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The States Where Efforts To Restrict Voting Are Escalating

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ILLUSTRATION BY FIVETHIRTYEIGHT

Even though the 2020 election is over, many Republicans are still holding onto the “Big Lie,” or the baseless claim that voter fraud cost former President Donald Trump the presidential election. Trump has managed to not only persuade his base that the election was “stolen,” but now many state legislators are using it as a justification to restrict voting rights. Over the last few months, a bevy of bills have been introduced at the state level that — if passed — could make it harder for millions of Americans to cast their ballots. 

One of the biggest battlegrounds has been Georgia, where last Thursday a controversial package of new voter restrictions was signed into law. Among its many provisions: Absentee voters will now be required to prove their identity, people are prohibited from handing out food and water to voters waiting in line, and the state board of elections is empowered to remove local election officials. Legislators in Michigan and Wisconsin have also deemed “election integrity” a priority and introduced a raft of legislation to prohibit election administrators from proactively sending out vote-by-mail applications, tighten voter-ID requirements and more. 

But the push to restrict voting rights expands beyond just a few states. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights advocacy group, 253 bills to restrict voting access had been introduced in 43 state legislatures as of Feb. 19. And according to our own tracking, at least 53 additional bills have been introduced since then. Of these 306 bills, 89 percent were sponsored entirely or primarily by Republicans, according to the bill-tracking service LegiScan.

Notably, the four states where the greatest number of voting-restriction bills have been filed — Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania — were some of the closest states in last year’s presidential election. They also all voted for President Biden — the first time Georgia and Arizona voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in over two decades — and have Republican-controlled legislatures, making them especially fertile ground for new voting restrictions. 

“The politicians introducing new voter restrictions are clearly folks who are looking at changing demographics and changing political winds, and trying to manipulate the rules of the game so that they have some job security,” said Myrna Pérez, the director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, who also warned that the restrictions would disproportionately disenfranchise communities of color. “Rather than competing for voters, they are trying to fence some voters out and make it harder for them to vote.” 

At this point, the most concerted effort appears to be centered on rolling back absentee voting, which shifted significantly toward Democrats in 2020 and helped clinch Biden’s victory. To some extent, given the expansion of absentee voting during the pandemic — and Republican voters’ skepticism of it — it’s not surprising that Republicans are primarily targeting this type of voting. But as Pérez told us, “Absentee ballots have been largely uncontroversial when they were used by older, whiter, Republican-leaning Americans,” but “as soon as communities of color started [using them] … we’re starting to see restrictions.” And up until the 2020 election, there really hadn’t been a partisan split in which party used mail-in voting.

Nevertheless, a near-majority — 49 percent — of the voter restrictions that have been introduced included provisions to restrict absentee voting. 

The second-biggest category was bills that included some form of a voter ID law (23 percent of the bills tracked). Requiring people to show proof of identity before voting has long been a policy priority for Republicans, who claim it’s necessary to combat voter fraud (Democrats, on the other hand, argue it’s a way to prevent a disproportionately nonwhite, Democratic-leaning demographic from voting). So it makes sense that more voter ID laws have also been a big part of Republicans’ current push for voter restrictions, especially since part of the “Big Lie” is that millions of ineligible voters cast a ballot (they didn’t).

Forty-seven bills have also been introduced relating to voter registration, 38 that would purge people from the voter rolls and 24 dealing with in-person early voting. 

But there’s an important catch: Most of these bills are not going to pass. A full 89 out of the 306 (29 percent) were introduced in Democratic-controlled legislative chambers — making most of them dead on arrival. And although the sheer number of bills being introduced in Republican-controlled legislatures is notable, many of them will probably die too. The legislative process is full of arcane obstacles and pitfalls that can halt even popular bills, and several of the proposed bills were so extreme that many Republicans didn’t support them either.

Still, what’s in the bills is more important than how many pass, and many of them would still have wide-ranging implications for future elections — even if only a handful of them become law. As of Friday, March 26, 53 of the 306 bills had passed at least one step of the legislative process and still had a chance of becoming law. In total, nine had passed committee, while 34 had passed one legislative chamber. Four had passed both legislative chambers and were awaiting the governor’s signature, and six had already been enacted. Those six are:

  • A Kentucky bill that prohibits the governor and secretary of state from changing election laws in an emergency, as they did last year to allow anyone to cast an absentee ballot amid the pandemic.
  • A pair of Arkansas bills that tighten the state’s voter ID law — most notably, to remove the option for ID-less voters to sign an affidavit attesting to their identity.
  • A Utah bill that cross-references the voter rolls with death records and purges any matches.
  • A major election-law overhaul in Iowa that, among other things, cuts nine days of early voting, closes Election Day polling places one hour earlier, gives voters less time to request and return absentee ballots, caps the number of ballot drop boxes at one per county and prohibits people from returning someone else’s absentee ballot (with limited exceptions for caregivers, family and household members).
  • And, of course, that controversial Georgia bill. In addition to the provisions we already described, the law restricts drop boxes to early voting locations, standardizes early-voting hours, gives voters less time to request absentee ballots, prohibits the mailing of unsolicited absentee-ballot applications, allows unlimited voter challenges and prescribes a series of smaller changes. 

But several more voter restrictions appear likely to become law in the coming weeks or months. Some of the most impactful ones include:

The big question is whether these bills will do what Democrats worry — and some Republicans openly hope — they will do: Help the GOP win elections by suppressing voter turnout. But the answer is far from clear. Despite Republicans’ protestations, study after study has found that mail-in voting does not give either party an advantage — so new laws restricting it might not either. Some of these new laws might not survive until the next election, either, because of court challenges. 

And Democrats, of course, have one big trump card they could play: The federal For The People Act, better known as HR 1, which would require states to offer universal early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration (and much more) in federal elections. Democrats may find it difficult to scrounge up enough votes in the Senate to pass it, but it would override many of these new state-level restrictions.

But even if HR 1 were to pass, it wouldn’t be the end of the fight over voting rights. As long as a belief in the “Big Lie” persists, Pérez said, Republicans will continue to use voter disenfranchisement as a tool to win elections. “I think it reflects a real fear over the browning of America, and folks trying to protect what they have and keep the power for themselves.”

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