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Local Progress Explores Avenues to Strengthen Voting Rights

On June 25, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which had blocked over 1,500 discriminatory voting laws since it was passed in 1965. Two days after the Court’s decision, sixty elected officials, staffers, and advocates came together for a Local Progress webinar and strategy session about steps cities and counties can take to strengthen voting rights, expand the franchise, and protect our democracy. Below are some of the possible avenues that municipal officials can take. 

Cities and counties can implement low-cost programs to register more eligible voters:

Local Progress Board Member Faith Winter (Mayor Pro Tem, Westminster, CO) described her proposal to increase registration among renters (who are often lower-income, young, or black or Hispanic) by mandating that landlords distribute voter registration forms when new tenants move in. The requirement has been successfully adopted in Madison (WI), Ann Arbor (MI), and Berkeley (CA).

Similarly, cities can work with local high schools to register as many students as possible and can ensure that residents are given the opportunity to register at public libraries, community centers, police stations, housing departments, and other government offices. Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice explained how city and county officials can push for voter registration modernization that will expand registration, eliminate many errors, and reduce hassle for voters and administrators.

Some localities can implement public financing of local elections

As Executive Director Amy Loprest of the New York City Campaign Finance Board explained at the Local Progress webinar, New York City provides six dollars in public financing for every one dollar raised by candidates for city council and mayor. Candidates who participate in the program commit to a limitation on their total spending, which ensures that money will not determine the outcome of the race. Evidence has shown that the program reduces the influence of moneyed interests, permits middle-class candidates to run competitive races and win, and engages a broader segment of the population in the electoral process. The Seattle City Council recently scheduled a referendum for local voters to decide whether to adopt a similar system there.

Cities can expand the franchise to new groups of voters

Local Progress member Tim Male (Takoma Park, MD) described his successful legislative campaign to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections, on the basis of research showing that voting is habitual and that norms related to political participation in high school have lasting impacts. In addition, some cities can reinstitute the old tradition of non-citizen voting in local elections. Through a referendum, Takoma Park enfranchised noncitizen residents in 1992. In 2010, ballot initiatives were very narrowly defeated in Portland (ME) and San Francisco. In New York City, a broad coalition of advocacy groups, unions, scholars, and elected officials are now advancing a proposal to enfranchise the 1.2 million lawfully present residents.