 2018, said there was simply too much federal money left unspent by the states to consider additional rounds of funding. According to the federal Election Assistance Commission, roughly $435 million in election security funding remains unused in state accounts. That funding, however, cannot generally be used to cover increased operating costs; in most cases, states are holding it in reserve for planned voting machine upgrades. The $400 million in 2020 covid emergency aid, meanwhile, is largely spent and cannot be used for this year’s election in any case. “I’m just not looking to be able to send the states more money for election stuff when they already have it,” Lankford said. Congress could pass a new omnibus appropriations bill as soon as next month, spending more than $1 trillion to keep government agencies funded through September. But that deal is unlikely to include significant money to help beleaguered state and local election officials, lawmakers said this month.

Arizona: The Arizona Republic has a great primer about the 100-plus elections-related bills that have been introduced in the Legislature. It’s a subscriber-only article, but well worth the read if you have a subscription and honestly, if you follow elections closely, it may be time to subscribe to this particular publication. According to the paper, about 140 bills of nearly 1,700 bills submitted at the Legislature this year deal with some aspect of elections. Some of the bills by Republican and Democratic legislators make only technical changes to voting or the election system. About two dozen are progressive ideas supported by Democrats that don’t stand a chance in the GOP-dominated Legislature. The remaining proposals address issues of security in elections and who is allowed to vote. Many have raised concerns about voter suppression and practical governance of elections. Eighteen lawmakers are listed as prime sponsors of the 100-plus bills, but just five are responsible for more than half. Legislative rules require a committee hearing on each bill by Feb. 18 — House bills in House committees, Senate bills in Senate committees. Bills that fail that first step likely won’t progress for the year. If the bills pass the full House and Senate, the next important date for them is March 25. That’s when bills must again be heard in committee, but House bills must be heard in Senate committees and vice-versa.

The Senate Government Committee has approved Senate Bill 1573 which would overhaul the way counties conduct post-election hand count audits of ballots. After every election, counties must conduct a hand count of ballots from 2% of its precincts and 1% of the early ballots cast to ensure they match up with the tallies from the machines used to tabulate ballots. Counties can base their hand counts on voting centers instead of precincts if that’s how they conduct their elections. The audits are conducted by members of county political party organizations. The bill would make other significant changes to the post-election audits. Hand counts would take on a greater significance because counties would be barred from conducting their official election canvasses until the audits were completed. Counties would have to count at least 5% of precincts’ ballots instead of 2%. They currently have the option of counting more than 2% of precincts, but aren’t required to do so.

California: AB2037:. Existing law prohibits an establishment where the primary purpose is the sale and dispensation of alcoholic beverages from being used as a polling place. This bill would delete that prohibition. The following language would remain: A polling place may not be connected by a door, window, or other opening with any place where any alcoholic beverage is sold or dispensed while the polls are open.

Colorado: A bill that would prohibit people from open-carrying firearms within a close proximity of polling places passed its first committee test this week. House Bill 22-1086, otherwise known as the Vote Without Fear Act, would ban open carry of firearms within 100 feet of polling places, drop-off ballot boxes and vote counting centers. The bill does offer some exceptions for police officers acting within the scope of their authority, as well as private property owners who live within 100 feet of these locations. The bill passed its first committee hearing on Monday, with votes split along party lines. It will continue through the legislative process. If passed, it would go into effect immediately. Anyone open carrying a firearm could face a $1,000 fine and up to 364 days in jail.

Connecticut: Democratic legislative leaders may expedite a bill in the next several weeks to allow expanded absentee ballot voting in this year’s elections, mirroring temporary policies adopted during the past two years as a result of the COVID pandemic. “Voting is the fundamental right underlying our entire democracy,” majority Democrats said in a joint statement Wednesday. “While other states are restricting voting rights, we will take action to ensure that everyone that was able to vote before COVID will continue to be able to vote this year as COVID persists.” Connecticut’s constitution does not allow early voting and restricts absentee ballot voting to a handful of specific excuses, like active duty military service, religious beliefs, or sickness. The details of the proposal were not yet finalized this week, however House Speaker Matt Ritter said it may resemble a bill passed last year by the House but not adopted by the Senate. The legislation would have expanded the statutory definition of sickness so voters could more easily qualify for an absentee ballot.

