One-third of states have passed restrictive voting laws this year
PHOENIX — One in every three states across the nation have passed new laws restricting access to the ballot in the wake of the 2020 elections, a torrid pace that showcases the national battle over election reform.
Voting rights experts and advocates say they have never seen such an explosion of election overhauls: Legislatures in 18 states have passed 30 bills that would in some way curtail a voter’s access, according to a tally maintained by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, a voting rights advocacy organization.
“What is clear is that there is a wave of state laws that make it harder for Americans to vote, and in a really unprecedented manner. We haven’t seen the volume of these bills at all in a year,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel to the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “This is reflecting a real concerted effort in states across the country to make it harder for Americans to vote, to carve Americans out of the electorate rather than politicians trying to win over those voters.”
The overhauls vary widely by state. Six states have shortened the time period during which a voter can request a mail-in ballot. Four states have limited the number or availability of mail ballot drop boxes. Seven states have given election administrators more leeway or new requirements in purging inactive voters from the rolls. Six states have limited the help someone can offer a voter in returning their ballot.
The measures have sharply divided the two parties: Every new restriction has been passed in states where Republicans own total control of the legislature. All but four of the states where new restrictions have passed are also run by Republican governors, with the exception of Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada and Kansas.
In some cases, legislators passed a single omnibus bill that made sweeping changes to multiple elements of state electoral code.
Florida’s Senate Bill 90 limited a voter’s ability to get regular absentee ballots; limited an election administrator’s authority to send absentee ballot applications; limited the help a mail-in voter could receive; restricted the number of ballot drop boxes; boosted identification requirements for mail-in ballots; and prohibited handing out food or water to those waiting in line to cast their vote.
In Georgia, Senate Bill 202 — which sparked loud protests that led Major League Baseball to move its annual All-Star Game out of Atlanta — shortened the window in which a voter could request an absentee ballot; restricted the sending of unsolicited absentee ballot applications; limited drop boxes and added identification requirements; banned snacks and water to those waiting in line; and limited the number of early voting days and hours.
In other states, legislators passed several measures that targeted specific elements of the electoral process.
That was the case here, where the small Republican majority in the state Senate and House approved three different bills this year. One bill will purge inactive voters from a permanent absentee ballot list. Another allows broader purges of the voting rolls. A third adds signature requirements for mail-in ballots.
Voting overhauls are “definitely percolating as a more mainstream issue, but that’s because there were wholesale changes made without going through the legislative process, using COVID as the rationale for why. That has awakened the public,” said state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), the author of those bills and chair of the Senate Government Committee.
Ugenti-Rita, who is running to oversee elections as secretary of state, said the rush of new bills comes in response to administrative overhauls to electoral rules made amid the pandemic.
“The Democrats have misused, exploited and politicized COVID to implement changes in elections that could never get passed otherwise,” she said in an interview. “They kind of needed a vessel, and they used COVID as a vessel to weaken our election system.”
But voting rights advocates see a different cause: The results of the 2020 elections, in which President Biden defeated former President Trump, who has spent the intervening months spreading misinformation about his defeat, and Democrats captured control of the U.S. Senate.
“Republican elected officials do not like the results of 2020 and now they’re trying to change the rules of future elections,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) said in an interview. “In the middle of a pandemic, we had the securest election in America’s history with record turnout of both Democrats and Republicans. So elections work.”
Legislators have paid particular attention to votes cast by mail, which soared to new heights in 2020 as elections officials encouraged people to vote from home and several states operated their elections entirely through the Postal Service. Polls show nearly half, 46 percent, of voters cast their ballots by mail, including a substantial majority of those who voted for Biden.
At least 27 provisions of election overhauls in a dozen states — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana and Oklahoma — restricted some element of the mail-in voting process.
“We are seeing a real focus on these new laws on mail voting and efforts to make it harder to vote by mail,” Sweren-Becker said. “The focus on mail voting access is new and is reflective of a backlash against mail-in voting last year.”
The electoral laws that have passed this year are not wholly restrictive: Half the states have passed 54 new laws that would expand voting access. In some of those cases, votes have been bipartisan, though some measures have included both restrictive and expansive provisions.
Eight states have expanded early voting. Another eight states have made registering to vote easier. Two states — Maryland, where the legislature is controlled by Democrats, and New Hampshire, where the legislature is run by Republicans — have eased voting restrictions for people serving jail sentences. Virginia legislators passed several laws dealing with multiple provisions of the electoral process.
The debate over voting rights is not over for the year: Texas’s legislature is considering its own omnibus overhaul in a special session, though state House Democrats have fled to Washington to deny the Republican majority the quorum they need to pass a bill.
And more measures are coming next year. Ugenti-Rita said she will study the results of the audit, conducted by a firm whose chief executive has perpetuated the misinformation Trump has spread, to see what parts of Arizona’s electoral laws need revision.
“We’re doing things based on information and making substantive legislative changes that the public has confidence in and are meaningful,” she said.
Democrats have signaled they will make voting access a key pillar of their pitch to voters next year as both parties gear up for midterm elections that will include secretary of state contests in key states.
“I always remain hopeful that the American people and the American voters will win this national fight. It will not be easy. It might require jumping through hoops to get that absentee ballot,” Griswold said. “Democracy will be on the ballot in 2022.”