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How The Voting Debates Will Be Different In 2015

Citizens cast their ballots at the South Shore Park building in Milwaukee, Wis., on Election Day 2014.
Darren Hauck
Getty Images
Citizens cast their ballots at the South Shore Park building in Milwaukee, Wis., on Election Day 2014.

State legislatures are back in session, under more Republican control now than at any other time in U.S. history. One issue they'll be debating a lot is voting — who gets to do it and how.

It's a hot topic, but this year's debate could be less contentious than it has been in the past. One reason is that lawmakers will be considering a lot of proposals to make voting easier and more efficient.

"In many states the most divisive battles have already been fought," says David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "That does give these states an opportunity to address more of these good governance issues. Things like, how do we make the voter registration process more effective, bring it into the 21st century? Should we adopt early voting, for instance? Should we expand the reach of mail voting?"

There are many such proposals among the 1,200 voting bills already introduced in state legislatures this year.

Several measures would expand online voter registration, something half the states already allow. Voters like the option and it saves money — something both parties can support.

Many lawmakers also want to clean up voter registration lists, which are often filled with outdated and invalid entries.

Wendy Underhill, who follows voting laws at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says there's a lot of interest in making sure that voter registration rolls are accurate. Several bills would require states to compare their voting lists with other states and national databases to weed out duplicate names.

There are also proposals in Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, New York and Oregon to do something completely new — automatically register eligible citizens to vote, unless they opt out.

Underhill says there are also many measures that would expand early and absentee voting.

"Right now, there are 37 states that offer such an opportunity for their voters," she says. "But that leaves another 13 states that don't have one of those options. And it looks like there is legislation in nine of those."

Becker says the bottom line is that voters today want convenience and lawmakers have gotten the message. Politicians have also realized that they might benefit.

"In the 2014 election cycle, both parties, particularly the Republican Party, used early voting quite effectively to their advantage to turn their voters out prior to Election Day," says Becker. "So this is something that both parties like. A voter they turn out early is a voter they don't have to worry about turning out on Election Day."

Of course, it's difficult to predict which of the many bills introduced will pass.

And it doesn't mean there won't be any big fights over voting in state legislative chambers. Republican lawmakers in Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico are trying to push through bills requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, something Democrats strongly oppose. And, Underhill says, there are similar efforts in West Virginia and Nevada that will be especially interesting to watch.

"Because, in both cases, the legislature was in the hands of Democrats until the 2014 elections and now, in both cases, the legislature is in the hands of Republicans," she says. "So it's possible that voter ID will have more of a chance there than in previous years."

She adds that there might be fewer contentious voter ID proposals so far this year because voter ID laws already enacted in other states are being challenged in the courts. Proponents might wait to see how that plays out first, before pushing ahead with their own proposals.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.