Georgia: A bill up for consideration in the Legislature would treat paper ballots as public records. Initially a bipartisan effort, the idea is now being met with resistance. Opponents fear the legislation would enable endless “audits” driven by losing candidates who will never accept defeat, turning any ambiguity or mistake into the next stolen election claim. The bill’s backers say it would allow the public to verify elections, identify errors, detect counting mistakes and hold election officials accountable. Under the legislation, original paper ballots generated by voting touchscreens could be inspected by the public, but to avoid tampering, they could only be handled by election workers, who could hold or display them. Individuals or organizations who request ballot inspections would be responsible for their costs, which could reach tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire additional election staff for a countywide review. An examination of a single precinct or a specific batch of ballots would be less expensive. Local election officials opposing the measure say ballot inspections would burden election workers and do more harm than good. Under current state law, original ballots can only be unsealed by a court order.

Idaho: The House State Affairs Committee has approved a bill prohibiting “ballot harvesting” and another tightening the timeline for unaffiliated voters to joint a political party before an election. The committee sent both bills to the full House with “do pass” recommendations on party-line votes, after hearing opponents testify that both amounted to voter suppression. The first bill from Rep. Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star, would make it a crime to take mail-in ballots to the post office for anyone who is not a person’s household member. The second bill from Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, a Republican from Hayden, would require unaffiliated voters to join a political party before the candidate filing period closes if they want to vote in a closed primary election. This year, that would mean Idaho’s roughly 310,000 unaffiliated voters would have to affiliate by March 11 if they want to vote in the closed May 17 primary. Current state law allows unaffiliated voters to make that decision at the polling place on Election Day.

Indiana: The Senate’s elections committee turned aside a proposal that aimed to tighten the state law on the increasingly popular practice of voting by mail. The committee voted unanimously to strip the provisions from a bill that was approved last month along party lines by the Republican-dominated House. The proposal would have required voters who requested mail-in ballots to swear under possible penalty of perjury that they wouldn’t be able to vote in person at any time during the 28 days before Election Day. Sen. Greg Walker, of R-Columbus, said he believed the proposed restrictions would cause “valid confusion” among some people who would want to vote by mail. “I don’t see any evidence that it provides us any more security or accountability in the election process,” Walker said. The bill would now leave unchanged Indiana’s current mail-in voting limits allowing people to vote by mail if they fall into one of several categories, including being 65 or older, confined to their homes, scheduled to work throughout the 12 hours Election Day polling sites are open or being absent from their home counties on Election Day.

Iowa: Election officials would have additional time to mail absentee ballots to voters under a bill that advanced this week in the Iowa House of Representatives. Before last year’s election law changes, county auditors could start mailing absentee ballots 29 days before Election Day. Under current law, they can start mailing absentee ballots 20 days before Election Day. Rep. Dennis Bush (R-Cleghorn), sponsored a bill that would allow county election officials to start mailing ballots three business days before that. Clayton County Auditor Jennifer Garms is president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, which supports the change. She said there are some security concerns when election officials are trying to mail ballots and handle in-person early voting at the same time in a shortened timeframe. “We do not have a lot of office space,” Garms said. “So we usually end up having to move our ballots to a different office or put them in cages and move them out of the building entirely. We don’t want to have those ballots leave our offices, period.”

