TagVoter rights

Enacted ballot collection bills make mostly small changes, several states considering new restriction and penalties

Ten states are considering legislation related to ballot collection, or ballot harvesting, while three states have enacted legislation on the topic so far in 2023. In 2022, seven states enacted bills while 15 others considered legislation. The number of bills and states considering ballot collection measures is smaller in 2023 than last year. 

Most legislation introduced this year makes small changes to existing laws, although several states are considering more substantial changes. Active, bipartisan-sponsored bills in Rhode Island and Wyoming, two states that do not currently specify whether someone may return ballots on behalf of another voter, would add restrictions to ballot collection. Elsewhere, Republican-sponsored bills in three states currently allowing voters to choose someone to return their ballot (Nebraska, Oregon, and Virginia) would narrow or limit the authorized individuals who may return another voter’s ballot.

Eight of the 12 bills in 2023 legislative sessions were sponsored by Republican legislators, two were sponsored by Democrats, and two had bipartisan sponsorship.

Mississippi, New Mexico and South Dakota have enacted legislation related to ballot collection. 

In Mississippi, Republican-sponsored SB2358 creates new penalties for an existing ban on third-party ballot collection. 

In New Mexico, Democratic-sponsored SB180 expands the list of persons authorized to return another voter’s absentee/mail-in ballot as part of a larger package of election modifications. Existing law prohibits anyone not an immediate family member from collecting and delivering a ballot. The bill adds domestic partners, grandchildren, grandparents, or persons “with whom the voter has a continuing personal relationship” to the definition of “immediate family.”

In South Dakota, Republican-sponsored HB165 requires election officials to “keep a record of the authorized messenger requesting an absentee ballot to be delivered to another voter.” In South Dakota, an authorized messenger may return another voter’s absentee ballot.

Iowa and South Carolina were the only states to make significant changes to their ballot collection laws in 2022 legislative sessions. 

In Iowa, both SF413 and SF568 restricted ballot collection to “an individual who lives in the same household as the registered voter, the registered voter’s immediate family member,” or an individual serving as a caretaker or registered delivery agent for a blind or otherwise disabled voter. 

In South Carolina, S0108 instituted a photo-ID requirement for an individual authorized to return another voters’ ballot and limited the number and prohibited anyone from returning more than five ballots in addition to their own. 

Also last year, Florida increased penalties for illegal ballot possession from a misdemeanor to a felony. Oklahoma added a prohibition on [d]istributing an absentee ballot application or request to a voter using the official letterhead of a candidate or elected official” to an existing ballot harvesting ban. 

Of the 22 states that currently have a Republican trifecta, 11 states specify or otherwise limit who may return another voter’s absentee ballot, while four others do not have any law related to ballot collection. Of the 17 Democratic trifecta states, three specify or otherwise limit who may collect and return absentee ballots, while five states’ statutes do not reference ballot collection. 

Additional reading:

North Dakota House passes veto override on ranked-choice voting prohibition

The North Dakota House of Representatives voted on April 10, 2023, to override Gov. Doug Burgum’s (R) veto of HB1273. The bill would ban the use of ranked-choice and approval voting methods in the state. Ranked-choice voting is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. Approval voting allows voters to vote for all the candidates the voter approves of, and the candidates receiving the most votes are elected until all necessary seats are filled in the race.

Gov. Burgum vetoed the legislation on April 6, 2023, calling the bill an example of state overreach and saying it “blatantly infringes on local control.” Currently, one municipality in the state, Fargo, utilizes a voting method that the bill would prohibit. North Dakota House Majority Leader Mike Lefor (R) said of the effort to override Gov. Burgum’s veto: “The legislature properly exercised its authority to regulate the way elections are conducted… It’s a matter of statewide concern.”

The state House voted 71-17 to override Burgum’s veto. A two-thirds majority in the state Senate is required to override the veto and enact the legislation. North Dakota is a Republican trifecta, meaning that Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship. In the state House, Republicans hold 82 of 94 seats, while in the Senate they hold 43 of 47 seats.

North Dakota is one of several states considering prohibitions on using ranked-choice and other similar multiple-round or tabulated voting methods. Florida and Tennessee became the first states in the country to enact such bans in 2022, followed by South Dakota and Idaho, who have done so in 2023 legislative sessions. Similar bills in three other states have passed at least one chamber of their state’s legislature this year, Arizona’s HB2552, Montana’s HB598, and Texas’ SB92.

Additional reading:

Election administration in North Dakota

More ranked-choice voting bans considered in 2023 legislative sessions than previous years

New Mexico enacts bill on felon voting rights, automatic voter registration

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed HB4 into law on March 30, 2023.

