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Election reform in the states is not all doom and gloom

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Throughout 2021, many media and progressive thinkers have propagated a distressing narrative around state elections: GOP state legislators and governors in the grips of a “stolen election myth” are ramming through policies to quash access to the ballot. Democracy is being crushed, they lament. 

This peril to democracy, they assert, necessitates Congress to pass legislation, like the “For the People Act,” to empower the federal government to stop America’s descent into theocratic authoritarianism. President Joe Biden and various congressional Democrats for months have been wagging their fingers at the right and damning them for failing to embrace the more than 800-page legislation. Even comedians joined in the shame game.

Last week, Democrats gave up on the For the People Act, which any keen observer knew there were not sufficient Democratic votes to pass — to say nothing of any Republican supporters. They swapped in a new proposal based on ideas proffered by Senator Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va) Perhaps something acceptable to both parties might be bargained out — with time.

Yet there is no sign that the left, nor many media and elite influencers are ready to let go of the apocalyptic narrative. Yelling that democracy is dying remains in vogue.

Indubitably, there have been distressing Republican enactments and actions in the states. The Arizona Cyber Ninjas audit is an outrage and no good can come of it. The creation of new fines and penalties for election officials is wrongheaded. Elected officials should be lauding the dedicated civil servants who do the meticulous drudgery of running elections. Instead, some of them have been spreading conspiracy theories that lead credulous Trump partisans to deliver death threats to elections administrators. And the GOP legislators who want to empower themselves to throw out the publics’ votes in presidential elections deserve to be booted from office. 

But this apocalyptic scenario grossly broad-brushes what is happening in the states, to say nothing of the cities. In part, it often misconstrues what legislatures actually have done. 

Take the case of Georgia’s new election law, which President Biden and others on the left blasted as “Jim Crow 2.0” that curbs voting hours. In fact, the truth is the opposite. Ilya Shapiro, a constitutional scholar at the Cato Institute, points out that Georgia’s new law actually expands the hours when people can vote and the methods they may use. 

The left and media have made the same broadside charges have been made against the new Florida and Texas laws. To be clear, these laws are imperfect. Both states’ now allow partisan poll watchers to get close to the vote counters, which may produce gratuitous disruptions.

But neither state’s statutes can be fairly described as restrictive. Florida, for example, continues to allow a person to vote absentee without an excuse — but he or she needs to file a request to do so every two years rather than every four. It reduces the hours ballot boxes may be used, but also mandates that access to them be more equitable. Texas’ new rules expand the number of hours for voting and allows voters who make goofs on their ballots to fix them.

Bull Connor and his fire hoses and attack dogs this is not.

Mostly, however, the apocalyptic perspective overlooks the instances where the GOP enacted policies to expand access to voting or election innovations — often in partnership with Democrats. 

This year, Kentucky passed a bill to create early voting and to allow voters to request absentee ballots online. In Vermont, the Republican governor signed a Democratic bill that makes voting by mail automatic. All voters by default will receive an absentee ballot. In Virginia, the GOP used ranked choice voting to select its candidate for the governorship this spring. Old Dominion, by the way, also created a nonpartisan redistricting commission last year at the behest of voters — a reform the Democrats opposed for fear of losing their power to gerrymander. This summer, Maine opened its partisan primaries to independent voters — who comprise more than 30 percent of the electorate. Both Republicans and Democrats supported this expansion of suffrage. GOP-dominated Utah is expanding its use of ranked choice voting in municipal elections this year. One could go on.

To be perfectly clear, there are state GOP legislators and governors who are peddling Kraken fantasies and introducing some legislation with toxic provisions. But when one looks past the crazy talk and the messaging bills to the election policies that are being made — the picture is far more complex than the often repeated apocalyptic tale.

Which means those who want Congress to enact a new federal elections law need to make a more nuanced case, and they need to work with GOP legislators to craft legislation that narrowly targets real problems — not leftist bugbears.

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Absentee ballot Early voting Elections Joe Biden Joe Manchin Postal voting Republican efforts to restrict voting following the 2020 presidential election Republican Party Voter suppression Voter suppression in the United States Voting

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