Iowa would see new absentee ballot voter identification requirements, statewide recount procedures and restrictions on private money funding elections under a proposal zooming through the Iowa House and Senate. House Study Bill 719 comes just one year after Republicans passed a wide-ranging election reform bill that shortened absentee voting windows, restricted ballot drop-boxes and introduced a new penalty for auditor misconduct. Subcommittees in the House and Senate approved the bill Wednesday, and the House State Government Committee passed it. Sen. Roby Smith, leader of the bill in the Senate, said he expects the bill to move through the Senate State Government Committee on Thursday. Under the bill, Iowa voters would need to write their driver’s license number or voter PIN on the outside of an absentee ballot’s affidavit envelope. The ballot would be considered a defect if the ID number on the outside of the envelope did not match the number on the absentee ballot. State and county commissioners of elections would be barred from accepting or using any private money to conduct an election under the Senate proposal. Instead, they would rely wholly on public funds, appropriated from the state or federal government. The bill sets out a new statewide standard for recounts, including allowing larger recount boards for larger counties and permitting a candidate to request whether the count is done by a machine or by hand.

Kansas: A bill under consideration in the House would require hand counting of 10% of county precincts whenever a federal, statewide or legislative race was decided by a margin of 1% or less of votes on election night. The proposed reform would be applied in even-numbered election years on top of a 2018 requirement auditing occur in 1% of precincts in each county in randomly selected races for county, state and federal offices. In addition, House Bill 2570 would require new process-and-procedure audits of four randomly selected counties in odd-numbered years following a federal election. The secretary of state’s office and election reform organizations are backing the legislation. Clay Barker, deputy assistant secretary of state, said process audits would test voting machine accuracy, review the list of registered voters and in-person early voters, examine reasons for rejecting provisional ballots and look at signature verification materials. He said Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s office worked with the Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials Association to make certain reforms in the bill were attainable.

House Bill 2585, would require all advance voting ballots be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Kentucky: Sen. Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington), has filed legislation to expand and ease voter access for Kentuckians on Election Day. Senate Bill (SB) 159 seeks to extend Election Day polling hours to 7:00 P.M. to give eligible voters more time at the polls to cast their ballot. SB 159 allows for automatic voter registration at the department of motor vehicles when applying for a driver’s license unless declined by the applicant. It would also permit those who are not yet registered the ability to register and vote on Election Day. Lastly, SB 159 expands mail-in voting by allowing “convenience to voter” as a reason to vote absentee. Additionally, it adds in-person absentee voting beginning 12 working days prior to the election. SB 159 will be considered if the General Assembly decides to hear the bill during the 2022 Regular Session.

Minnesota: Sponsored by Rep. Liz Boldon (DFL-Rochester), HF3024, as amended, would create an option for voters to join an absentee voter registration list that would automatically provide an absentee ballot prior to each election and it would expand early voting. It has no Senate companion. Currently, the approximately 26,000 Minnesotans who have signed up for the permanent absentee ballot list are sent an application before each election. Upon its return, a ballot is then mailed. Per the bill, absentee ballots must be mailed: at least 46 days before each regularly scheduled primary or general election for federal, state, county, city, or school board office; at least 46 days before each special primary or special election to fill a federal, state, county, city, or school board vacancy; and at least 30 days before a town general election held in March. Additionally, the bill would expand from seven to 30 days when early voting would be permitted prior to Election Day.

Mississippi: Mississippi House Republicans seemed poised to approve a bill last week that would purge voter rolls and give the secretary of state the power to audit election results without public oversight. House Bill 1510 had come out of the elections committee where Rep. Dan Eubanks, R-Walls, a far-right members of the legislature, is the vice chair. House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, had saved the bill for deadline day, a time when controversial legislation is often introduced. Rep. Brent Powell, R-Brandon, offered a strike-all amendment stripping the bill of almost all its controversial language. Minutes later, House Minority Leader Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, offered his own amendment to make it harder for election officials to remove people from voter rolls. Powell supported the amendment without argument. After virtually no debate, the House, a Republican supermajority, voted with the Democrats to approve a largely watered-down version of the original bill.