Proponents of the law referred to it as the New Mexico Voting Rights Act. The bill makes automatic voter registration, which was previously only available through the Department of Motor Vehicles, available at other state or local public offices designated by the secretary of state. The state will also join 16 other states that automatically restore voting rights to individuals convicted of a felony immediately after their prison time is completed.

In the past, New Mexico restored voting rights to individuals convicted of a felony after completion of their entire sentence, including prison, probation, and parole. Grisham said, “Today, New Mexico is leading the nation by example, declaring that we believe, unequivocally, in the fundamental right of every American to choose those who represent them.” Republican Party of New Mexico spokesperson Ash Soular said, “Instead of focusing on crime this session, progressives rewarded felons who have not completed their parole by restoring their voting rights. RPNM believes felons should have their voting rights restored once they complete their sentence.”

Availability of voter files by state

Voter files are digital databases of information about registered voters that the federal government requires each state to maintain. States can legally sell voter file information to individuals or groups, and each state has developed its own guidelines regarding these sales. Prices range from $0 to $37,000. Additionally, the data included for sale and the individuals and groups allowed to purchase voter files varies from state to state. 

In a 2016 report, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission classified the availability of voter file information in each state as either open, mixed, or restricted, based on the type of individuals or group that were allowed to purchase the data.

As of August 2022, voter file data is available for purchase in every U.S. state and Washington, D.C. Thirty-one states have open availability, meaning they have no restrictions on the types of individuals and groups that can purchase their voter file data. Sixteen states have mixed availability, meaning certain types of individuals or groups can purchase information from voter file data that is unavailable to others. Four states have restricted availability, meaning only certain types of individuals or groups are allowed to purchase their voter file data.

The map below provides a summary of the availability of voter files and pricing for each state and Washington, D.C. as of August 2022.

The table below provides details about the availability of voter files in each state and Washington, D.C. as of August 2022. It lists the specific information that is included and excluded from voter file data purchases.

Signatures submitted for voting policy amendment in Michigan

The Promote the Vote 2022 campaign submitted 669,972 signatures to the secretary of state to qualify for the Michigan ballot this November on July 11. The measure would make multiple changes to voting and elections in Michigan, including policies around absentee voting, early voting, voter identification, and election audits.

The signature requirement to qualify for the ballot is 425,059 valid signatures—which equals 10% of the votes cast for governor in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

“Together, we’re going to ensure that every vote will count, and that Michigan’s elections will continue to be safe, secure, and fair,” said Micheal Davis, the executive director of Promote the Vote 2022.

After being filed with the secretary of state, the measure will go through a process of signature validation, which is done by the board of state canvassers using a random sampling method.

If certified for the ballot and approved by voters this November, the measure would:

  • amend the Michigan Constitution to provide voters with a right to vote without harassment, interference, or intimidation.
  • require military or overseas ballots be counted if postmarked by election day.
  • require photo ID or signed affidavit to vote.
  • provide voters with a right to use a single application to vote absentee in all elections.
  • require state-funded postage for absentee applications and ballots.
  • require one state-funded absentee ballot drop box for every municipality, or one drop box per 15,000 registered voters in larger municipalities.
  • provide that only election officials may conduct post-election audits.
  • require nine days of early in-person voting.
  • allow publicly-disclosed charitable donations and in-kind contributions to fund elections.
  • require canvass boards to certify election results based only on the official records of votes cast.

If the initiative is certified for the ballot, it will join at least one other measure currently on the ballot—a constitutional amendment to change term limits requirements for state legislators and financial disclosure requirements for state executive and legislative officials.

Another campaign, Reproductive Freedom for All, also submitted signatures on July 11 to qualify a constitutional amendment to provide a state constitutional right to abortion in Michigan.

Additional reading:

Michigan 2022 ballot measures

Federal appeals court rejects claim that Georgia requirement that voters pay postage for absentee/mail-in ballots amounts to a poll tax

On Aug. 27, 2021, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision finding that a Georgia law requiring voters to pay the price of postage for returning absentee/mail-in ballots does not constitute an illegal poll tax. The plaintiffs had argued that requiring absentee/mail-in voters to pay the price of postage amounted to levying a poll tax, violating the Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The defendants (state and local election officials) moved to dismiss. A U.S. District Court granted the motion to dismiss, citing “[t]he fact that any registered voter may vote in Georgia on election day without purchasing a stamp, and without undertaking any ‘extra steps’ besides showing up at the voting precinct and complying with generally applicable election regulations.” The plaintiffs then appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

The Eleventh Circuit panel—comprising Judges Elizabeth Branch (a Donald Trump (R) appointee), Britt Grant (another Trump appointee), and Edward Carnes (a George H.W. Bush (R) appointee)—unanimously affirmed the lower court’s ruling. Branch, writing for the court, said, “While voting often involves incidental costs like transportation, parking, child care, taking time off work, and—for those who choose to vote absentee by mail—the cost of a postage stamp, those incidental costs do not mean that Georgia has imposed an unconstitutional poll tax or fee on its voters.”

