Iowa is already seeing the effects of the year's first Republican-driven curbs on voting. The state's elections administrator has told 294,000 Iowans they've been targeted for an eventual purge from the registration list — simply because they did not vote last year.
GOP Secretary of State Paul Pate's office revealed this week that postcards have been mailed to more than 13 percent of the state's electorate telling them they are "inactive" voters because they did not cast any ballot in 2020. The list includes about 400 teenagers who were allowed to register even though they turned 18 after Election Day.
Pate was required to act under the sweeping tightening of election rules approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in February, despite united Democratic opposition. Like fellow Republicans nationwide, the GOP acted in the name of preventing the sort of election cheating that Democrats accurately describe as almost non-existent.
Keeping voter rolls up to date enjoys bipartisan support as a good-government best practice, but Republicans generally want to move much more aggressively than Democrats — who say the risk of fraud is much less than the risk that eligible voters will get purged.
Previously, voters had to miss two consecutive general elections to be moved to inactive status. That designation does not immediately limit the ability to vote, but instead puts the Iowan on notice their registration will be canceled if they remain politically silent through 2024. Requesting an absentee ballot, voting in any election or re-registering at a new address will restore an Iowan's active voter status.
"Incorrectly inactivating voters is a chill to voters across the state," said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat considering a challenge to Pate's re-election next year. "It sows distrust and uncertainty while also discouraging voters from voting."
The new law is in some ways more restrictive than the one in Georgia, which has gained much more notoriety because the Peach State is a newly purple presidential battleground — and both civil rights groups and some big companies have derided the effort as all about suppressing the vote of the one-third of Georgians who are Black.
In Iowa (which is 4 percent Black) there will now be nine fewer days for early voting and an hour less for voting on Election Day. Counties may no longer proactively send out absentee ballot request forms or set up more than a single drop box, and they are no longer permitted to count ballots postmarked on time but delayed in the mail. And Iowans may no longer turn over their sealed vote envelopes for delivery by partisan operatives or community activists, the practice critics deride as "ballot harvesting."
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The sprawling Republican effort to make voting more difficult has been derailed for the first time by a Democratic governor.
Laura Kelly of Kansas has vetoed two bills, one curbing the number of ballots third parties may collect and deliver and the other giving the Legislature total control over election rules. Both were drafted in response to developments in other states last year — decisions by courts and governors to ease access to the ballot during the pandemic, and Donald Trump's baseless claims that widespread fraud had robbed him of a second presidential term.
The measures now return to the capital, where both have more than enough support for a veto override in the Senate but appear to be a handful of votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. Kansas' 2021 legislative session lasts three more weeks.
While Georgia has been the focus of this year's intense nationwide fight over election legislation, in part because it was one of the purple states key to President Biden's win, the battle is also being fought in plenty of states Trump carried — with new curbs already enacted in Iowa and Montana and steadily advancing in Texas and Florida.
But the GOP holds all the levers of lawmaking power in all of them. Kansas is one of eight states with Democratic governors and Republican statehouses. Biden took 42 percent there last fall, only the sixth time since World War II when the Democratic nominee got more than two of every five votes.
This got the state's GOP agitated and fueled conspiracy theories — many about cheating at the hands of so-called "ballot harvesters" — that Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab has labored to tamp down. He says voting in 2020 was "free and fair."
One of the vetoed measures would take Kansas off the roster of 26 states that permit voters to entrust anyone they like to deliver their completed absentee ballot. Both political parties and various campaign organizations use such laws to collect envelopes from sympathetic voters — mainly the elderly, poor and disabled as well as people living in remote areas such as Indian reservations.
But Republicans, fueled by Trump, have turned against the practice with a vengeance in recent years, arguing without much evidence that it encourages fraud. (The biggest such case of cheating, by far, involved a 2018 GOP congressional campaign in North Carolina.) The Supreme Court is now deliberating whether Arizona's curbs on third-party collection amounts of racially discriminatory voter suppression.
The Kansas bill would limit to 10 the number of ballots anyone could deliver, and also stiffen signature-match requirements on mail-in forms.
"Although Kansans have cast millions of ballots over the last decade, there remains no evidence of significant voter fraud," the governor said in a statement on Friday. "This bill is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. It is designed to disenfranchise Kansans, making it difficult for them to participate in the democratic process, not to stop voter fraud."
