What’s Behind the Latest Fight Over Americans’ Right to Vote

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Across the U.S., dozens of state legislatures controlled by Republicans have introduced bills to rein in voting access. They cite the risk of irregularities and fraud despite statements by election officials of both parties that the 2020 general election was among the most secure the country has held, even after many restrictions were eased because of the pandemic. Former President Donald Trump and his allies have pushed complaints about fraud and abuse, without evidence, saying the loosened rules cost him the election. Democrats say Republicans see the record turnouts in many places as a threat, and are pushing bills in Congress as well as on the state level to expand voting accessibility.

1. How big is the GOP push?

Republicans control 60% of state legislatures across the country and have complete control of the state government -- both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office -- in 23 states. Republican lawmakers have introduced more than 250 bills in 43 states that would restrict absentee voting, limit early voting or impose stronger voter ID requirements, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. That’s seven times the number of proposals introduced in state legislatures in roughly the first six weeks of 2020. More than half of the bills are focused on cutting back mail-in, or absentee, voting, which became especially important because of health concerns over Covid-19. Others bills would bar registering to vote on Election Day or allow for more aggressive purges of voter rolls.

2. What sparked the moves?

After states expanded mail-in balloting and early voting, more than 73% of the electorate, 116 million Americans, cast their ballots before Election Day. Well before the election, Trump began disparaging widespread mail-in voting as corrupt and ripe for fraud, despite no evidence of widespread misconduct. Some Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said over the winter that Trump’s rhetoric had depressed GOP voter turnout in later runoff elections, costing the party two Senate seats in Georgia and ultimately control of the U.S. Senate. They now defend the GOP proposals as necessary to restore faith in the system for Republican voters.

3. Who would be affected by these changes?

Low-income workers who are unable to take time off to vote on Election Day could have trouble voting due to shorter hours at polling places and restricted chances to vote by mail or vote early. So would elderly voters and those who live in rural areas or who have young children who may need child care. Stricter voter ID laws would also mostly hurt low-income and minority voters who are more likely to be without the forms of ID required under tougher rules. Purges of voter rolls are flawed and disproportionately affect younger voters and minorities. The ACLU of Georgia sued the state in late 2020 after releasing a report that found that 198,000 voters removed from the voting rolls had not actually moved, with more young people and minorities having been purged.

4. What’s the chance these bills will pass?

Some already have. Bills to restrict voting have been signed into law in Iowa and Georgia and many are fast-tracking through state legislatures where their odds seem favorable. Georgia enacted a sweeping new law that would end “no-excuse” absentee voting, despite state officials repeatedly finding no evidence of voter fraud in 2020 when such mail-in voting was widespread. The bill also imposes new voter identification requirements, allows state officials to take over local elections boards, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, shortens the absentee voting window, and makes it illegal to approach voters in line to give them food and water. A group of civic organizations immediately sued to block the law. A civil rights organization in Iowa has sued Republican Governor Kim Reynolds for signing a bill that shortens the early voting period, closes polling places an hour earlier on Election Day, bans officials from sending absentee voting applications without a voter requesting one, and requires absentee ballots to be received before polls close. More than 75% of all eligible Iowans cast ballots in the 2020 election.

5. Is any state looking to expand voting rights?

Democrats have introduced 704 bills in 43 states to make it easier for people to register to vote, vote early or cast ballots by mail. However, Democrats have complete control of government in only 15 states. Many of those states, including Oregon and Washington, already have a long history with voting by mail.

6. What are they doing in Congress?

The House has passed a sweeping measure, HR 1, the For the People Act, that it previously passed in 2019. The bill would create a national standard for voting and seek to nullify efforts to curb voting on the state level. It would require no-excuse absentee voting nationally, require states to accept mail-in ballots up to 10 days after Election Day, mandate a minimum of 14 consecutive days of early voting and require same-day voting registration, among other provisions. Under it, states would have to accept a sworn statement in lieu of an ID, with exceptions for some first-time voters; it would also limit voter roll purges. Civil-rights groups are also pressing Democrats to pass a bill that would restore a process for reviewing state changes to voter laws that was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 2013.

7. What’s next for that?

In 2019, the Republicans who controlled the Senate refused to put HR 1 up for a vote. Democrats now control the chamber and have reintroduced the bill. But its fate remains uncertain: Democrats control the Senate by only one vote, and would need to attract 10 Republican votes to fend off a filibuster. (One Republican senator, Mike Lee of Utah, has said that HR1 was “written by the devil himself.”) Progressive Democrats in the House have used the prospect of a GOP blockade as an argument to scrap or limit the filibuster.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Brennan Center for Justice tracks state-level voting law proposals, and has compiled a list of studies on the impact of voter ID laws.
  • Read the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 here.
  • A QuickTake on gerrymandering and the 2019 Supreme Court decision.
  • A chart by Bloomberg Politics on U.S. states that make voting easy or hard.
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures has a database of changes in state election laws and a breakdown of state voter identification requirements.
  • An Ohio State University site tracks election-related cases.

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