In response to the ruling, Sean Young, legal director for the Georgia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (which was involved in the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs), said, “We are disappointed in the outcome. The ACLU of Georgia will continue to protect the sacred fundamental right to vote.” Regarding the possibility of an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, Young said, “All legal options remain on the table.”

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U.S. District Judge rules Florida cannot condition voting on financial obligations a felon is unable to pay

On May 24, 2020, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida cannot prevent felony convicts from voting based on fines, fees, or restitution they are unable to pay.

Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a citizen initiative, in 2018 by a vote of 65% in favor to 35% against. The initiative was designed to automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. Under the amendment, voting rights would be restored upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.

Senate Bill 7066 was signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) in June 2019. The bill required convicted felons to complete “all terms of sentence” including full payment of restitution, or any fines, fees, or costs resulting from the conviction before regaining the right to vote. In August 2019, DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion concerning whether “all terms of sentence” included legal financial obligations (court fees, fines, restitution) and on January 16, 2020, the supreme court found that “all terms of sentence” does include the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations.

Five lawsuits against Senate Bill 7066 were consolidated into one— Kevin Leon Jones et al. vs Ron DeSantis et al.— and the case went to trial on April 27, 2020. Plaintiffs included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Campaign Legal Fund of Washington, D.C. The original plaintiffs in the case were 17 individual plaintiffs and three organizations: the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Orange County Branch of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Florida.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in that the state can prohibit felons from voting if they have outstanding legal financial obligations (court fees, restitution, fines) that they are able to pay, but that the state cannot prohibit a person from voting if they have outstanding legal financial obligations that they are unable to pay. Hinkle said the system under Senate Bill 7066 was an “unconstitutional pay-to-vote system.”

Hinkle said that felons (a) who could not afford an attorney and were therefore appointed one and (b) who had their legal financial obligations converted to civil liens could register to vote. Other felons who are unable to pay their financial obligations can request a determination from Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee (R), who must issue the determination within 21 days and must include information such as how much money is owed and how the state calculated the amount. If the Secretary of State does not issue the determination within 21 days of receipt, the felon may register to vote.

The plaintiffs argued that provisions of SB 7066 that conditioned voting on the payment of legal financial obligations violated the following:

  • the Eighth Amendment (a prohibition on excessive fines);
  • the First Amendment rights of organizations involved in voter registration activities such as the League of Women Voters;
  • the 19th Amendment by diminishing women’s voting rights “due to their low average incomes compared to men;” and
  • the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The ruling was expected to be appealed by the state.

In October 2019, Hinkle granted a preliminary injunction in Jones v DeSantis case, which applied only to the 17 individual plaintiffs, and provided that the individuals could not be stopped from voting based on the inability to pay legal financial obligations. The state appealed the ruling, and the ruling was later upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

As of 2018, Florida was one of four states—the three others are Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia—where convicted felons do not regain the right to vote, until and unless a state officer or board restores an individual’s voting rights.

District court decides that Alabama elections do not violate Voting Rights Act

On February 5th, U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins ruled that Alabama’s at-large method of electing appellate judges does not dilute the voting power of black citizens.

The case was brought to the court by the NAACP, which contended that Alabama’s mode of at-large elections for appellate judges, as opposed to voting by election districts, disenfranchises black voters. Further, they argued that this is the reason why there have been no black state appellate civil and criminal judges and only three black judges on the Alabama Supreme Court in the last 36 years.

In his 210-page opinion, Justice Watkins argued that two factors lay behind the lack of racial diversity on the Alabama courts: the decline of the Alabama Democratic Party, and the lack of black-preferred candidates on the ballot. “Notwithstanding the recent minimal representation of black-preferred candidates on Alabama’s appellate courts, the evidence demonstrates that reasons other than race better explain the defeat of black-preferred candidates in Alabama’s appellate judicial races.” Justice Watkins stated that the “recent decline of the Alabama Democratic Party and a failure of black-preferred candidates to compete generally are two primary culprits. Plaintiffs presented no evidence that race is the reason for the Party’s current failings or the reason why black-preferred candidates are not running for statewide appellate judge seats.”

The lawsuit sought to alter the selection method of the state to election by districts. The NAACP argued that the state’s method of selection violated two sections of the Voting Rights Act, and obliged the court to prove that the selection method is equally open to black justices and does not hinder black voters’ rights on account of race. They asked the court to find a new method of selection for appellate judges in the state and proposed nine voting districts. Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP, called the decision a “significant disappointment.”

In his opinion Justice Watkins wrote, “African Americans have served at the highest reaches of state government, and they can do so again.”

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