The Democratic Comeback To Voter ID

Reid Wilson

Barack Obama is just 102 days into his second term as President of the United States, and already, candidates are jockeying to replace him. Whether the 45th President of the United States is Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Martin O'Malley may be determined not in Washington or Iowa or New Hampshire, but in Dickey Lee Hullinghorst's office.

Hullinghorst is the majority leader of the Colorado State House, serving her third two-year term representing the Boulder area. She is also the prime sponsor of a measure that could drastically change the way Coloradans cast their ballots in future elections -- a change that Republicans worry could put Colorado, a critical presidential swing state, firmly in the Democratic column.

For most of American history, the first priority for those who attain political power has been the same: Consolidate that power, and make it harder for the other guy to win the next election.

That means new state legislative majorities tend to follow a prescribed to-do list after they take charge: Find the light switch, locate the bathrooms, then change a state's voting rules to benefit themselves. Today, young legislative majorities in both parties are tinkering with election laws in ways that could dramatically upend the political landscape in a few key states.

Democrats led the charge over the last two decades, broadly expanding early voting and removing rules that required an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. The rise of "no-fault" absentee voting coincided with Democratic efforts to register more voters, particularly within minority communities that are historically underrepresented on the voting rolls.

After the 2010 landslide that saw more than 700 state legislative seats flip from Democratic to Republican control, Republicans across the country embarked on a campaign to roll back some of those Democratic-led reforms. Republicans in many states went a step further, passing legislation that required voters to show state-issued identification cards when they show up at their polling place. Since taking office in 2011, Republican-led legislatures have passed voter identification bills in Kansas, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Virginia and Pennsylvania, all of which were signed by Republican governors. New Hampshire's Republican legislature overrode Gov. John Lynch's veto of a voter identification bill.

Democrats cried foul: Requiring identifications would disenfranchise voters who didn't have a driver's license, they said, disproportionately impacting older, poorer voters, African Americans and Hispanics -- all voters more likely to favor Democrats over Republicans. 

Now, after taking control of the state legislature earlier this year, Colorado Democrats have become the vanguard of a new movement to tinker with voting rules. The proposal under consideration now would require elections to take place entirely through the mail -- in essence, signing every Colorado voter up for an absentee ballot.

"We hope and think we're going to be a model for the nation in modernizing elections," Hullinghorst said Wednesday, from her office at the Colorado state capital. The changes, she said, were necessary "to make sure that every eligible Colorado voter has a right and easy access to voting."

The legislation has passed the Colorado state House, and it is likely to clear the state Senate this week. In private conversations, Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he strongly supports the bill, and Hullinghorst expects him to sign it into law.

Colorado wouldn't be the first state to conduct elections entirely by mail. Two states, Washington and Oregon, moved to an all-mail system over the last decade and a half. What worries Republicans about the Colorado bill is what happened in Washington and Oregon.

Hard as it may be to imagine, both states were once presidential battlegrounds. George W. Bush visited Oregon twice in 2004; his campaign spent about $140,000 on advertisements over the last week and a half before Election Day, according to data compiled by TNS Media Intelligence and the Campaign Media Analysis Group. In 2000, Bush visited Washington four times between August 1 and November 7; Dick Cheney stopped in for a campaign rally in Everett the day before Election Day. That year, the Bush campaign ran more advertisements in Washington than in all but four other states.

But by 2008, both Washington and Oregon had fallen off the competitive map. Neither state has elected a Republican senator since 2002, when Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith won re-election. And just one of the 13 partisan officials elected statewide in either Washington or Oregon -- Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman -- is a Republican.

Democrats have long used absentee ballot rules to bolster turnout among key constituencies, and to build superior databases of likely voters. Absentee ballots allow for much closer tracking of who has already voted, giving campaigns the opportunity to husband limited resources in an effort to turn out those who haven't already sent in their ballots (Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's 1996 campaign wrote much of what evolved into the modern Democratic playbook on early and absentee voting). Republicans worry that broadly expanding access to absentee ballots in a purple state like Colorado could lead to the same partisan swing.

"It's completely unnecessary. We have the third-best turnout in the country," said Scott Gessler, Colorado's Republican Secretary of State, a staunch opponent of the bill. "This bill is not about voter participation. That's not a problem here in Colorado."

Gessler listed a raft of problems he sees with the bill: It would require problematic changes to the state voter file, he said, and the fact that it allows same-day voter registration opens the door to fraud. What most gets under Gessler's skin is what he said was a complete lack of interest Democrats had in amendments and input from Republican legislatures and his office -- evidence, he thinks, that the legislation has ulterior political motives.

"It's a partisan power play. It's a partisan hack job, is what I call it," Gessler said. State Democrats "are trying to change the rules of the game so they can seal themselves into power for the foreseeable future."

Despite the apparent evidence in Washington and Oregon, there is little academic research to suggest that wider availability of absentee voting benefits Democrats.

"Nationally and in many states, more Republicans use no-excuse absentee voting and more Democrats vote early in-person," said Chelsea Brossard, research director at the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. "Careful empirical studies have shown no evidence that early voting -- either fully by mail or a mix of early in-person and no-excuse absentee -- benefits one or another political party."

"What research has been done indicates that these methods benefit better organized (and funded) campaigns because of the longer mobilization time required," Brossard said.

Given the structural advantage Democrats have built in identifying and turning out absentee voters -- the Obama campaign invested millions in early-vote and absentee programs in 2012, far beyond what Republicans were able to achieve -- that's what should worry Republicans the most.

In Colorado, an election conducted entirely by absentee ballot won't be much of a change. In 2012, 77 percent of Colorado voters cast absentee ballots; only Nevada, where 72 percent cast ballots early or by mail, had similar numbers, according to data compiled by the United States Elections Project at George Mason University.

The fight over voting rights is far from over. Last month, the Republican-dominated Arkansas legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto of voter ID legislation, and North Carolina will likely get a similar law when newly-elected Republican Gov. Pat McCrory receives the bill, likely later this month.

But Democrats have a ways to go before they catch up on the last few years of Republican momentum. "The clear trend in the states where Republicans captured majorities in 2010 was to almost immediately erect barriers to voting," said Carolyn Fiddler, a Democratic strategist whose expertise lies in state legislatures. But, Fiddler added: "The Democratic trend towards easing voting barriers may take longer bear fruit nationally than the GOP vote-restricting strategy. The combination of new voting restrictions and control of redistricting in many Republican-governed states means a slower slog back to the majority for statehouse Democrats in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio."

No matter how long it takes, Republican worries about Colorado's election systems demonstrate just how much influence the fight over voting rules has on elections themselves. The rules matter, and anyone who can change the rules holds an advantage.