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Democracy Desk: Key themes to watch this election year

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By Carrie Davis and Melanie McElroy

This is the first installment of Democracy Desk, an election year series highlighting key issues throughout the Great Lakes region, and spotlighting the work of our grantee partners — all nonpartisan organizations — to ensure free, fair, accessible, safe, and trusted elections.

As election nerds and democracy policy wonks, we get excited about presidential election years. This is “go” time for nonpartisan organizations that spend year after year developing best practices to improve voter turnout and support sound election administration practices. In recent years, they have also wrestled with many other issues, including 1) how to help election officials combat a deluge of mis- and dis-information; 2) keeping voters informed about policy changes that may impact their voting experience; 3) participating in lawsuits to protect voters’ rights 4) upholding the integrity of the election process; and 5) grappling with newer concerns like preventing political violence.

While the headlines are already being dominated by the partisan horserace of presidential and congressional races and myriad state and local offices, we want to spotlight some of the less-covered issues about how our elections are run.

Here are a few themes to watch for this election cycle.

The election calendar is long.

Many think a presidential election year is all about that first Tuesday in November, but there are many important dates on this year’s election calendar to follow. Great Lakes states’ primary elections are scattered from February to August, with some states holding combined presidential and state primaries, while others hold presidential and state primaries on different dates, often months apart. [See an abbreviated Great Lakes elections calendar below].

Election calendars are also getting longer because the increase in early voting policies and vote by mail means more voters are casting ballots before Election Day. That also means that voting rights organizations like All Voting is Local begin their work earlier to ensure voters understand their voting options and election officials can send ballots and receive them back without a hitch.

The earliest presidential primaries and caucuses began in January 2024 and final certification of the presidential election results will run through January 2025. Non-partisan grassroots organizations like those in the State Voices networks in Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin are strapped in for a long year of educating voters, observing polling places and early voting centers, and supporting fair election practices with election protection partners.


Nonpartisan Voting OrganizationsPriorities

While partisan organizations are focused on candidates and getting out the vote for their candidates, non-partisan organizations are busy ensuring the election process works for everyone. Some of their priorities this cycle include:

1. Primary Elections = Practice Runs

Many states in the Great Lakes region and elsewhere have changed election policies since 2020 and 2022. In states that are implementing new voting laws, primary elections serve as an important practice run. In Michigan, for example, the February primary is a test run for several new policies including absentee ballot tracking and nine days of early voting. Seeing how these new policies are implemented and identifying any problems in the primary will help election administrators and voter advocates make adjustments and will make for a smoother general election in November.

Primaries are also an opportunity to make sure polling places are adequately staffed and serve as valuable training for newly recruited poll workers. There has been an ongoing shift in the participation of poll workers in recent years. Poll workers have historically been made up heavily of retirees, but the Covid pandemic combined with other factors like increased use of technology are driving a need to recruit a new generation of poll workers. Younger, more tech-savvy, and diverse volunteers are filling these roles, but it continues to be a struggle to recruit enough to fill all of the necessary roles for early vote sites through Election Day.

2. Voter Education

Non-partisan groups serve as trusted messengers, providing culturally competent voter education in communities that need it most, and keeping voters informed about their voting rights and new policies. Between lax fact-checking oversight on social media and the rise of AI-generated content, voters face increased barriers to participation in our elections. As a result, voting rights leaders are finding innovative new ways to build trust and squash misinformation, while disseminating accurate information.

In Ohio, this will be the first presidential election with a new strict voter I.D. law, which increases barriers to voting for people without access to a state I.D. or who do not have a driver’s license. The Ohio Voting Rights Coalition is working to ensure that voters understand this change and can acquire necessary identification so that eligible voters are not turned away and denied their right to vote.

3. Targeting New and Infrequent Voters

Groups are supporting the implementation of new voting policies and ensuring new voters have the information they need to participate. Where recent policies to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated citizens are being implemented, they are doubling down on education and mobilization efforts. Minnesota adopted numerous election reforms in 2023 that include the re-enfranchisement of over 50,000 formerly incarcerated people on probation or parole who are now eligible to vote. New laws allowing pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds are also increasing youth and student engagement. Data shows how pivotal young voters have been in deciding close races, so the ability of organizations to meet them where they are and provide support is crucial.

It’s also important for nonpartisan groups to engage infrequent voters because partisan campaigns tend to focus only on regular voters, the cycle of low or infrequent turnout is perpetuated in under-invested communities. These overlooked voters face a higher risk of disenfranchisement by confusion since the rules may have changed since they last voted. The only way to mobilize infrequent voters is to invest in local organizations, leaders, and communication strategies that they trust and are capable of reaching them. As a result, voter advocacy groups are also engaging new and infrequent voters across the Great Lakes states with help from several new voter access policies.


Redistricting Developments

As a result of recent court decisions, voters in several states nationwide may be voting in newly redrawn legislative districts. A federal court in Michigan struck down 13 state legislative district maps in Metro Detroit, where the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) will redraw 7 state house districts this year and 6 state senate districts for 2026. Voters Not Politicians, the organization behind the initial ballot initiative that led to the creation of the MICRC, is offering communications, education, and implementation support in Michigan, along with Promote the Vote and other democracy partners. The Wisconsin State Supreme Court struck down all state legislative districts which will now be redrawn for this year. Law Forward is advocating for the court to adopt more fairly drawn maps in Wisconsin.

Implementing new maps, especially during a presidential election year, can be complicated and requires diligence. Election officials must ensure that voters’ precinct information is up to date when their district maps have changed, and non-partisan voting rights groups play an important role in helping explain these changes to voters.

Carrie Davis is the Democracy Program Director and Melanie McElroy is the Democracy Program Officer. Protecting and expanding voting rights, ensuring fair and accessible elections, and supporting research and policy solutions to remedy voting barriers rooted in systemic inequity are key components of the Democracy Program portfolio. Learn more about the portfolio here.


Important 2024 Election Dates

February

  • Michigan: Presidential Primary – February 27, 2024

March

  • Super Tuesday: Minnesota’s Presidential Primary – March 5, 2024
  • Ohio & Illinois: Presidential & State Primaries – March 19, 2024

April

  • Wisconsin: Presidential Primary – April 2, 2024

May

  • Indiana: Presidential & State Primary – May 7, 2024

July

  • RNC in Milwaukee – July 15 – July 18, 2024

August

  • Michigan: State Primary – August 6, 2024
  • Wisconsin & Minnesota: State Primaries – August 13, 2024
  • DNC in Chicago – August 19 – August 22, 2024

November

  • General Election Day – November 5, 2024

Authors

Learn More about Carrie
Portrait of Carrie L. Davis

Carrie L. Davis

Program Director

Learn More about Melanie
Portrait of Melanie McElroy

Melanie McElroy

Program Officer

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