ATLANTA — A political tug-of-war playing out in statehouses across the U.S. likely will reshape the nation's patchwork of voter access rules, and not for the better according to experts.
A wave of Republican-sponsored bills that would restrict ballot access have been introduced in statehouses nationwide in the wake of historic turnout during the 2020 election.
The measures are driven touted with calls for “election integrity” and “public confidence” but advocates and experts say the push to make it harder to vote is a result of former President Donald Trump’s vigorous claims that the 2020 presidential outcome was faulty.
A cadre of state lawmakers filed hundreds of bills across dozens of states that they say address election security issues troubling their constituents.
Lawmakers in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma want to limit who can vote by mail. Proposals in Florida and Georgia would limit or ban ballot drop boxes. Politicians in New Hampshire, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Missouri introduced provisions that would add additional photo ID requirements. In a handful of states, lawmakers are shortening timelines for mail-in and in-person voting.
David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, said the differences in how states run their election processes make the system an easy target for changes.
“The loser of the election used perceived differences in the state processes to try to spread false disinformation about that the states in which he won had great elections and the states in which he lost had bad elections,” he said. “That's just false.”
Some likely will be blocked by Democrat-held chambers or governors, but several states with Republican supermajorities are advancing more restrictive measures toward law. Meanwhile, several Democrat-controlled state governments are working to grant permanence to less restrictive rules employed during the pandemic.
And all of the lawmaking machinations could be rendered moot if a bill to circumvent the patchwork of restrictions moves through the Democrat-controlled chambers of Congress.
Republicans eye drastic changes
Americans cast nearly 160 million ballots in the 2020 presidential election despite obstacles set in place by the pandemic for state election officials and workers.
Mail-in or absentee ballot usage soared amid safety concerns while the virus spread rampantly. But across states, Republicans are targeting the same voting methods employed to drive access and turnout during the pandemic — things like absentee ballots, drop boxes and early voting.
“I think what we're witnessing around the country is nothing less than a full-scale assault on voting rights in response to the record levels of turnout that we saw in the 2020 presidential election,” said Dale Ho, voting rights project director for the ACLU.
CNHI reviewed bills introduced in nearly a dozen state legislatures confirming the widespread and coordinated GOP-led effort to institute more strict photo ID requirements, cut back on absentee ballot access, shorten voting days and hours, and add more complex registration requirements.
In Georgia, voting rights advocates are crying foul in response to omnibus bills that include provisions that target minority voters and organizers. One early provision would have done away with Sunday voting — a day Black churches traditionally mobilize their congregations to the polls.
Black voters contributed substantially to high voter turnout in 2020 in Georgia. The state surprised the nation by backing a Democrat for president and sending two Democrats to the U.S. Senate — including Rev. Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black senator.
“Sadly, some elected officials across the Deep South and other key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona, don't see the historic turnout, as a reason to celebrate our democracy,” said Margaret Huang, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Communities of color took advantage of no-excuse absentee balloting — a law created by Republicans in 2005 — while Trump criticized mail-in voting, a narrative state elections officials said likely suppressed the Republican vote.
Joe Biden won Georgia by 12,670 votes.
But Republicans say they were motivated by a barrage of concern from their constituents that the election system in the state isn’t secure.
“I have never received the number of constituent contacts — phone calls, emails, letters — on any subject matter like I have after the election this fall,” said Georgia state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens. "There’s really a crisis in confidence in the public on the validity and integrity of the election returns.”
Many GOP-led measures filed in state legislatures across the country won’t see any movement under Democratic majorities or governors.
In Pennsylvania, where the margin was also narrow — Biden won the state by 80,555 votes — Trump led on election night by 1.3 million before all the mail-in ballots were counted.
Some Republicans have seized on lag counting the surge in mailed ballots as evidence of fraud, although state and federal elections officials of all political stripes have declared there is no evidence of widespread election fraud in 2020.
Pennsylvania Republicans aim to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting — which passed with more GOP support than Democratic in 2019.
State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, the chairman of the House state government committee, argued Pennsylvania needs to examine how it can ensure reforms like mail-in voting don’t sacrifice election security.
“The goal is to ensure that legal voters have the access to vote,” Grove said. “But that you have the checks and balances to make sure that isn’t being manipulated by people who want to have illegal votes cast.”
