This week, governors and legislatures across the country took action to change voting rules in a handful of states while Senate Democrats made modifications to the sweeping election overhaul bill known as the For the People Act.
While many state legislatures are debating bills to alternately ease or restrict voting, the most progress has been made in states that are tightening election rules. This week, Texas and Florida took big steps in that direction, while New York became the latest to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.
Here are five key stories to keep you in the loop on the latest activity.
Senator Joe Manchin Seeks Compromise on Voting Rights Legislation (The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register)
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Democrats, seeking to shore up support for their expansive election reform legislation, have made some modifications to the bill -- but the changes appear unlikely to help get the legislation through the Senate.
Responding to the concerns of election officials who questioned whether they would have the time and resources to meet all of the requirements laid out in the For the People Act, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has drafted changes and circulated them among her fellow Senators, according to The Washington Post.
While the modifications offer waivers and later deadlines to ease states' path to implementing vote-by-mail systems, early voting and election equipment standards, they do not address the major complaints from Republican lawmakers, who claim the bill is an appropriation federalization of elections.
The legislation was passed by the House (where it is known as HR 1) in March without any Republican support. Now the bill faces a difficult, perhaps insurmountable, barrier in the Senate (as S 1).
As long as the filibuster remains intact, Democratic leaders need to keep all their members in line and pick up 10 Republican votes to advance the bill. Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia has called for bipartisan efforts to reform elections, indicating he might not support the bill since it has not received Republican support so far. And Manchin is one of at least two Democrats who oppose changing the rules to abolish the legislative filibuster.
The nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, which engages in advocacy and litigation to support ballot access, praised the changes but warned against further modifications.
"The Senate is incorporating recommendations from key stakeholders, adding flexibility to the timeline for implementing changes that will modernize and improve access to voting systems," said CLC President Trevor Potter, a one-time GOP member of the Federal Election Commission. " As the Senate moves forward with the markup, it must hold firm to the principle of national election standards which will ensure Americans can freely cast ballots and that everyday voters have a say, not just special interests. Failure to pass these important protections is not an option."
Similarly, the good-governance advocates at RepresetUs, were in favor of the changes.
"As expected, most changes proposed by the amendment grant flexibility for administration of some of the more costly and/or involved aspects of the For the People Act," said Damon Effingham, director of the federal reform. "We commend Senate leaders for continuing to improve the legislation by listening to election administrators."
Polling has found the For the People Act to have popular support, regardless of party affiliation. The bill would make it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot, establish fundamental changes to campaign financing, ban partisan gerrymandering, set election security requirements and institute new ethics rules.
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Tamas is an associate professor of political science at Valdosta State University.
There has been understandable
outrage and widespread criticism of the new voting laws in Georgia – and of similar efforts in other states. These laws would likely make voting more difficult, including by reducing options for voting and making it harder to use an absentee ballot. My research indicates, however, that such measures may not change election results much, if at all.
Most U.S. voting districts at both the congressional and state legislative levels are safely controlled by one party or the other. Laws that slightly reduce the number of potential voters are unlikely to shift power in Congress and state legislatures significantly.
In addition, my analysis has found that Republican-led partisan gerrymandering efforts actually work against voter suppression measures, by packing Democratic voters into relatively few districts that the party wins easily. That means Democrats have fewer competitive seats to potentially lose, even when some of their supporters are kept from the polls.
History of voter suppression
Voting access laws have changed considerably since the end of the Jim Crow era in the mid-20th century. The American public then was far more willing to accept overt voter suppression requirements, like poll taxes and literacy tests, which were widely used in Southern states to keep Black people from voting.
But the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s undermined public support for those laws. As a result, current state governments that want to reduce voter access to the polls have to find less obvious methods to do so.
When they devise methods to limit voting now, state governments have to claim that such measures will protect voting integrity or save taxpayer money. This ends up limiting the aggressiveness of voter suppression measures that states can enact, which in turn reduces their potential effectiveness.
Georgia's new laws don't really affect who is eligible to vote, but they do make voting more difficult for poorer populations and those living in urban areas. Making access harder may not, however, be enough to stop people from voting. There is significant political science research showing that changes to voting options and absentee ballot use don't meaningfully affect voter turnout.
For instance, permitting most citizens to vote by absentee ballot does not give either party an electoral advantage. Such findings suggest that restricting voting by mail won't help one party over the other, either.