Both chambers of the state Legislature have passed bills aimed at ensuring noncitizens can’t register to vote in Mississippi, even though state law already prevents them from doing so. Both House Bill 1510 and Senate Bill 2606 would allow Mississippi’s election management system to cross-reference voter registration information with state driver’s license system at the Mississippi Department of Public Safety to see if a noncitizen is registering to vote. According to the legislation, if a person is flagged by the state system as potentially being a noncitizen, that person’s name will be checked with the federal immigration database. If both the federal and state database flag the person who registered to vote as a noncitizen, county clerks would send that person a card in the mail notifying them that they will have 30 days to submit proof they are a U.S. citizen. Under the House version, if a person fails to submit proof within 30 days, they will be purged from the voter roll. Under the Senate version, if a person doesn’t present proof of citizenship within 30 days, their voter registration status will be marked as “pending for the next two federal elections. If a pending voter does not submit citizenship proof within the 30-day timeframe and still attempts to vote, they would be forced to cast an affidavit ballot during the election. The flagged voter would then have a few days to present citizenship information to their county clerk’s office for the affidavit vote to count.

Missouri: House Bill 1878 and House Joint Resolution 94 are the latest pieces of voter identification legislation to reach the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee. The bill, which is identical to one passed by the House last year, is largely an attempt to put back in place strict voter identification requirements which were overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2020. The resolution would further shore up the bill’s constitutionality by putting in place a constitutional amendment which “requires voters to provide a valid government-issued photo identification,” according to the bill summary. It does leave the possibility for a provisional ballot to be filed.

New Jersey: For more than a decade, a New Jersey law requiring the state’s counties to use voting machines that can create a paper record of every vote cast has gone unenforced because of the amount of money it would cost counties. That may soon change. A new bill — sponsored by Sens. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and Jim Beach (D-Camden) — would alter the rule by requiring counties to purchase machines that create a paper trail when older machines age out. The bill would allow the New Jersey secretary of state to waive the requirement for machines used in an election before the bill’s effective date, which comes on the first day of the third month following its passage. The proposal would bar the secretary of state from issuing such waivers for machines purchased or leased after that date.

New Mexico: A Democrat-backed bill to expand voting access in New Mexico advanced toward a Senate floor vote. A legislative panel endorsed the bill on a 6-5 vote, clearing the way for debate on the Senate floor. Lawmakers have until Feb. 17 to approve legislation during a rapid-fire 30-day legislative session. The bill as recently amended would make Election Day a holiday for public schools, provide convicted felons with the opportunity to register to vote as they exit prison and distribute mail-in ballots year-after-year to people who prefer them. Currently absentee ballots are available by request only for each election. The initiative also would expand the availability of monitored ballot drop boxes and expand voting options in Native American communities where requested. After stalling in the Senate when Republicans used a parliamentary procedure to block a vote on Senate Bill 8, the House has resurrected parts of the bill by grafting it onto separate election legislation. Democrats blended parts of three elections bills, including Senate Bill 8 into one measure, Senate Bill 144. The House Judiciary Committee adopted amendments combining all three bills into one 160-page measure and sent it to the House floor

Oklahoma: State lawmakers shot down several bills in committee that would have changed the way elections are held in Oklahoma. The bills included HB3234, that would have required elections outside of major state-wide election dates to receive 40 percent voter participation to be considered valid, HB3233 that would have required candidates to declare a party affiliation when filing to run for office, even in non-partisan races. HB4151 by Rep Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa would have clarified when a person convicted of a felony could once again vote. It failed 4-to-3.

One bill that did advance are HB3046 preventing private money from being donated to help conduct elections.

The Oklahoma Senate Rules Committee unanimously agreed to move a resolution that would give voters a chance to voice their views on voter identification. Senate Joint Resolution 48 would ask voters whether they are in favor of requiring identification for all methods of voting, including mail-in voting and absentee, as part of the Oklahoma Constitution. “Putting voter identification requirements that currently are only in statute into the state constitution safeguards the integrity of our election process for generations to come,” said Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the resolution’s sponsor. “Adding voter ID requirements to the constitution also can aid in increasing voter turnout by assuring Oklahomans their votes will be counted and that our elections will continue to be safe and secure.” The Legislature still would decide what identification is needed, Treat said. Voters currently are required to show either a voter ID card or some form of government-issued ID. The bill now will go to the full Senate for consideration.

