2020 was a memorable year for many reasons (the least of which include bitcoin scams, murder hornets, and the hope of Columbus, Ohio becoming Flavortown), but for us here at Democracy’s Database, the record-high turnout of voters in the 2020 general election was a major highlight. It’s long been the goal of Cicero to be a global resource for elected official information and geographic data on elections and democracy, and as a non-partisan, mission-driven organization, we care about bolstering fair elections and voting access. The foundation of any healthy democracy is full and free access to voting, and with the 2022 midterm elections approaching, the conversation around voter suppression is especially important. So we’re taking the time to highlight some of the relevant legislation and redistricting activity and identify ways that Cicero data may be used in service of protecting voting access and upholding democracy at all levels of government.
Historically, state legislators have often introduced new voting rights legislation in the sessions following a presidential election, especially when turnout is high. True to form, state legislatures across the U.S. passed varied voting rights legislation — some restrictive, some expansive, and some a combination of both in 2021 and 2022. Though some states did pass expansive legislation, the amount of restrictive legislation being proposed and passed in the years since the 2020 election is alarming, if not totally surprising. With new bills still being introduced and the 2020 redistricting cycle (and ensuing litigation) ongoing, opportunities for local and state officials to affect voting access for the next decade abound.
At its core, voter suppression is the act of discouraging certain groups of people from voting or making it harder for them to do so, usually for partisan political gain. Voter suppression can take many forms, from harsh voter ID laws to overly-strict registration deadlines to early voting cuts, and the list goes on. These are just a few of the suppression tactics included in restrictive voting rights legislation, which impedes voting and disproportionately impacts certain groups of people, especially groups that are already marginalized. Expansive laws do the opposite, making it easier to vote by including expansive provisions like improved mail-in and drop-off voting, longer registration windows, and improved language- and disability accessibility. Ultimately, these laws, which dictate who votes and what barriers they face in doing so, have an enormous impact on elections.
In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, Congressional voting rights bills like the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which broadly aim to expand voting access and prevent voting rights violations by states (respectively), have received widespread attention. While the passing of comprehensive legislation at the federal level would be a significant step toward addressing existing inequity in voting access and ensuring fair elections, to really understand the current state of voting rights in the U.S., it’s necessary to look at the decisions being made by elected officials at the state and local levels.
In 2021, hundreds of bills with restrictive voting rights provisions were introduced in state legislatures throughout the U.S. According to the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Laws Roundup, more restrictive voting laws were passed in 2021 than in any year in the last decade. This year, a major election year, state legislators continue to introduce and pass bills that incorporate voter suppression tactics and limit voting access.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been plenty of expansive legislation proposed and passed in states across the country in the past two years as well. In fact, thanks to data from the Voting Rights Lab, we know that more states saw more expansive legislation than restrictive legislation across the board in 2021, and several states passed mixed laws as well.
However, the lack of comprehensive, expansive Congressional legislation since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by SCOTUS in 2013 has allowed the disparity between and inequity within states to grow, making voting access largely dependent on geographic location. As this Brennan Center report highlights, restrictive legislation tends to be passed in states that already make it more difficult to vote, whereas expansive laws tend to be passed in states with better voting access. With the most significant voting rights and elections administration legislation being proposed and passed at the state level and along partisan lines, full and free access to voting is not granted to every American equally. As in the past, the provisions of restrictive laws will disproportionately and negatively impact communities of color, indigenous communities, persons with disabilities, people struggling with poverty, and other groups that have historically been the most disenfranchised from voting in U.S. elections.
One of the most impactful voter suppression tactics is partisan gerrymandering, the process by which district boundaries are drawn to confer an electoral advantage on one group over another. The release of the decennial Census data kicked off a new redistricting cycle in late 2021, which makes gerrymandering especially relevant in the context of voting rights in 2022 and over the next decade. At this point, all 50 states have approved congressional redistricting plans — several after drawing, redrawing, waiting for litigation to be resolved, and drawing again. But the drawing and approval of new state legislative and local government districts is still ongoing. As the Cicero team tracks redistricting, we expect to see even more litigation — much of it related to partisan gerrymandering and racial discrimination — that will impact where and how constituents vote in elections over the next decade.
Though voting rights legislation tends to be discussed mainly in the context of state and federal government, local voting laws and redistricting are incredibly important pieces of the overall issue. Cicero maintains data (including elections, district boundaries, and elected officials) and tracks redistricting in almost 400 cities and counties in the U.S., many of which are in states that passed restrictive voting legislation in 2021 or 2022.
Cities and municipalities can play a significant role in either expanding or suppressing voting rights, both at the local and state levels. Take Pasadena, Texas, for example, a city that is currently in its 5th year of federal oversight for changes to voting laws after violating the Voting Rights Act with its redistricting plan in 2013, the same year SCOTUS weakened the VRA. Their passing of a gerrymandered City Council map that was found to be racially discriminatory led to federal intervention that had a statewide impact on redistricting and voting rights legislation.
Or consider the ongoing transformation of local governments across California following the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA), which aimed to prevent racial discrimination and increase minority representation in government. As we explained in a previous blog, hundreds of elected bodies in California have shifted and continue to shift to district representation as the result of lawsuits based on the CVRA. The switch from at-large to by-district elections has had a profound impact on who gets elected to city councils and other local elected bodies across the state. With even more by-district elections taking place in California, many of them in newly redistricted cities, changes to how residents are represented at the local level will continue into the next several years.
As Cicero continues to track local and state redistricting, we’ll keep you updated on how districts and elections are changing across the country. If you’re interested in more information on gerrymandering, check out resources from our parent company Azavea, or reach out to our friends at DistrictBuilder — a free and open tool for redistricting.
Most work on legislation gets done in committees and subcommittees, especially at the state and federal levels. In addition to our core data offerings of election events, elected and appointed officials, and legislative districts, as of last year, Cicero now maintains data for congressional and state legislative committees. We have also added state executive offices, including secretaries of state, who have immense power over local and state elections, voting access, and their respective state’s democratic process.
If you’re wondering how you or your organization can use Cicero’s data to address voter suppression, please get in touch. If you want to dive right into the data, check out our elected official and district lookup tool. And to stay up to date on elections happening in your city and state, follow our elections feed on Twitter.