GOP using new laws to drive out local Democratic election officials — and not just in Georgia

Republican “election subversion” plan kicks into high gear with ouster or replacement of many local officials

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 26, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (Megan Varner/Getty Images)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill aimed at preventing "election subversion" after Republican state lawmakers wasted no time in using newly passed voting laws to seize control of local elections, replacing existing officials with their own appointees.

Democrats have rallied around the For The People Act, also known as HR 1 and S 1, a sweeping voting rights bill that would codify voter protections, create new election administration standards and crack down on dark money in politics. But while the bill could prevent state crackdowns on mail-in voting, driven by false claims about their security by former President Donald Trump and his allies, it would do nothing about the wide range of new state laws that strip power from election officials and will make it easier to overturn future elections.

A group of Senate and House Democrats this week introduced the Preventing Election Subversion Act, aimed at protecting election officials from political pressure by barring unjust removal of local election officials, making it a federal crime to intimidate election workers and restricting poll watchers.

"The dangers of the voter suppression efforts we're seeing in Georgia and across the nation are not theoretical, and we can't allow power-hungry state actors to squeeze the people out of their own democracy by overruling the decisions of local election officials," Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., the bill's lead sponsor, said in a statement. "This legislation is critical to ensuring the federal government has the tools to make sure every eligible voter's voice is heard and their ballot is counted to help decide the direction of our country."

Warnock's office noted in a statement that at least 210 bills giving legislatures more power over election officials have been introduced in 41 states, according to the States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan group promoting fair elections. At least 24 have already been enacted into law.

"The bill is a good start, but much more needs to be done," Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, told Salon.

In Georgia, at least 10 county election officials, most of them Democrats and half of them Black, have been removed or had their positions eliminated, or are expected to be replaced by Republicans under local ordinances and a bill signed by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year, The New York Times reported last week.

Helen Butler, a Black Democratic election board member in Morgan County who will be removed at the end of the month, told MSNBC this week that her ouster was the result of record election turnout and an outcome Republicans "didn't like."

"The next election you'll have a board that is appointed strictly by a majority Republican Party," she warned. "That will oversee the counting process, absentee voting, application requests, having to have an ID. With the county process required, who will get to count the ballots, how it is counted, and what are the results."

But it won't be just any Republican who gets a seat on the board. In DeKalb County, local Republicans are moving to replace Baoky Vu, the Republican vice-chair of the county's election board who refuted GOP false election claims, with a far-right conservative Democrats have described as a "white nationalist, misogynist and homophobe" who is "infamous for his hateful antics and supporting overturning the election."

"It's certainly a possibility that real elections integrity would be thrown out the window when you start putting some of these dangerous demagogues in the place of individuals who have carried out their duties and under, at times, great risk to their health and to their livelihoods," Vu, who was censured by the county GOP earlier this year for opposing the new voting law, told CNN.

Georgia Republicans have also given themselves more power over the state election board, while Arizona Republicans are similarly trying to strip powers from the Democratic secretary of state. Arkansas Republicans passed a bill that allows a state board to "take over and conduct elections" if the legislature decides there are doubts about the "appearance of an equal, free and impartial election." Elsewhere, Republicans are snatching power away from local election boards, imposing criminal penalties on election officials and pushing dubious election "audits" like the one currently underway in Arizona. 

"For decades, our elections have been run by trusted professionals who are dedicated to protecting the freedom to vote," said Joanna Lydgate, CEO of the States United Democracy Center, in a statement to Salon. "Now, a handful of politicians are trying to hijack our elections and intimidate election officials by criminalizing routine and minor aspects of their work. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for American democracy. We need to use every tool we have to make sure our elections reflect the will of the American people — not politicians. The bill introduced in Congress this week is an important step in that direction."

Democrats worry that the removal of Black election officials could further disenfranchise voters of color and that if the new laws had been in place last year Republicans could have found legal avenues to overturn legitimate election results, according to the Times article.

"What's driving these efforts is anti-democratic sentiment," Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at the nonprofit good government group Common Cause, said in an interview with Salon. "These individuals attempted to overturn an election and they were unable to do so. So they are now attempting to change the rules so that next time they can overturn the will of the people."

While the obvious primary concern is that Republican partisans will now have methods they could use to overturn an election simply because they don't like the outcome, replacing local election officials could have more insidious effects in election administration.

Depending on the state, "these individuals might now have the power to close polling stations or limit voting machine access," Albert warned. "This is part and parcel of a very anti-democratic push to make sure that people who vote against you don't get to vote and if they accidentally do, 'Don't worry, we'll throw out their votes.'"