Oregon: The House Rules Committee will take up a measure that would allow elections workers to have their home address removed from some public records. House Bill 4144 came at the request of Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, who says it’s in response to a rise in threats against local public elections officials around the country. “Part of defending our democracy is protecting the dedicated professionals who administer elections in all 36 counties in Oregon,” Fagan said in a letter to state lawmakers in support of the measure. The bill would also increases penalties against people who are convicted of harassing an elections worker. The extra penalties would apply if the harassment takes place either during the worker’s official duties or in response to an action taken during their official duties.

House Bill 4147, which Democratic lawmakers introduced January, would allow people in prisons to register to vote and vote by mail—as is standard across Oregon—with their ballot counted in the last county they called home before their sentencing. The bill mirrors a proposal that died in committee last year after representatives from Oregon Department of Corrections argued the law would hamper mailroom operations inside the state prison system. Oregon Republicans quickly decried this year’s bill as more evidence of “Democrats’ shameful pro-criminal agenda.” The prison-voting bill now seems to have little chance of advancing before the end of Oregon’s 35-day session, which began February 1. Hannah Kurowski, a spokesperson for Oregon’s House Democratic Caucus, wouldn’t discuss HB 4147 except to say that it likely won’t get a committee hearing this year.

The House has approved a bill that will expand which residents of the state can register online to vote. Oregonians with DMV-issued identification can currently register to vote online, but House Bill 4133 A would allow those without such ID to still register without having to submit a paper form. Voters without a DMV-issued ID or driver license are currently required to register using a paper form by providing the last four digits of their Social Security Number and a signature. Democrats argue that the paper forms need manual data entry, which can introduce errors into voter rolls and cost about $4.72 per registration. Under the new bill, voters without ID could do the same process online by entering the last four of their SSN and uploading an image of their signature via a secure online portal. HB 4133 A passed the House in a vote of 33-23, moving to the Senate for consideration.

South Carolina: A bill that would establish no-excuse early voting is moving forward in the South Carolina House. A panel of representatives made tweaks to the proposal, sponsored by House Speaker Jay Lucas and backed by about 50 other Republican House members, that would make early in-person voting permanent for two weeks before an election. Some of those changes include removing a rule that required polling places in each county be at least 10 miles apart, instead letting local election officials choose voting locations while considering geography, population and accessibility. Lawmakers also changed a requirement that people applying for an absentee mail-in ballot provide an identification number from a photo ID. Instead, voters could use the last four digits of their Social Security number.

South Dakota: The Senate State Affairs Committee has advanced a bill that would prohibit the use of private funding for election administration. The measure, introduced by Sen. Casey Crabtree (R-Madison) ended up passing 8-1 with all eight Republicans supporting it and the lone Democrat opposing it. In South Dakota, Crabtree said there was nearly $380,000 donated and used in 35 counties. “While there is no evidence of improper activity with the dollars in South Dakota, it brings to the forefront a policy debate,” Crabtree said. “Whether private dollars should or should not be used to conduct elections.” Crabtree said only public dollars should be used for polling locations and vote tabulation centers. SB 122 will move onto the Senate floor.

Tennessee: Tennessee lawmakers passed a ban against instant runoff voting in elections, a move that seeks to end a long-running legal dispute between state election officials and the city of Memphis. Voters there still haven’t used the method since voting in 2008 to adopt it for city elections. The state House and Senate, where Republicans hold supermajorities, cast votes on the same day for the proposal outlawing instant runoff voting, which is also known as ranked choice voting. Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins has ruled that the approach isn’t allowed under state law. For years, the issue has been tied up in administrative challenges against the state and lawsuits. If Republican Gov. Bill Lee signs the bill, the lawsuits could be quickly rendered moot. The legislative push also marks the latest tussle between Republican state officials and left-leaning cities, including majority-Black Memphis.