But Republican state leaders have conceded Democratic Governor Tom Wolf likely will veto any bill that walks back on no-excuse absentee voting.
Becker, who was a senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice Voting Section under both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, said the narrow margins have played a significant role in the false narrative that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud.
Florida GOP leaders have mounted an attack on absentee ballot drop boxes — despite Trump winning the state handily.
The elections procedures in Florida, Georgia and Ohio are very similar, Becker said.
“And yet the losing candidate would have you believe that the states which he won — Ohio and Florida — run very different elections than the state, which he lost Georgia,” he said.
Some Republican leaders are speaking out against the reactive measures.
Oklahoma Republican State Rep. Jon Echols, House majority floor leader, said dozens of bills were filed in Oklahoma that sought to make voting more restrictive, but legislative leaders in the House made “a concentrated effort" not to hear any of them on the floor.
“One of my arguments is that Oklahoma voter fraud is almost non-existent,” Echols said. "We very rarely see it. There’s just not a need in Oklahoma to be more restrictive.”
He said there are people on the far right who believe there is rampant ballot fraud and ballot harvesting, but there is no sign of that in Oklahoma. He said nobody in Oklahoma wants voter fraud, and if there was any evidence of it, state legislators would tackle it with “a scalpel” as opposed to "a meat cleaver."
“There is just not rampant voter fraud,” Echols said. “They’re losing mainstream America with that (argument)."
Top Republicans in the Deep South have chosen to speak out against efforts to restrict access.
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan protested a bill to eliminate no excuse absentee voting that passed his chamber by refusing to preside over the vote. And Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger grabbed national attention for his refusal to bow to Trump’s election fraud claims.
“There are some hard and fast rules about how to make good election policy. The first and the most important is: listen to your professional election officials — period,” Becker, with the Center for Election Innovation & Research, said.
As Republicans in many states look to crackdown on voting access, other states are pivoting to enshrine lessons learned during the pandemic to expand voter participation permanently.
Battle to expand access
Congressional and state level Democrats are working to offset the voting overhaul in Republican-held legislatures.
Although it’s passage is uncertain, H.R.1 — also known as “For the People Act” — in Congress aims to curtail efforts to restrict ballot access by Republican state lawmakers.
It would establish automatic voter registration and require states to have the same 15-day period of early voting for federal elections, for at least 10 hours a day. It would also prohibit voter roll purges and restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies that have completed their sentence.
In New York, which historically has low voter participation rates, voting rights advocates are rallying support for an amendment to the state Constitution aimed at allowing people to register to vote on Election Day.
"That would really be a game changer," said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. "States that have same day registration are generally among the highest in voter participation rates in the country.
Long-term, lawmakers are looking to pour more dollars into the state’s voting system which advocates say has been underfunded for years.
"We know that voting is the right that safeguards all our other rights," said Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, chairman of the Senate Elections Committee. "Over the past year, that's become clearer than ever before."
In Indiana, advocates said they have been preparing for introduction of restrictive voting measures, but have seen the opposite. Julia Vaughn, the policy director of Common Cause Indiana, characterized various voting bills as “modest steps forward.”
“I’ve been holding my breath all session waiting for amendments or things to take us backward,” Vaughn said. “But there hasn’t been this aggressive assault on voting rights like we’ve seen in other states, like in Georgia.”
And in the Democratic-held legislature in Massachusetts lawmakers are debating bills that would make mail voting a permanent part of the state’s election system.
Ho, with the ALCU, said the dueling narratives of expanding and restricting voting access across states isn’t new.
“The story of voting rights, right now, and really throughout American history is not a simple story of expansion or a simple story of suppression,” he said. “It's actually both simultaneously.”
Nonetheless, the number of restrictive measures introduced and likely to pass following the record turnout of the 2020 election despite the pandemic have voting rights advocates nervous.
“One person, one vote is being threatened right now,” said Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia. “Politicians in my home state and all across America, in their craven lust for power, launched a full-fledged assault on voting rights they are focused on winning at any cost. Even the cost of democracy.”
CNHI Statehouse reporters Janelle Stecklein, Christian Wade, Joe Mahoney, John Finnerty and Whitney Downard contributed to this report.