Voting itself was on the ballot in the 2022 midterm elections, with initiatives seeking to revamp election laws in states across the country.
Measures that promoted early voting and increased access to the ballot box saw wins in multiple states, but so did restrictive proposals that tightened voter ID laws or barred non-citizens from voting on local matters. The results follow a two-year period during which legislators in Republican-controlled states moved to create barriers to the franchise, and states controlled by Democrats largely made access to voting easier and more equitable.
This year’s ballot measures suggest that voters may take a more nuanced view on democracy than the politicians they elect, said Jasleen Singh of the Brennan Center for Justice. She pointed to the success of a sweeping elections proposal in Michigan and the defeat of voter ID requirements in Arizona, two states with significant shares of Republican voters.
“When voter access is up to the voters, voters are going to choose, by and large, to protect that access and protect democracy,” Singh said.
In other states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, Nebraska and Ohio, voters decided the fate of ballot measures impacting elections. But these state-level fights were overshadowed in national media coverage by the candidates vying for statewide office who refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election. Those candidates were resoundingly rejected this year in purple states.
Their defeats mean that the most direct impact from this year’s midterms on voting will come from ballot measures.
‘The voters weren’t having it’
The most sweeping measure was Michigan’s Proposal 2, which sought to add several voter-friendly policies to the state constitution, including nine days of early in-person voting, state-funded drop boxes in communities across Michigan and pre-paid postage for absentee ballots.
The measure won resoundingly, attracting 60% of the vote. That significantly outpaced two statewide Democratic candidates, who themselves comfortably won re-election in Michigan’s governor and secretary of state races.
“It passed in many heavily Republican parts of the state,” said University of Michigan political scientist Tom Ivacko.
He said that a series of restrictive bills that passed out of Michigan’s Republican Legislature, before being vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Witmer, alarmed people across Michigan. “The voters weren’t having it,” he said.
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Republican-aligned groups opposed Proposal 2. Michigan Fair Elections, a conservative outfit that denied the results of the 2020 election and fixated on the idea that Democrats cheat, was one of them.
Representatives of the group did not respond to requests for an interview, but wrote on their website after the election that “many of these naive souls bought the lies inflicted on them” about 2022 ballot measures, including Proposal 2. “They simply could not fathom — nor dared they contemplate — the forces at work to steal our elections,” the blog post said.
Supporters cheered the result, with the leader of a coalition of groups backing the measure saying it “protects the fundamental right to vote while enhancing security and expanding the accessibility of Michigan’s future elections.”
Proposal 2 will allow local clerks to continue accepting outside money to fund elections, a practice that became contentious in 2020 as underfunded local officials scrambled to conduct elections during a pandemic. Many election officials praised the outside money from nonprofits as a lifeline, but donations from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to one major nonprofit sparked conspiracy theories from former President Donald Trump and his allies.
Ivacko said “the ideal situation here is that the state would fund local governments sufficiently,” but that that’s far from the reality in Michigan or around the country. Proposal 2 requires transparency around donations and prohibits foreign funding of elections.
The measure also takes aim at a tactic that election deniers attempted to use to overturn the 2020 election results in Michigan: It removes power from canvassing boards, which certify election results. The measure clarifies that boards must certify the officially reported vote totals, not investigate fraud claims. Trump allies attempted to convince boards to hand the election to the former president in 2020, after he lost Michigan by 154,000 votes.
“Election denialism is an extraordinary threat to our democracy. It was rejected here in Michigan, statewide, pretty thoroughly,” Ivacko said about the 2022 results. That underscores that strengthening democracy is a top priority for a majority of voters, he added.
The 2022 initiative follows a measure passed four years ago that allowed Michiganders to request absentee ballots without an excuse and established same-day voter registration.
Diverging results on voter ID
Arizona and Nebraska voters both faced initiatives on voter ID this year. The two states went in opposite directions, with Nebraska giving a green light to tighter restrictions and Arizona narrowly defeating additional ID requirements.
Nebraska’s 93 counties all voted in favor of Initiative 432, which garnered nearly two-thirds support across the state. But the measure did not specify what ID requirements voters will face. Instead, it directs the state Legislature to come up with them.
“Our main concern is that it’s incredibly vague,” said Heidi Uhing of Civic Nebraska, which opposed the measure. “It just provides no detail about what this voter ID bill would even look like, how it would be carried out, how it would be funded,” she said.