Utah: Vote by mail and voter registration drives would be banned under a new bill in the Utah Legislature, H.B. 37. The legislation would also require paper ballots in most cases and require video monitoring of ballot counting. It also eliminates an option to prove your identity at polling locations without having a photo ID, like a combination of utility bill and car registration. Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is sponsoring the bill. The legislation is facing pushback from Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and voting rights groups. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he hasn’t read the legislation yet, but it seems like people really like to vote by mail. “I have a hard time seeing us completely getting rid of it,” he said. “It’s a good time to have a conversation about vote by mail in the sense that — how well is it working? … What could we be doing better?”

The Utah House Government Operations Standing Committee passed a comprehensive election bill that would require 24-hour surveillance at ballot drop boxes and a voter registration audit. House Bill 313, sponsored by Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, also would require voters who mail in their ballots to include a copy of voter identification in the return envelopes. The annual audit would be conducted by the lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees state elections, and kept online for 22 months. Ballots would be printed in Utah and no outside funding sources could help pay for costs related to an election. The bill also requires a drop box in every municipality or reservation. Two election workers would have to be present when the ballots are collected from the drop box. f the bill passes, a one-time allocation of $500,000 would be required, according to legislation.

Virginia: On a bipartisan vote, the Senate passed a measure to allow voters to decide if people convicted of felonies should have their voting rights automatically restored once they are released. The proposed constitutional amendment was approved by the Virginia General Assembly last year when Democrats had majorities in both chambers, but a second vote was needed this year to put a referendum on the ballot in November. Despite the chamber’s 25-15 vote, there likely won’t be a voter referendum on the proposal after the measure was rejected by a Republican-controlled House of Delegates subcommittee last week. The push for a ballot referendum on felon voting rights had received bipartisan support in Virginia, with one House Republican sponsoring his version of the proposal. That bill was killed in subcommittee on the same day the Democratic proposal was tabled.

Washington: A bill that would exempt voter information on ballot return envelopes, ballot declarations and signature correction forms from public disclosure passed 69-26 out of the state House of Representatives. Currently, images of election ballot return envelopes can be requested by members of the public under public records laws. Those images contain voter signatures, phone numbers and emails. This bill, however, would protect that personal information from being disclosed. Rep. Mike Volz (R-Spokane), a bill sponsor, said people expect their signatures to be exempted from public disclosure. Requests for envelopes in the past have only concerned individual envelopes, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said, but this year counties received requests for entire files of all their collected return envelopes. Dalton said she wasn’t sure why so many large requests came in this year, and she can’t ask requesters why they want records. “That’s when it became apparent that there was additional protection that really needed to be formalized,” Dalton told The Spokesman-Review in January.

Guns and other weapons would be prohibited at ballot counting sites and school board meetings across the state, under a bill approved by the House. The measure, which passed the Democratic-led chamber on a party line 57-41 vote, also bans openly carried firearms at local government meetings and election-related facilities like county election offices, though people who have concealed pistol licenses would be allowed to carry their concealed weapon. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

A measure backed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee that would have made it a crime for elected officials and candidates for office to incite lawlessness by making false statements about elections appears to have died in the state Legislature. The bill, SB 5843, failed to get a vote in the state Senate before a key cut-off deadline this week. The bill would have made it a gross misdemeanor for candidates and elected officials to knowingly make false statements about the legitimacy of an election, if those statements were intended to incite lawlessness and, in fact, resulted in individuals or a group damaging property or harming others. The prime sponsor of the measure, Democratic state Sen. David Frockt, said the proposal didn’t have the votes to pass. “We have to respect that the bill in its current form did not have enough support to advance despite the care we took in its drafting through our consultation with leading First Amendment scholars,” Frockt said in a statement.

