January 11, 2023
Chris Geidner
Law Dork

Exclusive: New reports aim to help lawmakers, advocates with advancing voter-friendly policies

“This is a resource for folks who are focused on what the legislature can accomplish,” the Institute for Responsive Government’s Sam Oliker-Friedland said of the Election Policy Progress Reports.

It may be a truism to say that voting is political, but throughout our nation’s history the questions of who can vote and how also have been viewed through a political lens.

The past few years have been no different. The most high-profile recent examples came out of former President Donald Trump’s lies about his 2020 election loss. Among his many efforts at disrupting and overturning the election results, Trump questioned several safe and secure voting practices as fraudulent in order to advance his baseless claims — leading his supporters to seek investigations of and changes to some of those policies. At the same time and sometimes in direct opposition to those efforts, others have pressed for policies to make voting easier and more accessible to people in their states.

Today, the Institute for Responsive Government (IRG) is unveiling its in-depth look at the legislative results across the nation from the two years since the 2020 elections.

The group’s Election Policy Progress Reports being released today are a 50-state (plus DC) review of elections policies coming out of the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions. Specifically, the review looks at “how each state has fared at making their election laws more responsive and user-friendly for voters and election administrators over the past two years.”

IRG is taking a different approach than some other election-related reviews. While the institute’s executive director, Sam Oliker-Friedland, credits some of those reports and rankings for their purposes — IRG highlights several in the introduction to the new progress reports — he said his group’s effort went in a slightly different direction.

“We saw a lot of organizations do a lot of baseline analyses of states’ voting policy landscapes,” he said in a phone interview on Jan. 10. His group’s progress reports, instead, are “tightly focusing” on legislative changes or the lack thereof, he said, while also accounting for where the state started.

“This is a resource for folks who are focused on what the legislature can accomplish,” Oliker-Friedland said.

The new reports, Oliker-Friedland explained, answer a set of key questions:

  • How well in 2021 and 2022 did the legislature perform, compared to what we would expect from the state in voting policy?
  • How did they make voting more secure, more efficient, and more accessible?

Law Dork got an advance look at the reports and spoke with Oliker-Friedland about the new project and how the group hopes to see it used by lawmakers and advocates as new legislative sessions begin across the country.

A first thing to understand with this project is how it builds off — and incorporates — other work to reach its goals of influencing change going forward.

Rather than ranking all of the states, the reports separate the states into tiers — “meant to set a baseline level of expectation,” Oliker-Freidland said. Those tiers, in large part, come out of one of those other voting policy rankings, the Cost of Voting Index.

It’s a pretty self-explanatory — but also an ultimately helpful — starting point. The states that “generally make it harder for people to vote through their policies,” as Oliker-Friedland put it, are in the bottom tier. States like Washington, that mail ballots to every voter and have online voter registration or have other voter-friendly policies, start out in the top tier. States with mixed policies are in the middle.

Now, with those tiers in place, this is where the Election Policy Progress Reports aim to do something different.

“This is very much a legislative progress report,” Oliker-Friedland said. “If you want the baseline performance of the election system, we have four recommendations of other fantastic scorecards to look at. We are not that.”

After establishing the tiers, the progress reports grade the states within each tier. Specifically, the group was asking:

  • Did it become easier or harder for a voter to successfully become registered and cast a ballot?
  • Did it generally make the system more efficient and secure?

What all of this means is that these reports are about what shifted and how over the past two years. So, if you see a state in the opening picture that you thought had pro-voter policies with a “lower grade” than a state that you thought had less voter-friendly policies, that is possible — and was pretty much intentional.

It’s a little confusing at first, but Oliker-Friedland makes a fairly compelling case for the value of these reports as an important contribution to the national discussion of how we protect voting rights as we make our way into 2023.

“It’s important that these other scorecards exist, and it’s important to know how easy or hard [a state] makes it to vote,” he said. “It’s also important to know how well a legislature performs compared to expectations, and compared to baselines” — the goal of IRG’s progress reports.