Proponents said it would help secure Nebraska elections. Nebraska Secretary of State Robert Evnen, who supported Initiative 432, has denied that there was evidence of voter fraud in 2020.
“Nebraska has never had a problem with voter identification fraud. There just are no reported cases of this. And so it’s really a solution in search of a problem,” Uhing said. She’s concerned that strict voter ID requirements will make voting difficult for young people, people with disabilities and voters of color.
“It really does affect people across the board,” she said. That includes rural Nebraskans, many of whom live in counties where motor-vehicle offices are rarely open.
The precise impact will depend on the bill that legislators craft. Nebraska has resisted placing restrictions on voting in recent years, in part because lawmakers aligned with Democrats — the state’s Legislature is officially nonpartisan — have successfully filibustered a series of bills. After this year’s elections, Republican-aligned lawmakers are one vote short of a supermajority, meaning that any voter ID measure will have to contend with the threat of a filibuster again.
The details of any bill, and when it might pass, are up in the air heading into 2023.
Nearly 1,000 miles to the southwest, Arizona lawmakers placed their own voter ID measure on the ballot this year — part of a flurry of legislative activity rolling back access to voting. Proposition 309 sought to require certain types of photo ID at the polls and remove the option to present two types of non-photo ID. It also would have required voters to write their date of birth and voter ID number on affidavits when returning mail ballots.
The measure lost by the narrowest of margins, netting 49.6% of the vote. That means Arizona voters won’t face the additional ID requirements to vote in-person and by mail in future elections.
“That’s too close for comfort,” said Carolina Rodriguez-Greer of Mi Familia Vota. Still, she was breathing a sigh of relief. “I’m glad to see that the majority of the voters who voted in this election understood that this wouldn’t actually make voting easier. It would make it harder.”
As in Nebraska, opponents of additional voter ID feared the laws would disenfranchise Arizonans, and in particular Indigenous voters whose tribal ID cards don’t include photos, and who may not have a street-level address.
“This ballot measure was crafted in response to historic turnout,” said Alex Alvarez of Progress Arizona. “Legislators saw this as an opportunity to stop communities — like Indigenous communities — from exercising their vote.”
A number of studies have found that strict voter ID laws disproportionately affect voters of color. And a law that impacts even a small share of voters can have massive implications: the lead for Democratic candidate Kris Mayes in Arizona’s Secretary of State race is just 511 votes out of more than 2.5 million cast.
Other measures on the Arizona ballot were designed to transform the initiative process itself. Alvarez called them “a suite of ballot measures that were meant to do the same thing, which is to take away power from Arizonans in citizen-led ballot initiatives.”
A proposition to allow the Legislature to amend or repeal ballot measures failed. But efforts to limit ballot measures to a single subject and to require 60% of the vote for measures that increase taxes succeeded. In both cases, voters opted to limit their own power.
Separate propositions to create an office of lieutenant governor and to increase transparency in campaign finance disclosures both succeeded in Arizona.
Changes to voting laws around the country
On December 10, voters in Louisiana passed a constitutional amendment that barred noncitizens from voting in elections.
It followed the success of a similar initiative in Ohio in November. While noncitizens can’t vote in federal elections in the U.S., they can in a few local elections; 15 municipalities in the U.S. have passed laws allowing noncitizens to vote. In recent years, a handful of states have changed their constitutions to prohibit noncitizens from voting, part of a nationwide push by Republican groups.
Ohio and Louisiana are the most recent states to ban noncitizen voting, joining Alabama, Colorado, Florida and North Dakota.
In Connecticut, voters passed a constitutional amendment that will pave the way for early voting there. Connecticut was one of the few states without early voting. As in Nebraska, the initiative directs the state Legislature to craft a bill, so the details aren’t yet known. Local advocates are hopeful the changes will take effect in time for the 2024 elections.
Other changes this year included Nevadans approving open primaries and ranked-choice voting, and voters in Arkansas shooting down a ballot measure that would have required 60% of the vote to pass initiatives.
In South Dakota, voters chose to amend the state constitution to expand Medicaid eligibility. They cast their votes in November after defeating a separate measure in June that sought to raise the threshold for initiatives to 60%. The state’s Legislature had placed the June measure on the ballot, hoping to stymie Medicaid expansion.
It didn’t work. South Dakota became the seventh state in recent years to expand Medicaid through the ballot box.
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