10 Local Elections This Month That Matter to Voting Rights

These key hotspots will shape how elections are administered across the country and how easily people can exercise their right to vote.

Bolts Staff   |    November 3, 2023

Candidates for Mississippi secretary of state, incumbent Republican Michael Watson, right and his Democratic opponent Ty Pinkins, shake hands after participating in a non-debate forum on Oct. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Elected officials shape the rules and procedures of U.S. elections: This head-spinning situation makes off-year cycles like 2023 critical to the shape of democracy since many offices in state and local governments are on the ballot. 

In this guide, Bolts introduces you to ten elections that are coming up this month that will impact how local officials administer future elections, and how easily people can exercise their voting rights. 

Voters this month will select the secretaries of state of Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi, who’ll each be the chief elections officials within their state. They will choose a new supreme court justice in Pennsylvania, a swing state with looming election law battles, and dozens of county officials who’ll decide how easy it is to vote in Pennsylvania and Washington state next year. And some ballot measures may change election law in Maine and Michigan.

All these elections are scheduled for Nov. 7, except for Louisiana’s runoff on Nov. 18. 

As we cover the places where democracy is on the ballot, our staff is also keeping an eye on the other side of the coin—the people who are excluded from having a say in their democracy: Three of the eight states featured on this page have among the nation’s harshest laws barring people with criminal convictions from the polls, and our three-part series highlights their stories. And beyond the stakes for voting rights, our cheat sheet to the 2023 elections also lays out dozens of other local elections this November that will shape criminal justice, abortion access, education, and other issues. 

Kentucky | Secretary of state

Michael Adams, the Republican secretary of state of Kentucky, has vocally pushed back against the false conspiracies surrounding the 2020 election, and he has touted his efforts to facilitate mail and early voting during the pandemic. He survived the GOP primary this spring by beating back election deniers who wanted to replace him as the state’s chief election administrator.

Buddy Wheatley, Adams’ Democratic challenger and a former lawmaker, says the state should go much further in expanding ballot access. The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that the candidates disagree on whether the state should institute same-day registration and set-up an independent redistricting commission, two proposals of Wheatley’s that Adams opposes. 

The election is unfolding in the shadow of the governor’s race, in which Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear is running for reelection four years after restoring the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of people who had been barred from voting for life. (Adams and Wheatley have both said they support the executive order.) Voting rights advocates regret that the order still leaves hundreds of thousands Kentuckians shut out from voting and that the state hasn’t done enough to notify newly-enfranchised residents; Bolts reports that a coalition led by formerly incarcerated activists has stepped into that void to register people.

Louisiana | Secretary of state 

In trying to appease election deniers since the 2020 presidential election, Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin weakened Louisiana’s voting system and gave a platform to election conspiracists. His successor will be decided in a Nov. 18 runoff between Republican Nancy Landry, who currently serves as his deputy, and Gwen Collins-Greenup, a Democratic attorney. Each received 19 percent of the vote in the all-party primary on Oct. 14, but Landry is favored in the Nov. 18 runoff since much of the remainder of the vote went to other Republican contenders.

Not unlike Ardoin, Landry has resisted election deniers’ most radical proposals but she has also echoed unfounded suspicions of voter fraud and election irregularities, Cameron Joseph reported in Bolts. The next secretary of state will have to deal with continued pressure from the far-right, Joseph writes, while making critical decisions regarding the state’s outdated voting equipment: The state’s efforts to replace the equipment have stalled in recent years amid unfounded election conspiracies about the role of machines in skewing election results.

Maine | Question 8

Since its drafting two centuries ago, Maine’s constitution has barred people who are under guardianship from voting in state and local elections. Then, in 2001, a federal court declared the provision to be invalid in response to a lawsuit filed by an organization that protects the rights of disabled residents.

Mainers may scrub this exclusionary language from its state constitution on Nov. 7, S.E. Smith explains in Bolts: Question 8 would “remove a provision prohibiting a person under guardianship for reasons of mental illness from voting.” While Mainers under guardianship can already vote irrespective of this constitutional amendment due to the 2001 court ruling, Smith reports that the referendum could spark momentum for other states with exclusionary rules to revise who can cast ballots and shake up what is now a complicated patchwork of eligibility rules nationwide. 

Michigan | Municipal referendums on ranked choice voting

Three Michigan cities will each decide whether to switch to ranked-choice voting—a system in which voters rank the different candidates on the ballot rather than only opting for one—for their local elections. If the initiatives pass, residents in East Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Royal Oak would join Ann Arbor, which approved a similar measure in 2021.

But there’s a catch: Even if voters approve ranked choice voting, it will not be implemented until the state of Michigan first adopts a bill authorizing the method statewide. The legislation to do so has stalled in the legislature so far.

Many cities have newly adopted ranked-choice voting in recent years, and some will use the method for the first time this November; they include Boulder, Colorado, and several Utah cities such as Salt Lake. Other municipalities this fall will also consider changing local rules: Rockville, Maryland, in the suburbs of D.C., holds two advisory referendums on whether their city should lower the voting age to 16 and enable noncitizens to vote in local elections.

Mississippi | Secretary of state

Republican Michael Watson spent his first term as secretary of state defending restrictions on ballot access. He stated he worries about more college students voting, rejected expanding mail voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, and championed a law that banned assisting people in casting an absentee ballot (the law was blocked by a court this summer). He is currently fighting  a lawsuit against the state’s practice of permanently disenfranchising people with some felony convictions.

