Republicans roll out “tidal wave of voter suppression”: 253 restrictive bills in 43 states

GOP is using Trump’s “big lie” to push a historic “contraction of voting rights," says Democratic lawyer Marc Elias

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published February 27, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Hard Rock Stadium on January 06, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The governor announced that the stadium's parking lot which offers COVID-19 tests will begin to offer COVID-19 vaccinations for residents 65 and older to drive up and get vaccinated. The vaccination site opened today for a trial run but it was not known when it will be open to the general public. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Hard Rock Stadium on January 06, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The governor announced that the stadium's parking lot which offers COVID-19 tests will begin to offer COVID-19 vaccinations for residents 65 and older to drive up and get vaccinated. The vaccination site opened today for a trial run but it was not known when it will be open to the general public. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Republicans across the country responded to record voter turnout by unleashing a flurry of legislation aimed at restricting ballot access, citing concerns over unfounded allegations of rampant voter fraud that they themselves stoked for months.

At least 253 bills with provisions restricting voting access have been introduced, pre-filed, or carried over in 43 states, mostly by Republicans, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, dwarfing the number of similar bills filed at this point in 2020.

Many of these measures are in response to a "rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities" that former President Trump and his Republican allies promoted for months without any evidence, the Brennan Center report said.

"We are about to be hit with a tidal wave of voter suppression legislation by Republican legislatures throughout the country," warned Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic attorney and founder of the voting rights advocacy group Democracy Docket, who batted back many of the election lawsuits filed by Trump and his supporters. Elias said in an interview with Salon that he fears this could result in a historic "contraction of voting rights like we have not seen in recent memory."

"Republicans are doing this because they think they can gain an electoral advantage from making it harder for Black, brown and young voters to participate in the process," he said, adding: "This is the reaction of a party that knows it can't compete for a majority of the votes. So it is acclimating itself to minority rule through a number of tactics. Gerrymandering is one piece of it. But certainly, voter suppression is a big piece of it."

The proposed measures largely aim to limit mail voting access, impose stricter voter ID requirements, "slash voter registration opportunities" and "enable more aggressive voter roll purges," the Brennan Center report said. "These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election."

These types of restrictions also typically "burden voter of color more," Eliza Sweren-Becker, who serves as counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, said in an interview with Salon.

"Because of the intersections of race and socioeconomics in this country, voters at the margins generally are going to have a harder time meeting whatever the requirements are, including if the requirement means it takes more time to vote," she said.

"Voters who have less economic flexibility, less job flexibility, that's going to make it harder for them to vote," Sweren-Becker continued. "A bill that is going to require a particular kind of voter ID typically burdens voters of color. Voters of color tend not to have whatever the required voter ID is in higher numbers than white voters, for example. I think you can't divorce the current method of restricting voting access from the long history of voter suppression and racism in this country, where voter suppression measures were directly intended to stop Black voters in particular from being able to cast their ballots."

Georgia and Arizona lawmakers have been particularly aggressive, introducing 22 bills in each state to restrict voting access. Even Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who debunked many of Trump's lies about the state's elections despite supporting certain voting restrictions, said many of the bills introduced in the state legislature are "reactionary to a three-month disinformation campaign that could have been prevented."

Georgia Republicans have been particularly aggressive after Republicans lost the presidential race and both Senate races in the state for the first time in decades, although a state investigation and multiple audits have found no widespread irregularities or fraud. Georgia Senate Republicans have introduced a bill that would end no-excuse absentee voting entirely in the state and impose new ID and witness signature requirements, including one mandating that voters include a photocopy of their ID to be counted. Under the bill, only those who are required to be absent, are disabled or over 65, or observing a religious holiday can vote by mail if they meet all the other requirements.

Georgia House Republicans have introduced their own sweeping bill that would drastically reduce the state's early voting period, add a voter ID requirement for mail-in ballots, reduce the amount of time voters have to request ballots and that election officials have to mail them out, and limit the use of ballot drop boxes, as well as barring counties from adding extra early voting hours. The bill would also eliminate early voting on Sundays, which is when Black churches traditionally hold "Souls to the Polls" events to bring parishioners to vote after church service.

