Across the nation, and in Pa., Republican wave of voting restrictions swells | Analysis

By: - March 28, 2021 6:30 am

Voters line up at a polling place on Election Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Matt Vasilogambros

Voting rights activists worried this year could bring a tsunami of new voting restrictions. It’s arrived.

As of last month, Republican lawmakers in 43 states had introduced more than 250 bills that would make it more difficult to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, up from about 100 in 28 states two months ago.Last

Thursday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed off on an overhaul of Georgia’s voting laws that limit absentee voting with partisan support and an acknowledgement that courts will decide if new restrictions are legal, the Georgia Recorder, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, reported.

But Democrats also are focusing on ballot access during this year’s legislative sessions: They have introduced nearly three times as many bills that would make it easier to vote.

Despite the logistical success of the November presidential election, when most election experts saw few widespread problems, misinformation surrounding the legitimacy of the democratic process has fueled the GOP efforts.

Former President Donald Trump’s lies about voter fraud and a corrupted election system, which culminated in the Jan. 6 pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol, remain salient. Recent polls show that three-quarters of Republican voters believe the election was stolen.

Saying they want to safeguard the integrity of elections and restore voters’ trust, GOP lawmakers are advancing bills that would reduce the number of ballot drop boxes or eliminate them, drastically curtail early voting periods and limit who can vote by mail.

This legislation could be devastating for voter turnout, especially in communities of color and for voters with disabilities, voting rights advocates warn.

“It’s all sort of geared toward addressing this specter of fraud and the specter of problems that don’t really exist,” said Brad Ashwell, the Florida state director for All Voting is Local, a voting rights nonprofit.

“They’re looking to make the process harder, more costly, and create a lot more voter confusion.”

Florida Republicans have introduced several restrictive voting bills, including one that would ban ballot drop boxes and block mail-in ballot applications that were used in previous elections. The authors of the bills say these measures are essential for improving election security.

Republicans in other states echo those arguments. Arizona state Sen. J.D. Mesnard said he has received “overwhelming” feedback from his constituents about what they perceive as a lack of integrity in the voting process.

“One strategy is you just say, ‘Nothing to see here,’ and dismiss those concerns, and try to make the case they’ve been lied to or deceived,” he told Stateline. “That doesn’t fix the problem, true or not. I’ve stayed away from any declarations other than acknowledge there’s this massive number of people that have lost faith in the system.”

‘It Is a Direct Attack’

Arizona Republicans are set to pass a bill that would cull the permanent early voting list of voters who have not participated in four straight elections. Proponents hope this will reduce ballots sent to inactive or deceased voters. Another bill that would add voter ID or affidavit requirements for mail-in ballots passed the state Senate.

“Most of the Republican bills are concerned about limiting the possibility of fraud,” said state Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican who chairs the Arizona House Government and Elections Committee. “And that’s a legitimate issue.”

But bills like the ones being considered in Arizona could have a disproportionate impact on voters with disabilities, said Jon Meyers, the executive director of The Arc of Arizona, a disability rights group. A bill that would require more forms of ID for voting absentee could hurt people with cognitive or physical disabilities who do not drive or understand differences in acceptable types of credentials. Another bill that would shorten absentee voting periods could also hurt voters with disabilities who need more time to correct signature matching issues.

“It’s tightening this belt around who can and cannot participate in an election,” Meyers said. “They are seeking to disenfranchise people who legitimately have the right to vote, who should not have barriers put in their path. And people with disabilities often get caught in that crossfire.”

In The Keystone State

In Pennsylvania last week, county election officials from across the commonwealth told lawmakers on Tuesday that they’re burnt out and beleaguered after rolling out a new vote-by-mail program during the contentious 2020 race, the Capital-Star previously reported.

The local officials said they felt defeated by vagaries and tight deadlines in the law the General Assembly passed in 2019, which they spent much of the last year asking lawmakers to amend.

Now, with barely two months to go until the May primary race, they’re preparing to hold another election under conditions that they say are less than ideal.

“The stress level in our profession is at a breaking point,” Lawrence County Election Director Ed Allison said Tuesday, when he testified alongside four other county election officials at a hearing held by the Senate Election Integrity Commission. Senate Republican leaders convened the committee this year to study election policies and recommend changes to Pennsylvania’s election code.

With one election barely over, state lawmakers look to make fixes ahead of the next one

Nearly two dozen election directors departed their jobs in 2020, when the new vote-by-mail law required them to complete new administrative tasks under deadlines that left little room for error.

The seismic change to Pennsylvania’s election system became more difficult when COVID-19 hit last March, and the state promoted mail-in ballots as a safe alternative to in-person voting. County election bureaus had to mail out more than 1.5 million mail-in ballots in the May 2020 primary and 3 million in November’s General Election.

One Pennsylvania lawmaker,  Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, has called for the repeal of no-excuse mail-in ballots in a memo sent to his colleagues Tuesday.

That expansion of voting rights was approved in fall 2019 in a compromise between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Known as Act 77, it was approved by all but two Republicans. Gregory was among those who voted for it.

