At a turning point for voting rights, direction signals point both ways
The public's access to electoral democracy may be about to dangerously contract — or else expand dramatically.
So far, the movement to restrict access to the ballot box has gotten by far the most play. The Georgia law enacted to national headlines last week goes way beyond barring water deliveries at polling places, in part by setting a disturbing precedent in stripping administrative power from nonpartisan election officials and placing it in the hands of politicians. Broad new curbs on voting in Iowa, enacted three week ago, include criminal charges for local officials who skirt the new rules. Six other states are considering similar moves to take power from nonpartisan election administrators.
Less noticed, meanwhile, has been a parallel movement to expand voter access in states literally from coast to coast.
The most widely cited statistic in this year's voting rights debate is that, as of a month ago, 253 bills to restrict access to the polls had been proposed in 43 states. Many take aim at early and absentee voting, automatic voter registration, ballot drop boxes and other practices that helped fuel last fall's record turnout.
But the same progressive think tank that made that calculation, the Brennan Center for Justice, has also tallied 704 bills that set out to expand voting access — also in 43 states. These include Washington's recent move to restore voting rights to felons as soon as they're released from prison, a Kentucky measure to make permanent the early and mail-in voting rules rolled out last year in response to the pandemic, and bills in Vermont and Virginia that similarly institutionalize ballot drop boxes and prepaid postage on absentee envelopes.
Republicans driving the restrictive legislation say the curbs are needed to restore voter confidence and combat fraud, despite zero evidence of the widespread cheating claimed by former President Donald Trump. Democrats from President Biden on down cast the GOP campaign as a return to Jim Crow and an assault on democracy. Voting rights groups have raised alarms that the Republican statehouse crusade is not only a deliberate effort to disenfranchise Black voters but also would threaten the principle of independent election administration that's long been a democratic norm.
The GOP-led push, moreover, has lit a fire under Democrats mobilizing behind the sweeping package of democracy reforms passed by the House under the label HR 1 and pending in the Senate as S 1. That legislation would significantly expand access to the polls by mandating nationally the easy registration, absentee ballot application and early in-person voting rules that vary significantly among the states.
But it would also do much more, from prohibiting partisan gerrymandering to imposing broad new campaign financing and government ethics rules. Republicans are uniformly opposed and have cast the measure as a partisan power grab, while deep-pocketed conservative groups have turned the campaign to defeat the bill into a GOP rallying cry.
But recent polling concludes the measure, known as the For the People Act, is "one of the most popular legislative items in recent history, across party lines, demographic groups, and geographies." Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of Republicans support the bill, according to a survey this month by Global Strategy Group and ALG Research, as do 73 percent of independents and 96 percent of Democrats.
Senate support for the bill, which recently secured crucial albeit only partial backing from the most conservative Democratic senator, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, is also strengthening Democrats' determination to eliminate or substantially weaken the filibuster. The showdown over the future of what amounts to a 60-vote requirement for most policy changes, however, seems to be months away.
If enacted, the bill would invalidate much of the new wave of GOP voting restrictions and create broad new federal mandates for automatic and same-day voter registration, voting machines with paper trails and post-prison felon enfranchisement, among other provisions.
This, despite the fact that many of the voting practices that GOP state legislators have set out to scrap or curtail — most notably lengthy periods for early in-person voting and easy rules for voting absentee or by mail — are broadly popular with Republican voters. Close to half of all votes (46 percent) were cast absentee or by mail in the presidential election last year, more than double the share in 2016. No-excuse voting by mail is permitted in 29 states, many of them deep Republican red. Last year, several GOP governors and election officials moved to expand voting by mail, even as Trump assailed it as an invitation to massive cheating (and then casting his own ballot using Florida's permissive system.)
Several provisions in HR 1 originated as bipartisan initiatives, according to a white paper released by the Campaign Legal Center, including modernizing registration and early voting, and putting the drawing of all House districts in the hands of 50 independent commissions.
The nonprofit, which promotes easier voting and stricter money-in-politics rules, is working with state and local partners to educate voters about how their franchise might be curtailed if many of the Republican statehouse bills get enacted.
"These are unpopular provisions," says Jonathan Diaz, the Campaign Legal Center's legal counsel for voting rights. "They run contrary to the security of our democracy."
Republican-aligned activist groups, from Heritage Action to Tea Party Nation, are raising and spending big money in the fight over voter access. But beyond fundraising, it's not clear that restricting voting will turn out to be a winning strategy for the GOP. Trump actually got more support in 2020 than in 2016 from Black and Latino voters — the very groups that many of the looming restrictions risk disenfranchising.
"What's surprising is how seemingly short-sighted they might be," Elise Wirkus, legislative affairs manager for the democracy reform advocacy group Issue One, said of the GOP-proposed voting curbs. "What I don't think we know yet is how limiting early voting or vote by mail could hurt Republican voter access down the line."
Issue One (which started but remains journalistically independent from The Fulcrum) has convened a bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity in hopes of finding common ground on election integrity. The group will host a forum next week on "How State Voting Proposals Could Impact How Millions of Americans Vote."
Among the issues that could bring Republicans and Democrats together, says Wirkus, is the need to increase funding for election administration. Some democracy advocates joined Republicans in raising questions about the private funding from executives at Facebook and elsewhere that helped underwrite 2020 election administration and voting infrastructure. At the same time, some big businesses — including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, both headquartered in Atlanta — have expressed opposition to Georgia's new voter restrictions.
The more aggressively Republicans have moved to restrict ballot access, in other words, the more Democrats have stepped up their campaign to expand it. At the state level, the outcome may be a patchwork of laws that make it much easier to participate in democracy in some states but much harder in others. On Capitol Hill, the high-stakes fight over HR 1 has brought the voting wars to a crucial turning point.
Carney is a contributing writer.
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