The advocacy group Common Cause Georgia called the bill "Jim Crow with a suit and tie."

"We used 'Souls to the Polls' as a means particularly to get our seniors and other members of our congregations to vote, to gather for worship and following worship to go to the polls to cast our ballot," Georgia Episcopal Bishop Reginald Thomas Jackson said at a hearing on Monday hosted by the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, arguing that the bill "is nothing more than another attempt to suppress the Black vote."

"Let's just be honest," he added. "This bill is racist."

Last year, 71,764 Georgians took advantage of early Sunday voting, according to data provided by the voter registration group The New Georgia Project, and 37% of them were Black.

"The bills as they are currently drafted are egregious in their effort to prevent free and fair access to the ballot for all Georgians, but especially people of color," Nicole Henderson, communications director at the New Georgia Project, said in a statement to Salon. "If these proposed voter suppression tactics were in place in the 2020-2021 general and runoff elections, at least 2,276,863 Georgians' votes would have been affected."

Like other Republicans, Georgia lawmakers have claimed that the measures are in response to concerns among their constituents who "expressed a lack of faith and integrity in our current election system," even though the state's mail voting laws were written almost entirely by Republicans and multiple reviews found no evidence of impropriety.

Henderson pointed to statements from Raffensperger and Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan rejecting baseless allegations of widespread fraud.

"From these accounts, GOP lawmakers are trying to prevent something that never happened," Henderson said. "They are offering solutions where there is not a problem."

"The only reason why voters would have concerns about election integrity is because they were systemically and repeatedly lied to by the Republican Party and Donald Trump," Elias agreed. "It is the height of hypocrisy for the Republicans to now hide behind that as an excuse having themselves lit the fire of the 'Big Lie.'"

But the problem goes far beyond Georgia. Montana Republicans are pushing to end Election Day voter registration. Missouri Republicans are pushing a new voter ID requirement after their previous effort was struck down in court. New Hampshire Republicans are pushing to ban out-of-state college students from voting and ending same-day voter registration.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has also proposed measures that could be the "worst voter suppression legislation" in the country, Elias said. The longtime Trump ally is pushing measures that would ban mail-in ballots from being sent to residents who did not request one, restrict the use of drop boxes, impose tougher signature verification requirements, and restrict who can assist voters in submitting ballots.

Iowa Republicans have already approved a bill that would shorten voting hours, limit the state's early voting period, restrict the use of ballot drop boxes, ban officials from sending absentee ballot applications unless they are requested, and bar the counting of late-arriving ballots.

"Voter integrity is not telling an elderly person she has to jump through hoops," Democratic state Rep. Bruce Hunter said in response to the legislation. "This is voter suppression. The dictionary definition of it."

Republican lawmakers have been laser-focused on mail-in voting after Trump and his accomplices for months sowed doubt in the integrity of voting by mail, despite a total absence of evidence suggesting it is prone to fraud, and then baselessly alleged that the election was somehow stolen without offering any proof. Nearly half of the new restrictive bills are aimed at limiting mail voting, according to the Brennan Center analysis, even though Republicans have historically supported voting by mail. Multiple bills in Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Dakota and Oklahoma are among those aiming to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting entirely. Other bills have been introduced to make it harder to obtain ballots, restrict election officials' ability to send unsolicited ballots to voters, and even bar state officials from sending absentee ballot applications without a request.

Elias said that he was not surprised that Republicans have launched a campaign against mail-in voting, even though they have supported it for years.

"In the Republican Party right now, the most important thing to them is to be loyal beyond comprehension to a failed one-term president," he said.

Lawmakers have also proposed legislation to restrict who can assist voters in collecting and submitting ballots and to make it harder to satisfy witness signature requirements. Legislators in Pennsylvania and Virginia have introduced bills that would ban the use of ballot drop boxes. An Arizona bill would ban absentee ballots from being submitted by mail.

