State Watch

Democrats see Georgia as opening salvo in war on voting rights

Republican state legislators engaged in a nationwide effort to rewrite ballot access laws after the highest-turnout, most secure election in history scored their first major achievement Thursday when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a sweeping overhaul package into law that will restrict voter access to absentee ballots and ballot drop boxes.

In other states, Democrats watched with rising anxiety, knowing their legislatures are next.

“We’ve been watching Georgia pretty closely, and we knew our legislative Republicans were likely to introduce something as well,” said Michigan state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D), who represents part of Detroit and its southern suburbs.

The day before Kemp signed Georgia’s legislative package, Michigan Republicans introduced 39 bills meant to change a voting process that resulted in President Biden carrying the state by 154,000 votes in 2020. Among the measures are proposals to limit election officials’ ability to send out absentee ballot applications, require a copy of a voter’s identification when submitting an absentee ballot, and a limit on drop boxes.

Those measures add to the more than 250 bills introduced in legislatures across the country this year that will place new requirements or restrictions on the means of voting, according to tallies by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Conservative groups that support the reforms, like the Heritage Foundation, which backs legislation like the Georgia overhaul in seven other states, say the reforms are not meant to target voters of a specific race.

“This is just an old trope from the left about calling things racist that they don’t like. Our view is that it should be easy to vote and hard to cheat,” said Garrett Bess, vice president of government relations at Heritage Action. “There was a necessity for some standardization that was not federally forced but state by state to ensure that best practices were being followed in conducting elections.”

The bills are ostensibly meant to address the shaken faith in an election reform process that Trump administration appointees called the safest and most secure in the nation’s history.

“Republicans have essentially set the fire by claiming that there’s widespread voter fraud and convincing their base that this is true, and then they’re acting like the fire fighter coming to extinguish the voter fraud that doesn’t exist by passing all these unnecessary voter suppression bills,” said state Rep. Chris Turner (D), chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

In interviews, Democratic legislators drew a direct parallel between former President Trump’s false claims of election malfeasance, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol and the bills making progress in Republican-controlled legislatures today.

“After their failed coup attempt, Republicans across the country, especially in Georgia and Arizona, are on to Plan B,” said Arizona state Rep. Athena Salman, the Democratic minority whip. “I have not heard an argument [from Republicans] that is not connected to the big lie.”

In the midst of a committee hearing this week on a proposal to require voters to submit a copy of a state-issued identification alongside an absentee ballot, the Republican chairman of the state House Government and Elections Committee cut Salman off and attempted to cast her vote for her.

In states such as Georgia, Arizona and Texas, where Republicans hold control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship, there is little Democrats can do to delay or vote down the new voting restrictions.

The minority can delay some bills: In Arizona in February, a single Republican state senator voted with Democrats to block an attempt to eliminate a permanent vote-by-mail list. In Texas this week, a committee hearing on a key bill was delayed when a procedural snafu caused a hiccup.

“This is a very bright line for members of our caucus. We’re unified in opposition to bills that would make it more difficult to vote. We’re going to fight it with everything we have,” Turner said. Still, he conceded: “It’s uphill.”

Even in a state like Michigan, where Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would almost certainly veto partisan election restriction bills, Republicans have a chance to work around the governor.

In comments to a local Republican club this week, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said the party could use a provision in state law that allows the GOP to collect 340,000 signatures — about 15 percent of the total number of Michiganders who voted for Whitmer — to refer an election overhaul package back to the legislature. Whitmer would be unable to veto that legislation.

Many of the key provisions in the new legislation would inarguably erect new hurdles for minorities and low-income voters, who are more likely to live in areas with fewer voting precincts and longer lines. Myriad studies from recent elections have shown that those who live in heavily minority precincts wait longer in line to cast a ballot than those who live in heavily white precincts.

A provision in the just-passed Georgia law would make it a felony to pass out bottled water to voters waiting in line.

Legislation to overhaul long-existing voting rules are not restricted to swing states. Montana’s Republican-controlled legislature is one step away from approving an end to same-day voter registration, after an election in which the party recaptured the governor’s mansion and held control of the legislature. The Missouri state House has approved a new voter identification bill after the state Supreme Court threw out an earlier version. The West Virginia state Senate approved a measure ending same-day voter registration and cutting a period of early voting.

Democratic-controlled legislators are in the midst of their own spree of election overhauls. Many, but not all, of those measures would make permanent some of the temporary voting rights expansions implemented in the midst of the pandemic.

New Jersey legislators this week passed a bill to allow voters to cast a ballot early, a practice that has lagged in Northeastern states. The Illinois legislature sent Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) a bill to expand mail-in voting and curbside voting. Washington legislators passed a bill to restore voting rights to felons once they get out of prison.

The stark difference in the two approaches to voting rights illustrates the new incentive structure created for Republicans by a former president who began laying the groundwork to deflect blame for his loss even before voters actually started casting ballots. Democrats used to competing by the same rules as Republicans now say they face an opposition that wants to change the rules, rather than play the game.

“You can actually expand your message to a larger electorate or you can try to change the rules. They’re going down the loser path,” said Michigan state Sen. Jim Ananich, the Democratic minority leader. “It will hurt their party long term. But in the short term, they’ll have some success in the legislatures, but we’ll take them to court.”

Tags Brian Kemp Donald Trump Georgia Gretchen Whitmer Joe Biden voting laws voting restrictions

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