Former President Donald Trump’s debunked claims of widespread voter fraud and a stolen election galvanized his supporters who stormed the Capitol in January. Now, his rhetoric is turning into policies that are moving through GOP-dominated state legislatures: a rollback of voting access.
In statehouses around the country — most notably, Georgia — lawmakers are rolling out legislation that would make it a lot harder to vote. They’re considering dozens of restrictive bills to purge voters from rolls, limit early and absentee voting, add voter ID requirements and eliminate automatic and same-day voter registration.
In short, bills are being introduced to prevent something that didn’t happen in 2020 — widespread voter fraud — from recurring in 2022, 2024 and beyond.
“They’re all predicated on the ‘big lie,’ the idea that Trump won the election, that there was widespread voter fraud,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. “The ‘big lie’ is the engine or the fuel that powered in a lot of ways the Jan. 6 insurrection. It’s also the fuel that’s powering these anti-voting bills that we are seeing across the country.”
If passed, critics warn, the policies would disproportionately impact Democratic constituencies like young voters, poor voters and voters of color, erecting barriers to the ballot box after a historic turnout last fall.
“There’s absolutely no coincidence in terms of the people who are gonna be impacted and the timing of this,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, an arm of the SPLC, which prioritizes impact litigation on issues like voting rights and criminal justice reform.
Some voting rights advocates are pinning their hopes on the federal government, where there are moves afoot to make it easier for Americans to cast votes. President Joe Biden signed an executive order promoting voting access on March 7, the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a civil rights touchstone. And days earlier, the House passed sweeping election reforms expanding voting rights.
On the state level, some bills were introduced as early as last fall. But so far, only three states — Iowa, Arkansas and Utah — have enacted any new restrictive voting or election laws this year, according to an analysis of state-level legislation the Brennan Center for Justice has identified as restrictive.
Arizona and Pennsylvania, two states Trump won in 2016 but lost in 2020, lead the nation in the number of voter suppression legislation proposed this year, according to the Brennan Center, which has tracked at least 250 restrictive bills in 43 state legislatures.
But the state getting outsized attention for efforts to restrict voting is Georgia, where Republicans lost the presidential election in November and two Senate runoffs in January, handing Democrats in Washington, D.C., control of the chamber. One of those senators, Raphael Warnock, is up for reelection next year, alongside Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
Last month, a battalion of Georgia Republicans introduced omnibus bills in the state House and Senate — bills that are likely to pass in the GOP-heavy legislature. S.B. 241, which passed the Senate last Monday, would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting and require identification such as a state driver’s license, voter ID or Social Security number for requesting absentee ballot applications and submitting absentee ballots.
Garland Favorito, co-founder of VOTER GA — Voters Organized for Trusted Election Results in Georgia, a conservative group founded in 2006 to “advocate open and secure elections procedures and processes to ensure accurate and verifiable elections” — blamed both political parties for leveraging “election integrity for their own benefit.”
“In H.R. 1, the Democrats are trying to take control of the country with a bunch of unconstitutional provisions,” Favorito said. “In Georgia, the Republicans are trying to solidify their power with certain election provisions in the omnibus bills, which don’t benefit President Trump, and they don’t benefit the people of Georgia, for the most part.”
“There’s no way we lost Georgia”
Many states expanded absentee voting last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, offering voters an alternative to in-person voting. Mail and in-person voting got politicized, however, with Democrats largely voting by mail and Republicans overwhelmingly turning out in person.
Still, 2020 saw the largest raw turnout ever, with 81 million voters backing Democrat Joe Biden over Trump, whose 74 million votes are the second most in U.S. history.
But it was Georgia, a state with rapidly changing demographics, that settled the election for Biden in one of the closest races of the presidential election.
After the election, Trump claimed, “There’s no way we lost Georgia,” and pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in an hour-long phone call to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.”
Raffensperger didn’t give in to Trump’s pressure campaign, but Republican legislators in Georgia backed Trump’s false claims, calling for a special legislative session before the January runoffs to look at evidence of voter fraud. Among their demands: requiring a notary or photo ID for absentee ballots. Many GOP members also supported a Texas election challenge against Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
All but three of the 34 Republican state senators are co-sponsors of S.B. 241, which Democrats vehemently oppose. Last Monday, in floor remarks ahead of the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan defended provisions of the bill, while outside the state Capitol, protesters opposed to the legislation chained themselves together, staging a sit-in.
Dugan said driver’s license and voter ID numbers have been free of charge for the past decade and challenged his colleagues to work with him to help the 3 percent of Georgians who don’t have either form of identification or a Social Security card obtain one.
He also dismissed charges that eliminating no-excuse absentee voting would limit who can vote by mail, arguing that 2.7 million voters meet the range of valid excuses, far exceeding the nearly 1.8 million people who voted absentee in 2020 and doubling the 1.3 million ballots accepted last year.
After a Republican-controlled General Assembly passed no-excuse absentee voting in 2005, Dugan said, the number of voters who used that method of voting “remained relatively small and consistent and did not create unduly stresses on elections officials.”
