States prepare for new round of voting wars as midterms approach

PHOENIX — State legislatures will begin debating changes to voting rights and election administration laws in the coming days after an unprecedented wave of reforms passed in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. 

At least 74 such measures have been pre-filed in 11 states, according to a count maintained by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Of those, 13 measures filed in four states would restrict access to the ballot.

That’s in addition to dozens of bills that would restrict or expand voting rights, or change the way elections are run, that were proposed last year and will carry over into the legislative sessions set to begin this week, including 88 bills across nine states the Brennan Center counted as “restrictive.”

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“There’s a lot more attention on election law,” said Arizona state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), who has sponsored election-related bills in recent years. “It’s not a game. It’s serious, and when you change something, especially in election law, it has significant ramifications and its ripple effect is felt far and wide.”

Legislators in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania will debate measures that would allow elections officials to purge voters from the rolls if they are inactive. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, legislators will consider adding criminal penalties for elections officials who mail out unsolicited absentee ballots. And legislators in more than a dozen states will consider new or expanded identification requirements for voters at the polls. 

Democratic legislators are mounting their own push to expand voting access, part of a national mission to put voting rights at the center of the party’s platform ahead of the November midterm elections. 

“There is a concerted effort for us not just to play defense, but to go on offense. This is a pivotal moment in our history, I can’t stress this enough,” said New York state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D), who chairs the state Senate Elections Committee. “It has been only when we have gone on offense, when we have taken the fight to the voters, when we have been successful.” 

Myrie will introduce what he called a New York version of the Voting Rights Act, giving new oversight of election procedures to the state attorney general and creating a presumption of the right to vote. He will also introduce legislation to make permanent drop boxes for absentee ballots, a practice New York temporarily adopted during the coronavirus pandemic. 

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In Arizona, Ugenti-Rita plans to offer legislation that would make school board elections partisan, similar to measures in several other states. She is also drafting legislation that would expand the margin by which automatic recounts would take place. 

“I think we’re living in denial if we’re going to continue to believe that politics doesn’t play a major role in school boards,” Ugenti-Rita said in an interview. “To me, there’s nothing wrong with being political. It’s not a bad thing, but let’s stop pretending that decisions aren’t being made without thinking of one’s political viewpoint and perspective.”

The wave of new action comes after one of the most active years on election legislation in recent memory. Last year, 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting, according to the Brennan Center’s tallies. Among those measures were dramatic overhauls passed in Georgia and Texas that earned national headlines for cracking down on voting access.

Some of those new laws spawned from baseless claims about the 2020 presidential election, in which President BidenJoe BidenFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Romney tests positive for coronavirus Pelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better MORE ousted Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon tells Russia to stand down Billionaire GOP donor maxed out to Manchin following his Build Back Better opposition MORE in a number of closely contested states. Partisan reviews of election results in states like Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia and Texas produced no evidence of misfeasance or malfeasance, but the effort to undermine confidence in the vote by Trump and his allies have spurred new bills that would allow partisan reviews of election results.

Legislators in Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee have already pre-filed measures to allow reviews of election results.  

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Half the states passed another 62 laws that expanded the right to vote last year; most states controlled entirely by Democrats passed measures expanding voting access.

Democrats are increasingly alarmed at Republican efforts to win control of the levers of election administration, both through legislation that disempowers existing administrators and through candidates running for offices that oversee those elections. 

“There is a slow burn insurrection happening across the nation. It is a five alarm fire and anyone that cares about our democracy should be extremely alarmed about how fragile that democracy is looking,” Myrie said. “They’re doing it under the cloud of the Big Lie.”

Ugenti-Rita, who voted to allow the so-called election audit in Arizona but who turned against the process after auditors botched their work, said some election reform efforts had become partisan performance art. 

“There’s a lot of political people that are using this issue because right now it’s a major issue for voters. But whether they can transition from just talk to actual reform and change is yet to be seen,” she said. “There’s a difference between members opining and talking about it and stroking their constituency and actually doing something about it.”