GOP legislators seek to overhaul voter assistance rules
PHOENIX — Republican legislators intent on changing the way their states administer elections after President Biden won the White House last year are moving to tighten rules over how and whether a voter can receive assistance in casting his or her ballot, raising concerns among Democrats and disability advocates about ballot access at a time when election administration has become a fraught partisan issue.
New restrictions that have passed or are likely to make progress this year would impact virtually every aspect of the voting experience. Some measures would place new rules on those who can drive voters to the polls. Others that already passed in Georgia and Florida would make a crime out of handing out water or food to voters while they wait in line.
Legislators in Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky and Montana have placed new limits on those who can help voters cast ballots by mail, or those who collect and return mail-in ballots en masse. Legislators in Alabama have passed, and those in Texas have proposed, new restrictions on curbside voting.
In Arizona, legislators have proposed a measure to restrict the types of people who can offer assistance to a voter, raising concerns among advocates for the disabled about access to the ballot.
“We’ve seen a requirement in Arizona that people with disabilities can only get assistance from certain individuals, and that only certain individuals can drop off someone’s early ballot. It can only be a caregiver, a family member or a member of someone’s household that can actually deliver the completed ballot,” said Asim Dietrich, a staff attorney at the Arizona Center for Disability Law. “That affects people with disabilities who are not able to go out to the polls or get to a mailbox to drop off their early ballot. An individual may not have a family member or a caregiver, they may have to rely on a friend or a neighbor.”
Republicans who back the new rules say they want to protect voters from being strong-armed into voting a certain way.
Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), the lead author of a controversial omnibus package of election overhauls that failed at the last minute over the weekend and is likely to return in a special session later this year, said his committee heard reports about ballot harvesters in Gregg County who coerced voters.
“The testimony was the vote harvesters would go to voters, prey upon them, offer to help them, but in fact the vote harvesters were the ones casting the ballot,” Hughes said in a recent interview. “Most of the security measures in this bill are aimed at the vote harvesters, not at the voters.”
Democrats say the measures will disproportionately impact low-income, elderly and disabled voters, who are all more likely to seek help returning ballots and getting to the polls in the first place, and who are more likely to face long lines once they get to their polling location.
“When you look at voters of color, elderly voters, voters who have to travel a long distance, that has been considered low-hanging fruit for Republican legislators,” said Reginald Bolding, the Democratic minority leader of Arizona’s House of Representatives.
Conservatives who back changes to the voting laws say too often those offering assistance are doing so with ulterior motives.
“The problem with voter assistance is that all too often it’s illegal assistance,” said Hans von Spakovsky, who heads the Election Law Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “What all too often happens with this kind of assistance is it’s not folks going in and assisting them, it’s people going in and saying, here’s how you need to vote.”
One provision in the Texas legislation likely to be debated later this year would require those who assist voters to fill out a form disclosing their names and addresses. That, von Spakovsky said, would give elections officials a way to identify someone who improperly pressured voters if voters were to complain later.
“It would raise a red flag in my eye if one person is helping 100 people in a polling place. What that would mean to me is election officials should very carefully and diplomatically talk to voters and ensure that that person is there to assist them and not ordering them how to vote,” he said. “I don’t believe in restricting assistance. I do believe in making sure it’s assistance.”
Federal law requires election officials to offer help to voters who need it. But state and county election administrators do not always meet those requirements: A 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office found that almost two-thirds of polling places set up for the 2016 elections included at least one impediment for people with disabilities.
There are myriad reasons why a voter would require help, said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a voting rights and elections counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Lots of people need assistance with obtaining a ballot or filling it out or returning it. That could be because of language issues, it could be because of low literacy, it could be because of physical disability that voters have,” Sweren-Becker said. “There’s nothing inherently improper in getting help.”
Disability rights groups point to other states that are moving to expand voter access, especially for those with disabilities. Six states, from deep-red Indiana and Kentucky to Democratic-controlled states like Massachusetts and Virginia, have passed measures this year adding access for those with disabilities. Three states, North Dakota, New York and Virginia, have made it easier to register to vote. And four states have expanded access to drop boxes.
“States are recognizing that voters with disabilities have a particular challenge in casting ballots and specifically mail ballots,” Sweren-Becker said.
Several prominent national disability rights groups — the American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, the National Council on Independent Living and the National Disability Rights Network — have endorsed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a measure that would restore a preclearance provision struck down by the Supreme Court last decade.
But in some states, those groups worry that voter access is falling victim to the same straw man concerns about widespread fraud in the 2020 elections that have not been proven.
“There are things that could make it easier for people with disabilities to vote,” Dietrich said. “Many of the concerns of the disability community, it doesn’t seem like they’ve really been taken very seriously.”
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