Watson is now seeking a second term against Democrat Ty Pinkins, an attorney who only jumped into the race in September after the prior Democratic nominee withdrew for health reasons. Pinkins has taken Watson to task for backing these restrictions, and he says he is running to expand opportunities to vote, such as setting up online and same-day voter registration. Pinkins this fall also teamed up with Greta Kemp Martin—the Democrat challenging Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who is currently representing Watson in the lawsuit against felony disenfranchisement—to say that the state should expand rights restoration for people with felony convictions.

Pennsylvania | Supreme court justice

Pennsylvanians will fill a vacant seat on their state’s high court, where Democrats currently enjoy a majority. The outcome cannot change partisan control but it will still shape election law in this swing state, BoltsAlex Burness reports. For one, a GOP win would make it easier for the party to flip the court in 2025, affecting redistricting. It may also make it easier for the GOP to win election lawsuits next year: Voting cases haven’t always been party-line for this court, especially ones that revolve around how permissive the state should be toward mail ballots. Recent rulings made it more likely that mail ballots with clerical mistakes get tossed, an issue that now looms over the 2024 election.

Burness reports that Republican nominee Carolyn Carluccio has echoed Trump’s attacks against mail voting, implying an unfounded connection to election fraud, and she appeared to invite a new legal challenge to a state law that expanded ballot access in 2019. Dan McCaffery, her Democratic opponent, has defended state efforts to make voting more convenient, telling Bolts, “If we’re going to err, we should always err on the side of including votes.”

Pennsylvania | Bucks County commission

Pennsylvanians are electing the local officials who’ll run the 2024 elections, and the results will shape how easy it is for millions of people to vote next year in the nation’s biggest swing state. Daniel Nichanian reports in Bolts that counties have a great deal of discretion when it comes to the modalities of voting by mail, and local voting rights attorneys warn that if more counties adopt tighter rules, tens of thousands of additional ballots may be rejected.

Bucks County stands as the clearest jurisdiction to watch, Nichanian writes. Democrats gained control of the commission in 2019, part of a firewall against Trump’s efforts to game the following year’s election. The county commissioners made it easier to vote by mail, attracting legal challenges from Trump.  Now, they’re now running for reelection, but the Republican Party is hoping to gain control of this swing county’s commission. 

Also keep an eye on the Democratic efforts to retain majorities in the other Pennsylvania counties they gained in 2019, often for the first time in decades: Delaware, Chester, Lehigh, and Monroe. The GOP would also gain control of the board of elections in Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, if it scores an upset in the county executive race. Sam DeMarco, who signed up as a fake Trump elector in 2020, is already certain to sit on Allegheny County’s board of elections.

Pennsylvania | Berks County commission

Will any Pennsylvania county try to stall the certification of elections next year, in a repeat of Trump’s strategy in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential race? The results of next week’s elections will determine which are susceptible to try out such a strategy, Daniel Nichanian reports in Bolts. Election attorneys told him that this would be a dereliction of duties on the part of county commissioners but that it may still cause some legal and political upheaval. Already in 2022, the Republican commissioners in three counties resisted certifying results because they insisted on rejecting valid mail ballots; they’re now all seeking reelection.

The Democratic challengers running in Berks County—the most politically competitive of these three counties—say this is a key issue in their race. “The most important thing is that we have a board of commissioners that endorses the winner of a campaign,” one of them told Bolts. But they’re also running on a platform of easing mail voting by installing more accessible ballot drop boxes, and instituting new policies to notify residents if their ballots have a clerical error. Also keep an eye on Fayette and Lancaster, the other counties that tried to not certify the 2022 results, and in the many red jurisdictions where candidates with ties to election deniers made it past the Republican primaries.

Virginia | Legislative control

Since Virginia Republicans gained the governorship and state House in 2021, they have passed bills through the lower chamber to repeal same-day voter registration and get rid of ballot drop boxes, among other restrictive measures. Until now, these bills have died in the Democratic-run Senate. But will that change after Nov. 7, when Virginians elect all lawmakers?

The GOP is hoping to gain control of the Senate while defending its majority in the House, Bolts reports, a combination that would hand them full control of the state government and open the floodgates for the party’s conservative agenda on how the commonwealth should run elections. Inversely, if Democrats have a great night—flipping the House and keeping the Senate—they may have more oversight over Governor Glenn Youngkin’s dramatic curtailment of rights restoration and over his administration’s wrongful voter purges; still, those matters are decided within the executive branch, and the governor’s office is not on the ballot until 2025.

Washington | King County director of elections

Only one county in the entire state of Washington is electing its chief administrator. It just so happens to be King County, home to Seattle and more than 2 million residents—in a race that features a staunch election denier, no less. Doug Basler has sowed doubts about Washington state’s election system since the 2020 election, alongside others on the far-right, and he has helped a lawsuit against its mail voting system.

Basler is a heavy underdog on Nov. 7 in his challenge against Julie Wise, the Director of King County Elections. This is a heavily Democratic county, though there will be no partisan label on the ballot, potentially blunting the effect of Basler’s Republican affiliation. Still, Cameron Joseph reports in Bolts that the spread of false election conspiracies—even when they are defeated at the ballot box—is fueling a threatening climate. “It’s a very scary time to be an election administrator,” Wise told Bolts.

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