Some GOP-Led States Defy Trump to Push for Expanded Voter Access
(Bloomberg) -- Some Republican state officials are newly open to expanded voting options after such moves proved popular and the party’s down-ballot candidates won in a high-turnout election, despite President Donald Trump railing against the changes.
Republican elections officials and state lawmakers in Kentucky, Missouri and Texas are considering changes that would either make vote-by-mail more accessible or increase early in-person voting.
Any such moves would be going against the current in the Republican Party, where Trump’s baseless claims of fraud have spurred GOP state lawmakers in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania to consider tightening requirements on mail-in ballots.
Officials in Georgia have even filed suit to curtail the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots and add new layers of scrutiny to the signature-matching process before the Jan. 5 Senate run-off votes.
But in some Republican-led states, especially where the vote was less contentious, officials are looking to emulate a slew of Democratic-led ones and open up voting options in light of the success of the November election, which set records for turnout.
“The right to vote absentee -- people didn’t exercise it before, didn’t know how it worked or didn’t trust it,” Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, said. “That’s changed.”
And while Trump argued that vote-by-mail and other loosened restrictions would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Republicans gained seats in the U.S. House, did well in many state elections and may hold on to control of the U.S. Senate.
In Kentucky, Republicans are considering keeping in place early in-person voting set up because of the pandemic after it was well received by both voters and elections clerks.
“We’ve always been leery of early voting in Kentucky, but I think this election made a believer out of a lot of people,” said Republican state Senator Jimmy Higdon.
The state isn’t likely to change the law requiring an excuse to vote by mail -- which was temporarily changed to no-excuse vote-by-mail this year -- but Adams said its use may grow anyway.
Adams said many Kentuckians who first tried vote-by-mail this year may end up using excuses already allowed under state law -- including being elderly, disabled or a college student away from home -- a dramatic shift in a state where only 2% of voters cast mail-in ballots in the past.
Elections officials in other states expect similar shifts. In Nebraska, Assistant Secretary of State Cindi Allen said she expects a lot of people to continue voting early and by mail after they first tried it in November.
“Once they understand the process and have used it, they tend to follow the same pattern,” she said. “We all walk on our cowpaths.”
In Texas, state lawmakers have already prepped dozens of bills on elections, with Republican bills largely seeking to restrict options and Democratic measures looking to expand them.
But Republican consultant Derek Ryan said he sees some room for agreement on expanding in-person early voting, which had been expanded by an order from Republican Governor Greg Abbott, after a high-turnout election in which the GOP did well.
“Republicans are finally seeing that, hey, maybe more voters doesn’t mean bad news for us,” he said.
Although vote-by-mail and early in-person voting have grown across the country in recent years, the November election was the most dramatic shift in how the nation votes in modern history.
In 2016, 24% of ballots were cast by mail, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. But preliminary figures from the U.S. Elections Project show that as much as half of all ballots were cast by mail in November. In-person early voting, meantime, went from 17% to roughly 25% of all votes, according to those same sources.
Elections officials say that voter enthusiasm should provide a big boost in states that had not expanded options in the past.
“In the end, incumbents don’t like to upset their voters, and there will be some upset voters if they can’t vote as conveniently as they have this year,” said Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat who is pushing changes to elections law in her state.
In addition, a number of states are expected to update some of the more technical aspects of voting due to problems that the pandemic revealed.
Among the changes being considered: Allowing voters to register, request mail-in ballots and track their ballots online; buying more secure drop boxes for returning ballots; helping voters fix mail-in ballots that were rejected; and adding cameras to live-stream ballot counting.
Some states have already made administrative changes in response to the 325 lawsuits that have been filed over voting this year and the court challenges may bring more.
Another likely proposal will be to allow elections clerks to count mail-in ballots earlier. Restrictions on processing those ballots in the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin skewed early results, delayed reporting and fueled conspiracy theories touted by Trump and his allies.
Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University who tracked the lawsuits, said that local and state elections officials will press lawmakers hard to lift those restrictions.
“The people they’re going to hear from the most are the county and town officials who had to wade into this and are now enduring death threats,” Levitt said.
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