As voters across the country head to the polls, they’ll once again weigh in on a number of races that could have significant implications for voting rights and fair elections. Topping the list of Tuesday’s elections that could have a major impact on our democracy are four states with competitive contests up and down the ballot:
Virginia: With every seat in the state legislature up, Republicans could gain total control over state government if they flip the Democratic-held state Senate.
Pennsylvania: An important vacancy on the state Supreme Court seat will be filled, and several local races will determine which party administers elections heading into 2024 in this major swing state.
Kentucky: The governor’s race will likely determine whether thousands of citizens regain their voting rights or remain disenfranchised.
Maine: Several ballot measures could reform elections, including a proposed ban on foreign spending on ballot measures.
Since the 2010 elections, Republican-led states across the country have enacted hundreds of policies to restrict voting rights and gerrymander electoral maps to entrench their power. At the same time, right-wing courts have green-lighted these same power grabs. Conversely, Democratic-led states have made great strides in expanding voting rights and reforming electoral institutions, while liberal-leaning state courts have protected voting access.
Ballot measures, meanwhile, have also been a key tool for protecting the right to vote, ending gerrymandering, and implementing a host of other reforms to address flaws with the status quo.
Join us at Daily Kos Elections for live coverage on Tuesday night when the first polls close at 6 PM ET. (For a complete rundown of all the contests we’re tracking, check out Jeff Singer’s hour-by-hour guide.)
Republican Glenn Youngkin holds the governor’s office, the GOP controls a 52-48 state House majority, and conservatives also make up a majority of the state Supreme Court. The only thing standing in the GOP’s way is the state Senate, where Democrats hold a 22-18 majority. Republicans are hungry to flip the Senate, while Democrats are eager to take back the House, and both chambers are up for grabs.
If Republicans win unified control over the whole state, though, the implications would be disastrous for voting rights. But a Democratic-controlled legislature could take steps toward expanding voting access even though Youngkin’s term runs another two years.
In 2019, Democrats took charge of Virginia’s government for the first time in 26 years and quickly enacted a range of policies to expand voting rights in a state that had long lagged behind. These new laws included automatic and same-day voter registration, expanded early voting, excuse-free mail voting, a state-level Voting Rights Act, and much more. The past two Democratic governors also ended Virginia’s Jim Crow policy of lifetime felony disenfranchisement by restoring voting rights to everyone not in prison, roughly 300,000 people in all.
Half of Democratic lawmakers also joined with Republicans to pass a constitutional amendment creating a bipartisan redistricting commission, which voters approved in 2020. Although this flawed reform saw the commission deadlock in 2021, the state Supreme Court stepped in and adopted new maps that treated both parties neutrally.
The court’s new legislative maps are being used for the first time this year. The battle for the legislature is highly competitive in large part due to those maps, because Democrats voluntarily relinquished their power to gerrymander.
But Republicans, of course, did not abandon their efforts to suppress the vote. Youngkin unilaterally reinstated the Jim Crow policy of lifetime disenfranchisement for all felony convictions, giving himself sole discretion over whose rights to restore. His administration was also recently exposed for wrongly purging thousands of eligible voters from the rolls leading up to this year’s elections. Youngkin’s administration claims to have restored most of the 3,400 people wrongly removed, but the true extent of the problem is unclear.
If Republicans flip the Senate and hold the House, they will almost certainly repeal many of the policies Democrats implemented to expand voting rights, and they could also enact many of their own to further undermine access to the ballot box. However, if Democrats retain even one chamber, they could block any such rollback, and if they win both, they could kickstart a multiyear process to expand voting rights, something Youngkin couldn’t veto.
In 2021, Democrats passed a constitutional amendment to permanently end felony voter disenfranchisement for everyone not in prison. However, amendments must pass in two consecutive sessions—both before and after a state election—before they can go on the ballot for voter approval, and the GOP-led House refused to take it up after 2021. If Democrats win both legislative chambers this year, they could restart the process and ultimately put the amendment before voters in 2026.
Virginia is also one of just two states in the country where legislators directly elect state Supreme Court justices, with the members of both chambers voting as one combined body. Conservatives hold a 5-2 majority, and no current justice’s term expires until 2027, but electing Democratic majorities would prevent Republicans from installing another conservative should a vacancy arise sooner.
Pennsylvania—one of the most important swing states in the country—is holding a partisan election for a state Supreme Court seat that became vacant after the chief justice, Democrat Max Baer, died last year. Several counties are also holding important local elections that will shape how elections are administered in their jurisdictions.
Two judges are competing to fill that Supreme Court opening: Democrat Dan McCaffery, a mainstream jurist, and Republican Carolyn Carluccio, who has flirted with 2020 election denialism and signaled she would uphold a future abortion ban if Republicans were to pass one.