West Virginia: Members of a House of Delegates committee sent a bill to a subcommittee Tuesday that could tie the hands of future elections officials if another pandemic hits during an election season. The House Judiciary Committee sent House Bill 4293 to a subcommittee after discussing the bill Tuesday. HB 4293 would prohibit individuals and county and state elections officials from mailing absentee ballot applications to any voter who did not request an application. The bill would make sending an unsolicited absentee ballot application a felony, impose a fine of a minimum of $5,000 and a sentence to prison for at least one year.

Wisconsin: Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers are backing a series of bills to set new election administration policies, one of which would give a Republican-controlled committee oversight of election funds. The measure would require any plans for federal election money to get approval from the Legislature’s Finance Committee. Currently, the Wisconsin Elections Commission allocates those funds based on federal guidance. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), the bill’s lead sponsor, said the bill would ensure the state maintains control of election administration. “SB 941 ensures the people of Wisconsin, through their elected representatives,” said LeMahieu, “can review, amend or block any efforts by the Executive Branch of the federal government to interfere with Wisconsin elections administration.” The bill also would require state agencies to submit new federal election guidance to legislative leadership, and would bar those agencies from implementing the policies until they receive the go-ahead from a legislative rules committee.

Wyoming: An effort to implement runoff elections in Wyoming is again before the state legislature. According to bill text, if no primary candidate for a statewide or federal office receives at least 50% of the vote, a runoff election would be held with the top two vote-getters. Instead of being held in August, primaries would be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May in general election years. If a runoff were necessary, it would take place in August. A similar proposal was narrowly defeated in the Senate in 2021. With Republican victories all but assured in most offices in the general election in Wyoming, bill sponsor Chip Neiman (R-Hewlitt) told Wyoming Public Media that races are really decided in the primaries. However, he added, “To me this legislation is non-partisan. … It’s the desire to forward a candidate that has [not just] a plurality, but a majority of the votes to send them along into a general election.”

A bill that would allow election officials to begin processing absentee ballots before 7 p.m. on Election Day is heading to the House floor. House Bill 52, “Timeline to prepare and process absentee ballots,” was approved Wednesday by the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. After a record number of absentee ballots were cast in the 2020 election, county clerks approached the committee with a request to make the process move more smoothly.

Legal Updates

North Carolina: The North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a lawsuit that alleges amendments to the North Carolina Constitution mandating photo voter identification and lowering the maximum possible income tax rate and approved by voters in November 2018 should be voided. The state NAACP, the lawsuit plaintiff, says that the Republican-controlled legislature lacked authority to create the referendums because federal courts had declared nearly 30 districts used in 2016 elections were unlawful racial gerrymanders Legislators elected in 2016, however, were allowed to remain in their elected positions until the next General Assembly elections in 2018. Districts covering well over 100 of the 170 General Assembly seats were redrawn by then. A trial judge agreed in early 2019 that the General Assembly had exceeded its authority to place the referendums on the ballot and struck down the amendments. A split state Court of Appeals panel overturned that ruling in 2020, however, saying such a standard would allow anyone to challenge any conventional legislation approved by a majority of lawmakers, causing chaos and confusion. Kym Hunter, an attorney representing the NAACP, said her client is seeking narrow relief — the declaration that legislators lost the ability to propose referendums to the constitution, which are effectively impossible to remove if approved. “The relief plaintiff seeks striking two constitutional amendments is unprecedented and wrong,” Martin Warf, a lawyer representing top legislative leaders said, adding that “the General Assembly never lost its authority to act, and its acts are not subject to an institutional attack.” Six of the seven justices hearing the case asked questions during arguments. A ruling may not be known for months.