“That has changed,” he said. “The increasing burden on local election offices and increased cost to each of our counties has risen significantly. … There’s a third factor that may be even more important to me. Unfortunately, the highest rate of rejected ballots are those ballots that are sent in by mail.”
In an interview, Eliza Sweren-Becker, a counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, suggested the absentee provision was myopic.
“We don’t know yet if the uptick of mail voting that we saw last year will continue in the same way in future elections,” she said. “So it is very shortsighted to limit mail voting for some sort of partisan game based only on a single election held during a pandemic when many more voters used mail voting than had historically been true.”
H.B. 531, which passed the state House earlier this month, would require voters to submit the number of their Georgia driver’s license or ID card — or a photocopy of ID — on absentee ballot applications, reduce the number of days voters have to request absentee ballots, limit access to drop boxes and restrict weekend early voting.
“The way we begin to restore confidence in our voting system is by passing this bill,” Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming, chairman of the Special Committee on Election Integrity and co-sponsor of the House bill, said on the floor then. “There are many common sense measures here to begin that process.”
Some of the bill’s Republican co-sponsors — Fleming, Jan Jones and Rick Williams — didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
But ahead of the bill’s passage in the House, GOP lawmakers made speeches justifying the provisions as common sense reforms, such as limiting the timeline for absentee ballot applications. Current law allows voters to request an absentee ballot from 180 days before Election Day to the Friday before Election Day. The bill would reduce that timeline to 11 weeks before Election Day until the second Friday before Election Day.
Supporters of the bill framed the current deadline to apply — the Friday before the Tuesday election — as unrealistic, given the time it would take to mail an absentee ballot to a voter. And they insisted limiting the timeline on the front end would eliminate possible confusion from voters who may have requested an absentee ballot too far in advance.
In a floor speech, Jones, GOP speaker pro-tempore and bill co-sponsor, said drop boxes made sense during the pandemic but should now be reconsidered, noting that “every voter has a drop box called a mailbox.”
Jones added that the weekend early voting provision accommodates “the very few counties that want to offer” it. “The data,” she said, “shows it’s the least used voting day by a long shot.”
And that same day, Rep. Alan Powell, another bill co-sponsor, described showing ID and verifying who you are as a necessary responsibility of a voter to prevent illegal votes. The identification provision would replace a signature-matching requirement, which Powell said proved to be subjective and tough to do.
“I don’t know if they even have good explanations, but, of course, you know, we witnessed and heard after their loss that the election was fraudulent and it was stolen,” said Democratic state Sen. Tonya Anderson, chairwoman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus in an interview. “So because there’s no proof that it was, their reaction was to try to suppress the vote on every level and by any means.”
“Failure is not an option”
Georgia Democrats don’t have the numbers to stop the legislation from reaching Kemp’s desk. But Democratic legislators and outside groups are relying on public and corporate pressure to stop the provisions from becoming law.
Litigation is another option. And Congress could also intervene by passing federal election reform legislation like H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which passed the House this month, and is awaiting Senate consideration, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was introduced in the Senate days after the civil rights icon’s death last year.
In an interview Thursday morning on Sirius XM’s “The Joe Madison Show,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer committed to bringing voting rights legislation to the floor, noting that Democrats “owe” the “young, poor, rural and Black” voters in Georgia who helped the party win control of the Senate.
“All these Republican legislators are making it harder for people of color, for poor people, for students, young people to vote,” Schumer said. “We have to undo that or we’ll lose the majority. So how are we going to undo that? Well, if we can get some bipartisan support, great, but if not, our caucus will meet and we will figure out how to get it done. Failure is not an option.”
Every House Republican in Congress opposed the reform bill, and both proposals would need support from at least 10 Republicans in the Senate to become law, an unlikely scenario.
“We have no confidence in any Republicans,” said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “This is the QAnon party. This is the party of Trump. We don’t have any confidence that there’s any Republicans that would support these efforts, let alone 10 of them.”
Trump called H.R. 1 a “monster” that “must be stopped” at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, and former Vice President Mike Pence targeted the legislation in a Daily Signal op-ed this month.
Last weekend, the Biden administration told reporters that the restrictive bills moving through legislatures are under the purview of Congress and the legislatures themselves.
“The president doesn’t have executive authority to prevent a state from taking that kind of action,” said an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That would require congressional action.”
While voting rights advocates are clear that anti-voting laws are intended to suppress the votes of people of color, they also acknowledge that they could backfire on GOP constituents.
“A lot of political consultants behind the scenes will tell you things like absentee balloting was a tool that had been more effectively used by Republicans for the last few election cycles,” said Sarah Walker, executive director of Secure Democracy, a nonprofit that supports policies to improve election integrity at every level. “These overcorrections might have unintentional downsides in which they might be disenfranchising a number of their own voters.”
Anderson, the Georgia state senator, said Republicans are seeking “solutions to a problem that does not exist.”
“Everything worked the way that it worked before Nov. 3 and Jan. 5,” she said, referring to Election Day and the date for the Senate runoffs. “It was the same system, same machines, same everything that they, Republicans, put in place. We used their rules and won the game.”