Democrats have controlled the court since flipping it in 2015 and currently enjoy a 4-2 majority. Baer’s seat, however, has remained vacant for more than a year because there was never any chance that the Republican-run Senate would confirm an appointee named by a Democratic governor (whether incumbent Josh Shapiro or his predecessor, Tom Wolf).
The most emphatic demonstration of the new Democratic majority’s impact came in 2018. That year, the court issued a landmark decision finding that partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution, overturning the GOP’s congressional gerrymander and replacing it with a much fairer map. This decade, the court once again drew a nonpartisan congressional map following a deadlock between Wolf and lawmakers.
It also appointed a tiebreaking member to the state’s bipartisan legislative redistricting commission, which in turn implemented fairer maps to replace the prior Republican gerrymanders. These new legislative maps enabled Democrats to gain a one-seat majority in the state House last year, ending 12 years of Republican control. Democrats also have a legitimate chance to flip the Senate next year.
The court has also safeguarded voting rights in other ways. When the pandemic disrupted the 2020 presidential election, the court’s Democratic majority issued key decisions protecting voting access. These rulings particularly affected mail voting, which surged in use that year despite Republican efforts to restrict it.
While Democrats will maintain control of the court regardless of how the 2023 election turns out, a 5-2 majority will offer much greater protection than a 4-3 advantage. That’s because, on at least two occasions, one Democratic justice has sided with Republicans in key voting rights cases. With Baer’s seat vacant, that’s resulted in split 3-3 decisions, which have the effect of leaving the ruling that’s being appealed intact.
In one critical case last year, the court’s deadlock meant that counties would remain barred from counting mail ballots that had been received on time but had missing or incorrect dates on their outer envelopes. If Carluccio prevails, we could see more such situations arise. A GOP win this year would also put Republicans in a better position to retake the court in the future.
At the local level, control over county legislative bodies will determine who administers elections in many counties across Pennsylvania. As Bolts’ Daniel Nichanian has reported, this has led to widely varying levels of access to mail voting and ballot drop boxes depending on which party is in charge of county government.
Major battles are underway for two of the state’s most populous counties. In Allegheny County, which contains Pittsburgh and, with 1.3 million people, is Pennsylvania’s second-largest county, the race for county executive will determine which party controls the local Board of Elections. While the county is solidly blue in even-year elections, off-year turnout could give well-funded Republican Joe Rockey an opening against Democrat Sara Innamorato, who is running as a staunch progressive.
Meanwhile, Bucks County, a major suburb of Philadelphia that’s home to 647,000 people, has been swing turf for three decades. Democrats there finally won a majority on the county commission in 2019 for the first time since 1983. But Republicans are making a major push to regain power and could limit voting access if they win.
Given how close Pennsylvania has been at the presidential level in recent years, the outcomes in these two counties—and potentially others as well—could have an outsized impact on the 2024 elections.
Just days after taking office following his upset win in 2019, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear used his executive powers to implement a policy of restoring voting rights to citizens who had fully served a sentence for nonviolent felonies. As a result, Beshear has restored voting rights to at least 180,000 people.
Kentucky is one of the most restrictive states for voting access, and that overall picture isn’t likely to change with Republicans holding overwhelming majorities in the legislature, which is elected in even-numbered years. However, the situation could grow even more repressive if Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron unseats Beshear.
Cameron could rescind Beshear’s executive order and revive lifetime disenfranchisement for all crimes going forward (though people who have regained their rights would not lose them again without another conviction). Kentucky’s previous Republican governor, Matt Bevin, did just that when he took office in 2015: He almost immediately reversed a similar rights restoration order issued by his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who is Andy Beshear’s father.
While polling has consistently given Beshear a narrow advantage over Cameron, Kentucky remains a deep red state, so Democrats can take nothing for granted.
Maine is voting on several ballot measures this month, four of which would impact elections and voting.
Question 2 is a voter-led initiative that would ban foreign governments (or entities where those governments have at least a 5% ownership stake) from spending on elections for ballot measures in Maine. Federal law already prohibits foreign spending on behalf of federal, state, and local candidates but not for ballot campaigns.
This proposal comes after a Canadian utility company spent over $22 million in an unsuccessful effort to defeat a 2021 ballot initiative that sought to block an infrastructure project to transmit electricity from Canada to New England. However, a court ruled earlier this year that the initiative could not apply retroactively and let the project move forward.
The Democratic-run legislature has also put three constitutional amendments on the ballot with some GOP support. Question 5 would give state officials more time to review voter signatures for ballot initiatives, which the secretary of state’s office says would reduce the burden on election officials.
Meanwhile, Question 7 would repeal a requirement that only Maine residents who are registered voters can gather signatures for initiatives, which a federal court previously deemed unconstitutional. And Question 8 would remove language disenfranchising would-be voters who are under guardianship for a mental illness, which a federal court has also ruled unconstitutional.