The Impact on Voters of Color

For voters of color, many of these Republican-led measures that would cut voting hours or add burdensome steps to casting an absentee ballot feel like an attempt by White lawmakers to retain power in a rapidly diversifying nation.

That feeling resonates for Black activists in Georgia, where Black voters accounted for nearly half of the growth in the state’s voter population between 2000 and 2019, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline.)

Republican-sponsored bills in Georgia would reduce absentee voting periods, eliminate mobile voting units and increase voter ID requirements for absentee ballots. Another bill would allow poll watchers at tabulation areas.

“They’re giving people this stamp of approval and saying you can challenge as many people as you want,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, of the poll watchers. “It’s a vestige of Jim Crow.”

In Iowa, Republican lawmakers passed a bill that reduced early voting by nine days to 20 and cut Election Day hours by an hour to 8 p.m. The measure, which Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed earlier this month, also criminalizes ballot collection by people outside of a household, immediate family or caregiver.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino rights group, is now suing the Hawkeye State to repeal the law, which it says would hurt people with multiple jobs. Iowa is also an English-only state, meaning all ballots are solely written in English. Latino advocates worry that their work assisting non-English speakers with their ballot would now be illegal.

“Hopefully in a courtroom, it will be clear that this has nothing to do with voter security,” said Joe Henry, the group’s Iowa political director. “It’s voter restriction. It’s voter suppression. It’s racism. It’s targeting new voters.”

His organization, which during the pandemic has been fighting for the safety of the thousands of workers in Iowa’s meatpacking plants, is going to have to shift a lot of its attention to educating Latino voters about these new law changes, he said.

In a news release, Reynolds said it was her duty to “protect the integrity of every election,” and give Iowans more confidence in their vote.

The Ongoing Fight

Bills that would expand ballot access still vastly outnumber those that would restrict access for voters. According to the Brennan Center, lawmakers in 43 states introduced more than 700 bills that would widen access by allowing absentee voting without a state-approved excuse, adding same-day voter registration and streamlining the ballot-counting process.

The Vermont Senate, for example, passed legislation that would allow the state to mail ballots to all voters in general elections. Meanwhile, the Illinois House passed a bill that would increase the number of ballot drop boxes.

Many of these bills, written mostly by Democratic lawmakers, attempt to build off an election that was more reliant on voting by mail. During the pandemic, voting by mail was seen by election experts as a safe, convenient way to cast a ballot. It’s also a method of voting that does not benefit one party over another, several studies show.

It is frustrating that, after such a successful election with record turnout, some states would want to roll back access to the ballot, said Patti Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, a voter education nonprofit. It is especially troubling that this “voter suppression” is built off fabrications by Trump and his allies in the aftermath of an unsuccessful election, she said.

“Unfortunately, that kind of rhetoric has consequences, and those consequences are that many voters believed it,” said Brigham. “This is obviously opportunistic to continue to play to those who believe there was massive voter fraud in 2020, which we know was completely untrue.”

Many Republicans still hold onto that belief and want to add what they see as commonsense protections to the election system. To some conservatives, these measures also are important to bring consistency to election procedures that varied during the pandemic, when local election officials tried to find ways to expand voting by mail without definitive state guidance.

In Texas, Republicans are seeking to ban counties from sending mail-in ballot applications to all voters and to limit drive-thru voting. Other legislation would require that voters with disabilities provide documented proof of their disability before being allowed to vote absentee. Another bill would mandate that rural areas in the state have the same number of voting machines as urban areas despite the lower population in rural areas, which tend to lean Republican.

Many of these bills seem to target Harris County, which includes Houston. Before the 2020 presidential election, officials in the Houston area attempted to send mail-in ballot applications to all voters. They were stopped by the Texas Supreme Court in October. Election officials there also offered drive-thru voting, which accounted for 127,000 votes in November.

“Lawmakers see there are things to tighten up,” said Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative organization. “You can see some of the concern that is raised when the floodgates are opened to these novel forms of voting, but don’t have the protections for voter secrecy or intimidation.”

Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of Common Cause Texas, a voting rights organization, is not surprised by the legislation in the Lone Star State, but he is alarmed.

“They’re at the forefront of finding new and innovative ways to suppress the vote,” he said of Texas Republicans. “These are blatant attempts to keep people from voting.”

Republicans’ efforts to dramatically restrict ballot access in Georgia have gotten the attention of the state’s business community.

In an unusual step, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, along with large, Georgia-based companies such as Aflac Inc., The Coca-Cola Co., Delta Air Lines Inc., Home Depot Inc. and UPS Inc., this month expressed vague support for increased ballot access. However, most of the statements also cited the need for “election integrity,” echoing Republican arguments in favor of new restrictions.

Voting rights activists are demanding a clearer stand from Georgia’s business community. Earlier this month, activists staged a “die-in” at the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta to call on the beverage behemoth to oppose the new restrictions.

“Georgia thinks of itself as a place that is good for business,” said Nicole Henderson, the communications director for the New Georgia Project, a grassroots voting rights organization that opposes the restrictive bills. “Democracy is good for business.”

Matt Vasilogambros is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where it first appeared. Reporting from the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison and Stephen Caruso, and the Georgia Recorder, a sibling site of the Capital-Star, also is included in this story. 

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