New laws and activist campaigns are expanding voter access across the nation—and right here in Utah

Voter suppression is real. In 2011, the ACLU counted 30 attempts by state legislatures to restrict the right to vote through strategies such as limiting early voting opportunities and requiring photo IDs.

But every action can spawn a reaction, and recent efforts to suppress voting have galvanized an equally strong response to protect and expand access to the ballot box—with the ACLU leading the charge.

Here are a few examples:

In June, lawyers from the ACLU Voting Rights Project bested Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, in a three-week trial challenging his 2013 law requiring voters to prove their citizenship before registering to vote. Not only did the judge strike down the Kansas law as overly restrictive, but she also ordered Kobach to complete six hours of “continuing legal education,” the lawyer equivalent of being sent to summer school.

When Georgia election officials attempted in August to close 7 out of 9 polling places in a rural county (claiming they weren’t accessible to people with disabilities), activists created a media firestorm to stop the effort by highlighting that a majority of people living in the 430 square-mile county were Black and lacked access to transportation.

This November, voters in Florida will consider a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to more than 1.5 million Floridians convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences and paid restitution.

These three efforts are designed to reclaim ballot access for vulnerable populations. But other measures—often originating in state legislatures—seek to expand voting rights. In April, the Brennan Center for Justice, which reviews legislative activity on voting rights, concluded that “more pro-voter reforms are moving than anti-voter restrictions.”

Fortunately, Utah hasn’t missed this boat. Thanks to a bill passed by the Utah Legislature in 2018, you can register to vote—and cast a ballot—on Election Day in every county. After 11 years of advocating for Election Day Registration, the ACLU of Utah is glad to see this practice made permanent statewide. If you register to vote on Election Day, you will be asked to vote with a provisional ballot—but your vote will still count like other votes. The same bill also makes it easier to register to vote or update your address when applying for or renewing a Utah driver’s license. These changes are “less about ballooning voter rolls,” the legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, told the Salt Lake Tribune in March. “It’s more about taking down barriers to ballot access.”

Another bill passed in 2018 allows 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election if they will turn 18 before the general election date. This new law, proposed by Rep. Joel Briscoe, will allow many Utah students to cast their first vote before they graduate from high school.

These recent successes don’t mean that advocates for voting rights can rest. Efforts to restrict voter registration and ballot access continue at both the state and federal level. In July, New Hampshire passed a law restricting the ability of non-resident college students and military personnel to vote in the Granite State. For several years, the ACLU of Utah has been engaged in San Juan County to improve ballot access and translation services for Navajo-speaking residents. We intervened in 2016 after the county switched to a vote-by-mail system and closed polling places on the Navajo Nation. We continue to monitor a positive settlement agreement reached with the county early this year. 

Despite an overall positive trend, we must remain vigilant to identify and respond to new efforts to suppress the vote as the 2020 general election approaches. 

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2018 Fall Newsmagazine >>