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Red states advancing bills to curb mail-in voting

GOP legislators in states across the country are advancing bills that would prevent elections officials from sending out absentee ballot applications ahead of November's election, even in states where those top officials are fellow Republicans.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, secretaries of state in places like Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming encouraged residents to cast ballots from home by sending out absentee ballot request forms.

Those forms led to increased participation during the primaries, with many states seeing record turnout.

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But now, Republican state legislatures are pushing back on those secretaries of states’ efforts by authoring bills to thwart their ability to send out ballot applications for the general election.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) last week signed a bill that requires the secretary of state to receive approval from a bipartisan legislative council before authorizing the mailing of absentee ballot request forms, after Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) sent applications to active voters.

Eighty percent of the 524,000 votes cast in Iowa's June primary were absentee ballots.

In Ohio, legislators proposed a measure to bar Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) from sending out request forms en masse, even though the secretary of state's office has done so for years. The bill was later amended to stop the state from paying for postage on the return envelope after LaRose lobbied legislators.

In Georgia, where both parties set record turnout levels earlier this year, a House committee advanced a bill last week that would prohibit Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) or any other elected official from mailing out absentee ballot request forms.

The bill died on the floor, though Raffensperger has already said he would not be sending out ballot applications for November.

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Democrats and voting rights activists condemn the bills as attempts to suppress votes, while Republicans insist they are working to secure the integrity of elections. The secretaries of state have stood by their decisions, even as they have been questioned by members of their own party.

“Voters on both sides of the political spectrum agree that sending absentee applications to all active voters was the safest and best thing our office could do to protect voters at the peak of COVID-19,” Raffensperger said in a statement last week. “Some seem to be saying that our office should have ignored the wave of absentee voters that was clearly coming.”

Barry Burden, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Elections Research Center, said there is bipartisan support for encouraging mail-in voting as a practical public health solution among officials in election administration systems, including secretaries of state.

State legislators, on the other hand, respond to different pressures — including the cues of President TrumpDonald John TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus MORE, who has incorrectly derided mail-in voting as ripe for fraud.

“It’s really legislators who don’t have the direct understanding of the election process who are making these moves,” Burden said. “It smacks more of brazen partisanship rather than pragmatic policymaking.”

Even with Trump's unfounded warnings, Republican voters and strategists are far more comfortable with absentee voting. Utah, a deeply conservative state, conducts its elections largely by mail. More than three-quarters of Arizona voters mail in their ballots. In Florida, vote-by-mail campaigns are a pillar of Republican turnout strategies.

Austin Chambers, who heads the Republican State Leadership Committee, said he is not surprised there are divisions within the GOP over how to handle mail-in voting because each state has different levels of experience and success with it.

Running campaigns in a state with a long history of mail-in voting requires a different strategy than a state that votes primarily in-person, and Republican state legislators are attempting to create “safe, fair and proper” elections in each state they run based on the context of that state’s system, he said, which may or may not include mail-in voting.

In the midst of a pandemic, other states have continued to make voting by mail difficult. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) signed a bill expanding voters' options by allowing anyone to vote absentee, but voters not considered "at-risk" will need to get their ballots notarized — a provision currently being challenged by civil rights groups in Missouri courts.

Despite the popularity of mail-in voting among voters and uncertainty about the safety of in-person voting in November, Burden said where the president leads, Republican state legislators follow.

“It’s Republicans in state legislatures hunkering down and adopting the party line from the president, rather than consulting in good faith with their election officials who actually understand how the system works and what the needs are,” Burden said.

Experts said there is little evidence that mail-in voting benefits one party over the other; Republicans have led numerous successful mail-in voting campaigns in Arizona and Florida. In Georgia, of the record 1.1 million absentee ballots cast in the June primary, about 600,000 were Democratic while 524,000 were Republican.

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Martha Kropf, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said the laws limiting mailing ballot applications fit with a cadre of contemporary Republican policies, including voter identification laws, that make it more difficult for people to vote.

“That could be to try and get a partisan benefit,” Kropf said. “Parties want to win elections.”

Chambers said allegations that Republicans are trying to suppress turnout are “a bunch of nonsense.” He said Republicans saw problems during the primaries, including reports of long lines despite record levels of absentee voting, and the laws are responding to concerns about maintaining the electoral system’s integrity.

“We want to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Chambers said.

The added work of distributing, collecting and processing so many new absentee ballots is a significant concern for state election administrators, said Wendy Underhill, who directs the elections and redistricting team at the National Conference on State Legislatures.

While secretaries of state had looming election deadlines and had to implement emergency measures, state legislators are wary of making changes during election years, and problems still persisted, suggesting the ballot applications were not a quick fix.

“It’s not like the experience in the primaries indicates that was an easy shift,” she said. “We still have long lines in many places.”