ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
State legislatures are back in session this year, and one issue they'll be debating a lot is voting. Who gets to do it and how? It is always a hot political topic, but as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, this year's debate might not be what you would expect.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: You might be thinking, as we approach another big presidential election, that you'll be hearing a lot of this...
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How many examples do you have? Is it one voter?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, if one voter is cheated out of their vote, do you not think we should address that?
WOMAN: So, therefore, hundreds of other people can't vote because you believe that...
FESSLER: That's two Missouri lawmakers going at it last week over proposed voter ID law. But this year, to be honest, you're more likely to hear this...
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BOB HASEGAWA: All you have to do is mark who you're voting for, what you're voting for, send it back in the mailbox, and it's done.
FESSLER: That's Washington State Senator Bob Hasegawa promoting his bill for postage-paid mail-in ballots. In fact, after years of partisan wrangling, one of the main things you might see lawmakers considering this year is how to make voting easier and more efficient.
DAVID BECKER: In many states, the most divisive battles have already been fought.
FESSLER: David Becker is director of election initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
BECKER: 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, bringing it into the 21st century? Should we adopt early voting, for instance? Should we expand the reach of mail voting?
FESSLER: And indeed, there are many such proposals among the 1,200 voting bills already introduced this year. Several would expand online voter registration, something that half the states already allow. Voters like it, and it saves money, something both parties can support. Many lawmakers also want to clean up voter registration lists. They're often filled with outdated and invalid entries, including voters who have died.
WENDY UNDERHILL: A lot of interest in making sure that the rolls are accurate.
FESSLER: Wendy Underhill is with the National Conference of State Legislatures. She says there are several bills to compare state voting lists with other state and national databases to weed out duplicate names. There are also proposals in Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, New York and Oregon to automatically register citizens to vote unless they decide to opt out. And Underhill says there are many measures to expand early and absentee voting.
UNDERHILL: Right now there are 37 states that offer such an opportunity for their voters. 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.
FESSLER: David Becker says the bottom line is that voters today want convenience, and lawmakers have gotten the message.
BECKER: And of course 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. 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.
FESSLER: And of course this doesn't mean there won't be any partisan fights. As mentioned earlier, lawmakers in Missouri, all Republicans, are trying to push through a strict photo ID law, which Democrats strongly oppose. The same is happening in Nebraska and New Mexico. Underhill says it will be especially interesting to watch similar efforts in West Virginia and Nevada...
UNDERHILL: ...Because in both cases, the legislature was in the hands of Democrats until the 2014 election. And now in both cases, the legislature is in the hands of Republicans. So it's possible that voter ID will have more of a chance there than in previous years.
FESSLER: And she says there might be fewer such bills right now because voter ID laws passed in other states are being challenged in the courts. Opponents might be waiting to see how that plays out first before pushing ahead. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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