Pennsylvania: Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has set a March 15 expiration date for the state’s vote-by-mail law that passed with bipartisan support in 2019. The March 15 date is one week after the State Supreme Court hears arguments on the appeal on March 8. Their ruling is the one that will ultimately decide the fate of mail-in voting. Leavitt says the mid-March date will help county boards of elections notify voters of any change in the law, as the May 17 primary looms. The state Supreme Court an step in at any time and put that date, March 15, on hold.

Tennessee: A group of Memphis political activists has sued Tennessee’s elections coordinator because of his efforts to stop instant runoff voting, which Shelby County voters approved 14 years ago. The plaintiffs filed their complaint Feb. 7 in Davidson County Chancery Court in support of the voting method that enables voters to rank candidates in elections, also called rank choice voting. This is their fourth filing to reverse decisions against instant runoff voting by Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, a former state representative. Instant ranked voting “promotes good government and less ideologically fractious candidates need to compete not only for a vote but also for rankings that might not be the first ranking in order to secure victory,” the lawsuit states. “This encourages candidates to communicate with and appeal to a broader swath of voters than they might otherwise.” The group claims instant runoff voting also saves governments and candidates money by eliminating runoff elections if no candidate receives a majority of the votes. In addition, the group contends the method gives a better opportunity to lesser-known candidates who are not funded as well and might be “dismissed” by voters as “throwing away their vote.” Thus, it could make elections more competitive and increase voter participation, the filing claims.

Utah: The Navajo Nation is suing San Juan County over the new map that determines county commission district boundaries in elections held from 2022 through 2030. The tribal government, along with its human rights commission and five tribal members, claim the five-member county commission violated the Voting Rights Act by approving a district map that packs Native American voters into a single district. The map approved by the commission in December deprives Native American voters from “equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in the other four districts despite them constituting almost 40% of the county’s total population,” according to the Feb. 10 news release that announced the lawsuit. The action by the commission adds to the history of racism and voter suppression that members of the Navajo Nation face in the county and in municipalities, the complaint states. The complaint was filed on Feb. 10 by the Navajo Nation Department of Justice along with several civil rights groups in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. Along with the county government, the lawsuit names Commissioners John Beckstead, Terri Fortner, Steve Lanier, Michael Sullivan and GloJean Todacheene and County Clerk Tanya Shelby as defendants.

Wisconsin: In a 4-3 ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that it will allow a lower court decision to go into effect that will ban the use of ballot drop boxes for the April election. Drop boxes can still be used for next week’s primaries. Two suburban Milwaukee men last year sued to block the use of ballot drop boxes. A Waukesha County judge in January agreed with them and ruled they could not be used. An appeals court quickly stepped in and ruled the drop boxes could be used in the February primary because it was happening so soon. The state Supreme Court took over the case soon afterward and kept in place the ruling that allowed the use of drop boxes for February. The state Elections Commission and others asked the high court to extend that policy until at least April. The justices declined to do that on Friday, saying they would let the lower court ruling go into effect that bars the use of drop boxes for that election and ones after it. The justices’ ruling is not the last word in the case. It is expected to decide the case in the coming weeks or months, and that ruling will determine the ultimate fate of drop boxes. The majority in the decision consisted of the four justices who were elected with the support of Republicans. The three justices elected with backing from Democrats were in dissent. Writing for the dissenters, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley contended the order could give voters and clerks whiplash as the rules on ballot boxes change. “Once again, a majority of this court makes it more difficult to vote,” she wrote. “With apparent disregard for the confusion it is causing, the majority provides next to no notice to municipal clerks, changing procedures at the eleventh hour and applying different procedures from those that applied to the primary in the very same election cycle.”

Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson announced that she will not be seeking charges against members of the Wisconsin Election Commission for the WEC’s decision to keep special voting deputies out of nursing homes in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling had recommended the members of the WEC be charged with election fraud. The sheriff’s recommendation of charges in October was met immediately with “strenuous disagreement” from the commission, which said in a statement that it had acted “in a thoughtful, public, and hours-long discussion at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic” with a bipartisan vote that ensured those in nursing homes were able to vote by mail.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker

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