The other bill she vetoed would prevent her from changing election laws or procedures by executive order, and would bar the secretary of state from negotiating any settlements of election-related lawsuits without approval from the Legislature. But Kelly decreed no such alterations to voting procedures in 2020 and none were mandated in the state by the courts — putting Kansas in a distinct minority of just 16 states where neither thing happened in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
In her veto message, Kelly warned such a law could imperil the business climate in the state, as more and more companies have spoken out this spring against legislation that would curb ballot access.
The bill would respond, however, to the most prominent recent case of election malfeasance in Kansas, by requiring a brick-and-mortar residential address for all registered voters. The congressional career of Republican Steve Watkins came to an abrupt end after one term in 2020, partly after it was revealed he'd listed his home as a UPS store so he could vote illegally for a friend running for the city council in Topeka.
Kelly is running for a second term but is seen as one of the most electorally vulnerable governors in 2022.
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Iowa has become the first state this year making it much tougher to vote. It's the vanguard of a nationwide Republican effort to curtail access to the ballot box in response to last year's record turnout, central to both President Biden's election and former President Donald Trump's baseless claims of fraud.
GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday signed a sweeping set of tightened election rules pushed through the General Assembly two weeks ago without a single Democratic supporter.
The law reduces in-person early voting to 20 days, from 29, and shortens the time the polls are open Election Day by 60 minutes, to 13 hours. Local officials are now barred from proactively sending out vote-by-mail application forms. And absentee ballots arriving after the polls close will be discarded, eliminating a six-day grace period for Postal Service delays.
In addition, Iowans may no longer turn over their sealed vote envelopes for delivery by partisan operatives or community activists, the practice critics deride as "ballot harvesting." And Iowans will from now on be removed from the rolls if they skip a single general election and don't report a change in address or register as a voter again.
Finally, there is a new limit of one ballot drop box in each of the 99 counties, no matter how remote or urban, and counties may not set up satellite in-person early voting sites unless formally petitioned by residents.
Like their legislative colleagues pushing more than 250 similarly restrictive proposals in 42 other states, GOP lawmakers in charge of the General Assembly say the tougher rules are necessary guards against cheating — although Iowa has no history of election irregularities and November's election generated record-shattering 75 percent turnout statewide (9 points better than the national number) without any credible hint of shenanigans.
"These additional steps promote more transparency and accountability, giving Iowans even greater confidence to cast their ballot," the governor said upon signing the bill.
"While politicians may claim these provisions ensure 'election integrity,' they do nothing of the sort," countered the Democratic Party's most prominent election litigator, Marc Elias. "They are a result of the record turnout in Iowa and the nation in 2020. This bill will impose unconstitutional burdens on minority, elderly and disabled voters and cannot be permitted to stand."
He promised to file federal lawsuits in Iowa and any other states that follow its lead.
Some of the most prominent efforts are in states that Biden turned blue after they went red in 2016: Pennsylvania, Arizona and maybe most notably Georgia, where the House has debated curbs on "souls to the polls" early voting on Sundays and on Monday the Senate voted to end no-excuse absentee voting.
But Trump took Iowa's six electoral votes by a comfortable 8 points, a slightly bigger margin than four years before. Moreover, Republicans picked up two U.S. House seats in the state, GOP Sen. Joni Ernst survived a dogged and well-financed challenge and the party's legislative majority expanded, too.
And those successes came even as 76 percent of Democrats voted by mail or early and in person — but only 52 percent of Republicans did so in response to Trump's campaign of falsehoods. Overall, a record 60 percent of votes statewide were cast ahead of Election Day, mainly as a consequence of an array of election easements by county officials responding to the pandemic.
On Monday, Heritage Action, a national conservative group, announced a $10 million advertising and grassroots mobilization campaign across eight states, including Iowa, to drum up support for legislation curbing absentee ballots, stiffening voter ID and citizenship verification rules, and more active culling of registration lists. The group's executive director, Jessica Anderson, praised Iowa's new law but urged the General Assembly to do more.
There were 12 convictions for election misconduct in Iowa in the past two years, the state's nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency told lawmakers as they debated the package.
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The Supreme Court on Tuesday will take up its most consequential case since the election about the future of a functional and fair democracy.
Hanging in the balance are the most meaningful remaining voting rights protections for minority groups under federal law. But even if the justices don't make a sweeping ruling upholding or eliminating those, their decision in a dispute over election restrictions in battleground Arizona will shape the fate of similar rules across the country.