Georgia Republicans have also stripped Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, of his role as head of the state election board after he debunked Trump's false claims about the election. Republican lawmakers in Arizona are likewise trying to strip Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of her powers after she trashed their "forensic audit" of ballots in Maricopa County.

"Secretaries of state just oversaw the highest turnout and most secure election in American history, in the midst of a pandemic," Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, chairwoman of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, said in a statement to Salon. "Voters elected secretaries of state to administer elections, and it shows that the partisan insiders pushing these measures do not trust voters and are trying to tilt future elections in their favor. 

"It's undemocratic, and part of the coordinated national effort to undermine the right to vote."

The ouster of local and state election officials is only one aspect of Republican lawmakers' multi-pronged approach to seize more power over elections.

Some states are moving to impose criminal penalties on election officials. A Texas voting package would make it a crime to send an unsolicited ballot application to a voter or to attempt to stop disruptive poll watchers, among other routine election administration functions, and Wisconsin lawmakers are weighing similar legislation. Republicans in 20 states have introduced at least 40 bills to empower partisan poll watchers, raising fears of voter intimidation, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

North Carolina Republicans passed a bill that would give them the ability to block the Democratic-led elections board from settling lawsuits over ballot access. Kansas passed a similar bill, and lawmakers there also voted to strip the governor of power to modify election laws. Arizona lawmakers voted to ban the state attorney general from representing Hobbs in lawsuits, and banned Hobbs from using public funds to hire outside counsel. At least 14 states have introduced bills that would seize power from election officials or otherwise limit their authority.

Some Republicans are also looking to follow Arizona's lead in fueling fraud allegations by "auditing" results that have already been counted, recounted and certified — even, bewilderingly, in states where Trump won. Lawmakers in crucial swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan have called for such audits, based on nothing beyond the sentiments and conspiracy theories of disgruntled Trump supporters. The Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee on Wednesday released a report that found "no evidence" to back up Trump and his allies' claims of fraud and described the push for an audit as "not justifiable."

"The 2021 state legislative season may ultimately prove to be a turning point in the history of America's democracy," the States United Democracy Center said in a report last week. "The number of anti-voter laws that have been introduced and passed is unprecedented. These are the ingredients of a democracy crisis."

The Preventing Election Subversion Act aims to rein in some of this state legislation, partly because the For the People Act has been criticized for failing to address the most alarming measures in this year's slate of voting restriction bills. The new bill was introduced on Tuesday as Republicans used the filibuster to block debate on the For the People Act, leaving the fate of the legislation in doubt. Democrats hope to add this new legislation to the larger Senate voting rights package, including provisions to protect election workers who have faced death threats in response to false claims of election fraud.

The bill would make it a federal felony to "intimidate, threaten, coerce, [or] harass" an election worker, to interfere with their duties or to retaliate against them for performing their official duties. It would allow election officials to sue in federal court if they are removed without just cause and empowers the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to intervene on behalf of election officials in such cases. The legislation would also bar people who are not state or local officials from challenging a voter's eligibility and would impose a buffer that poll watchers must respect inside polling places.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by Warnock, along fellow Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is leading legislative efforts on the Senate version of the For the People Act.

"Around the world we see sham elections controlled by a ruling party to give a veneer of democracy while preventing the people from actually deciding who holds power," Merkley said in a statement. "And in 2021, this threat has arrived on our shores. For the first time in my memory, one party is trying to dismantle the safeguards that give us independent, free elections so they can rig — or throw out — the results they don't like."

The bill was also introduced in the House by Reps. John Sarbanes, D-Md., Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Collin Allred, D-Texas, Nikema Williams, D-Ga., and Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y.

"This year, the right to vote has been under the worst assault since Jim Crow," Jones said in a statement. "Republicans in state houses across the country have gone to outrageous lengths to silence Black and brown voters, introducing over 400 racist voter suppression bills and removing nonpartisan election officials who oversee and certify elections. Our bill would protect the independence of local election officials and ensure that future elections are free and fair."

Hasen told Salon that while the new bill would indeed rein in some of the most insidious new state laws, Democrats should also rework the Electoral Count Act, which allowed Republicans to object to the electoral results on Jan. 6 after the Capitol riot, "so that Congress cannot subvert the voters' will either."

Democrats have clearly been dealt a setback after the Republican filibuster of the voting rights legislation, given the resistance by centrist Democrats to reforming or ditching the arcane Senate procedure. Given the near-total Republican legislative control in the states that have enacted new voting laws, state-level Democrats currently have little recourse except to challenge the laws' provisions in court.

"We need the federal government to rise to the urgency of the times," Griswold told Salon, "and pass laws to protect democracy and the right 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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