Election margins in Georgia
In situations where many districts are closely divided, a small amount of voter suppression can change the balance of power. But if most districts are clearly dominated by one party or the other, then flipping its control would require much more effort to reduce voter turnout.
At this point in American history, most election outcomes are predictable. Partially as a result of gerrymandering, most districts are reliably won by a large percentage of the vote. In 2020, for example, Georgia Democrats won close elections in just one out of 56 state Senate races and seven out of 180 state House races.
This is where my research has identified the opposing impacts of gerrymandering and voter suppression. In Georgia, both congressional and state legislative elections are impacted by gerrymandering.
In 2020, nearly two-thirds of the Democratic seats in the Georgia General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives were won in races where Republicans didn't even field a candidate. Just 1 percent of the Democratic wins were by close margins of less than 2 percentage points.
By the 2022 midterm elections, state governments will redraw all legislative district lines. These new districts will almost certainly be equally or more gerrymandered than they are today. Redistricting is therefore not likely to significantly reduce existing vote margins.
Unlike legislative elections, statewide races in Georgia have become far closer in recent years. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, for instance, Republican Brian Kemp beat Democrat Stacey Abrams by just over 1 percent of the vote. During the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs, Democrat Jon Ossoff beat Republican David Perdue by just over 1 percent of the vote and Democrat Raphael Warnock beat Republican Kelly Loeffler by 2 percent.
However, limiting absentee voting and increasing wait times at the polls may not be enough to shave off even a few percentage points of Democratic voters across all of Georgia.
What's at stake
The real problem Georgia Republicans are facing is not that more Georgia Democrats are voting. Rather, the state's long-term demographic shift means more Georgians will vote Democratic.
As large groups of people move into the state from elsewhere, many of them are far more liberal than the current Georgia population. And just like in other states, younger people in Georgia tend to be more liberal and prone to vote Democratic than their parents' and grandparents' generation.
Gerrymandering districts may slow the electoral effects of these demographic changes. But creating long lines and increasing voter identification requirements will not reduce voting by enough to make a real difference. If anything, the new, restrictive laws appear to be more about rallying the Republican base than changing electoral outcomes.
That said, it would be unwise to ignore even these low levels of voter suppression. If people are comfortable with these rules, that could pave the way for higher levels of suppression, which could have larger effects, up to and including unassailable single-party political control that serves to undermine U.S. democracy.
- Two bills to make the next election fair - The Fulcrum ›
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As the Texas Legislature continues its push to pass legislation tightening voting rules, Lone Star State businesses are ignoring demands from Republican leaders to stay out of the debate.
This week, two business coalitions released separate letters calling for expanded ballot access in Texas, although they used different language in their demands.
These coalitions and other voting rights activists are hoping to modify if not derail two bills that limit voting options and create criminal penalties they believe could intimidate potential voters.
Fair Elections Texas, a business coalition that includes Microsoft, American Airlines, Sodexho and nearly 50 other corporations and business groups, did not specifically cite the bills pending in the legislature when writing, "When more people participate in our democratic process, we will all prosper."
"We stand together, as a nonpartisan coalition, calling on all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters' access to the ballot," their statement reads.
But nearly 200 Houston business leaders used more aggressive language in an open letter to the speaker of the Texas House, citing "evidence of voter suppression in the two omnibus voting rights bills" under consideration.
The letter goes on to identify specific examples of suppression, including:
- Removing polling machines from Houston.
- Limiting extended voting house and drive-through options.
- Loosening the rules for partisan poll watchers.
- Making it harder for people with disabilities to get assistance voting.
"These provisions, among others, will inevitably damage our competitiveness in attracting businesses and workers to Houston," they wrote. "Especially as we aim to attract major conferences and sporting events, including the FIFA World Cup, voter suppression is a stain on our reputation that could cost our region millions of dollars."
Houston — located in Harris County, one of the most populous and ethnically diverse counties in the country — would be directly impacted by the legislation. Harris County, which includes majority-Democratic Houston, made extensive use of drive-through and after-hours voting options in 2020.
Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston claims that more than half the people voting in their cars were Black, Latino or Asian.
These efforts follow on the heels of a petition led by two large Texas employers, American Airlines and Dell Technologies, calling out "any discriminatory language" in pending legislation.
Ever since Georgia kicked off the Republican-driven state legislative effort to tighten voting rules in March, a number of major employers, beginning with Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, have spoken out in opposition.
Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, have criticized corporations for weighing in on politics.
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