Arizona disallows ballots cast at the wrong precinct and also bars so-called ballot harvesting, the term for campaign operatives or community activists collecting and delivering others' sealed vote envelopes. Last year a federal appeals court ruled that both laws violate the Voting Rights Act because they disproportionately disadvantage Black, Latino and Native American voters.
No decision from the high court is likely before June, and oral arguments like those set for a Tuesday teleconference do not always produce reliable clues about the justices' views of the case.
But the court's decisive 6-3 conservative majority combined with its landmark decision eight years ago effectively gutting the most powerful aspect of the voting rights law — which made places with histories of racial discrimination get Washington's "preclreraance," or permission, before setting new election rules — has civil rights groups and Democratic politicians very worried about the outcome.
Moreover, the case is being argued as Republican-majority legislatures across the country consider as many as 150 bills to make access to the polls more difficult than last year. A broad ruling upholding Arizona's rules would make it more difficult to challenge any measures that get enacted.
"It would be taking away one of the big tools, in fact, the main tool we have left now, to protect voters against racial discrimination," Myrna Perez of the progressive Brennan Center for Justice told the Associated Press.
At issue is the part of the Voting Rights Act that creates two separate protections against racial bias in election rules.
One provision is known as the "intent test." It says state or local election regulations must be struck down if plaintiffs in a lawsuit show the provisions were enacted for the purpose of making it harder for people of a certain race to vote. This protection was significantly weakened when the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that lawmakers must be given "the presumption of legislative good faith," significantly raising the bar for proving any racist intent.
The fallback provision is called the "results test." It says states may not maintain any law that "results in a denial or abridgement" of the right to vote "on account of race or color." In other words, even when a statute is written without any discriminatory motive, it can still be tossed if the courts conclude it has a disproportionate impact on voters of color.
That was the test that Arizona's two laws failed, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided 7-4 in January 2020.
In the 2016 presidential election, the first after the law took effect, Black, Latino and Native American voters were twice as likely as white people to cast ballots in the wrong precinct, Judge William Fletcher wrote for the majority, thanks to "frequent changes in polling locations; confusing placement of polling locations; and high rates of residential mobility."
And the ban on ballot harvesting also has an outsize effect on minority voters, he said, because they are more likely to have trouble getting to the polls because of their poverty or disability — or to rely on mail service when they live on remote reservations.
Arizona's Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, argues the ruling applied the results test much too assertively, and that if the high court agrees then similar laws around the country will fall and the integrity of elections will be imperiled.
If a majority of justices agree, their choice will be to delineate a tougher legal standard for failing the results test — or effectively jettison it altogether. Brnovich has proposed a complex new standard for administering the results test that would appear to make its application all but impossible.
The Biden administration has disappointed some civil rights advocates by deciding not to formally intervene. Instead the Justice Department told the court two weeks ago that, while it does not support tougher standards for proving discriminatory results from election laws, it also does not think Arizona's provisions fail the current test.
If the court sees things the same way, it could uphold Arizona's rules without making big changes to voting discrimination law.
Arizona had been one of nine states where all election laws were subject to federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act until 2013, when the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder effectively scrapped the preclearance system. It would be revived under legislation the Democratic-majority House is on course to pass this year — and that bill's language could be amended before the vote to reverse any weakening of the law by the court in the Arizona case.
But, either way, the measure would surely be consigned to limbo in the Senate so long as the legislative filibuster stays in place, because almost all 50 Republicans oppose it.
As many as one in 10 voters in most elections cast their votes in a precinct where they don't live, the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates, and generally the mistake involves ignorance of neighborhood political geography and goes unnoticed. But when such votes are challenged, Arizona is one of more than a dozen states mandating the entire ballot be thrown out — negating not only votes in local contests such as for city council and school board but also for statewide offices, Congress and president.
Arizona is also among the 10 states that make it a crime for people other than family members or caregivers to act as the third-party courier for an absentee ballot. Half the states make that widely permissible, and the rest have no state laws on the matter.
The results of the case will have an impact not only on minority voting rights but on the balance of partisan power, because any new permissiveness for laws with racially discriminatory consequences could cut down on the Democratic vote. President Biden won last fall with the support of 87 percent of Black voters, 65 percent of Latino voters, 61 percent of Asian voters, and 55 percent of other nonwhite voters.
The challenged Arizona provisions remained in effect last fall because the case was on appeal. still making its way through the courts. Biden still narrowly carried the state, the first Democrat to do so since 1996.
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