Other bills aim to increase poll-watcher access, impose more burdensome voter ID and signature matching requirements, and restrict the counting of late-arriving ballots.

"These legislatures saw a free, fair and secure election with record turnout that represented the will of the people, and are responding by saying 'Actually, we didn't want some of you to vote,'" Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at the government watchdog group Common Cause, said in a statement to Salon. "So there are real victims of this GOP fever dream, people who are losing access to the ballot because of the barriers that legislatures are putting in place — barriers specifically aimed at silencing Black and brown voices. Instead of embracing policies to attract more voters, Republican legislators across the country are very deliberately trying to dictate who can vote and who can't for their own political advantage."

The new slate of election-related legislation is not all bad. The Brennan Center found that state lawmakers have introduced 704 bills that would actually expand voting access in response to increased voter enthusiasm in the last election and challenges posed by current laws. But at least 125 of these bills were introduced in solidly blue New York and New Jersey, and in some cases these measures were paired with restrictive provisions. Outside of a rare bipartisan Kentucky bill that would create a three-day in-person early voting period while scaling the length back from its pandemic levels, Sweren-Becker expressed little optimism that expansive bills would advance in Republican strongholds.

"The politics remain such that those expansive provisions are unlikely to move forward," she said.

Elias says that he and other Democratic attorneys stand ready to fight new restrictions in court. "If the state of Georgia or Iowa or any other place thinks that they're going to suppress voting rights and not face a fight in court over it, they're mistaken," he said.

"I have proven that I am not afraid to take on states that are going to disenfranchise voters. … But beyond that, I think it's fair to say that whether it is me or someone else, states that succumb to the impulse to try to gain partisan advantage by disenfranchising minority voters and young voters, they're going to find themselves in court."

Elias said he's confident many of these restrictions would not withstand a legal challenge. "We're not talking about the garden-variety voting restrictions that historically the two parties have disagreed over," he said. "We're talking about really, really extreme measures. … I'm not going to prejudge which provisions are acceptable and which provisions are not. But I do think that what we're seeing right now is just so far out of bounds."

Many of these provisions, particularly in Southern states with a history of voter discrimination, would have been subject to the pre-clearance requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act before it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

"Many of them would not have been pre-cleared because they are in fact retrogressive of minority voting rights," Elias said.

But Elias also acknowledged that there are limits to how many of these restrictions can be defeated in court. "Unless Republicans either have a change of heart and a change of culture around voting, or there is federal legislation that protects voting rights, eventually enough of these will stick that it will really, really change the nature of participatory democracy in our country," he said.

The For the People Act, also known as H.R. 1, is a sweeping pro-democracy bill that, among other measures, would automatically register voters, end partisan gerrymandering and make Election Day a federal holiday. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would, among other things, restore the pre-clearance requirement for states with a history of racial discrimination to get approval from the Justice Department before enacting any electoral changes.

But even an expanded Voting Rights Act might not withstand the scrutiny of an ultraconservative Supreme Court majority, wrote The Nation's Elie Mystal, and the bill as currently written lacks strong protections for mail-in voting because opposition to the voting method is so new.

"This means the act is already outmoded, and while I'm sure it will be rewritten and strengthened, it does go to show that, when it comes to voter suppression, Republicans practice the kind of racism that never sleeps," Mystal wrote.

Some voting-rights advocates observe that the singleminded Republican focus on restricting mail-in voting could backfire. Despite a surge in mail-in voting amid the pandemic, Republican voters have historically tended to vote by mail in larger numbers than Democrats.

"Restrictions on mail voting may not have the partisan impact that some of these lawmakers advancing them would hope for them to have," said Sweren-Becker, adding that Republican-led restrictions are largely predicated on the debunked idea that there's a voter fraud problem in the country. "They're using this misrepresentation as a premise to simply make it harder for all Americans to vote."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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