For IRG, this makes almost glaringly obvious sense. As the introduction to the reports lays out, their organization’s goal is “crafting practical state-level policy solutions tailored to the needs of each state’s communities that are built upon their existing systems.”

These reports aim to do just that — and provide supporting backup for advocates, election administrators, and lawmakers seeking to implement those changes within states that are starting from very different places and have very different political environments.

“We didn’t feel like anyone was taking the practical realities of legislating into account when giving their scores,” Oliker-Friedland told me bluntly of the genesis of the Election Policy Progress Reports. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that [lawmakers] are operating in these different systems. If we’re just grading states while pretending that every legislature has the same incentive structure and the same opportunities to pass pro-voter legislation, we’re all going to be disappointed.”

For example, he pointed to Kentucky (Bottom Tier, A-), which he said “did a really good job, despite, I think, a lot of incentives that could have led folks to do a worse job” — pointing to affirmative legislation passed in the state in both of the past two legislative sessions.

Or, South Carolina (Bottom Tier, B+), which he said “did a pretty good job still, and certainly didn’t backslide nearly as much as [they] could have, again, given the particular political ecosystem in South Carolina.”

On the other side of the scale, the progress reports, even within their tiers, highlight the worst actors, for example, states including Texas (Bottom Tier, D-) and Iowa (Mid Tier, F) “that really did backside significantly.”

For example, he pointed to drive-through voting in Texas, which some counties adopted in 2020 to help make voting more accessible to people there. “The legislature after that went in and banned any drive-through polling locations,” he said. “That’s the kind of surgically targeted voter change that has really no reason for it except to make voting harder for people and to make election administrators’ lives harder.”

The tiered system also means that states in the top tier — states that started out with the best systems — aren’t going to get the best possible grade unless they take any needed steps to improve their system. California (Top Tier, B), for example, got its B in large part because while they did pass “some good policies,” Oliker-Friedland said that the state, in both sessions, “did not fix a very broken automatic voter registration, despite the fact that they could have done that.”

In contrast, Nevada (Mid Tier, A) “successfully moved every policy that basically they could have moved,” he said. “They got it done.”

This is not just the creation of a new system — a new ranking! — to create a new system, by Oliker-Friedland’s telling. He sees it as essential to encouraging the best possible results for his goals of more “pro-voter” policies from all states, regardless of whether they’re deep blue, deep red, or somewhere in between.

“I do want to provide legislators in states that got a good grade, even among the bottom tier, the opportunity to be praised and to be able to tout a grade that is maybe a better grade than their state’s election ecosystem would give them [in a flat ranking of all states],” he said.

What about those bluer states with lower grades than they might have thought they should be getting? “If you’re from a state that got a lower grade — for the legislature of California or New York (Mid Tier, B), for example — I want you to know that there are other states that did a better job this year passing pro-voter legislation, so it’s possible, and you should figure out what you need to do next session to get that A.”

And, even for the states that had backsliding policies reflected in these reports, like Texas and Iowa, Oliker-Friedland said there’s a positive argument to be made to them as well.

“If you’re a legislator, you should take from this that like there are other states in similar political contexts that resisted the temptation to basically pander to conspiracy theorists,” he said. “And that did make elections more secure — that accomplished Republican priorities of fighting voter fraud and increasing election security — while not increasing burdens on voters and not increasing burdens on election administrators.”

For advocates, meanwhile, Oliker-Friedland pointed to the context that these progress reports give to them that might be missing from other national rankings.

“We want to empower in-state advocates to be able to do good work based on the particular context of their state,” he said in summing up the value of the progress reports for advocates.

“As you can see from Kentucky and South Carolina, it is possible to accomplish good things in very difficult political climates,” he said. “We want to make sure that advocates everywhere know that they have the tools to make positive changes.”

Published on January 11, 2023 on Law Dork