Battle lines are coming clearly into view for this year's most consequential war over election rules.
Republicans in Texas have refined their goals for making voting much more difficult than last year in what's become the nation's most populous political battleground — in some ways even tougher than under the new and nationally polarizing laws of Georgia, which is only about one-third the size.
And, this time, prominent companies are openly combating the effort long before the debate is over.
The GOP-majority state House is on course to advance, possibly as soon as next week, legislation that would prohibit drive-through or around-the-clock polling places, and make it a felony for counties to mail out unsolicited absentee ballot applications.
All three of those methods for boosting turnout were tried last year by Houston-centered Harris County, one of the nation's most populous and ethnically diverse counties — and the biggest Democratic population center in the state.
County officials said they were responding creatively but appropriately to the health risks posed by the pandemic. Republicans, who successfully sued or got state officials to restrict some of the easements, said the county had exceeded its authority and insisted the risk of election fraud was real — although there has been no credible evidence of cheating while behind the wheel or in the middle of the night last fall.
Nonetheless, the Republican-run state Senate passed a bill last month with essentially the same three central provisions as the bill awaiting a vote in the House. Both measures would also permit partisan poll watchers to get much closer than in the past to the kiosks where people are voting. The Senate bill would create new paperwork and disclosure rules for people helping others get to the polls and would limit counties' powers to extend the timetable for early in-person voting.
Civil rights groups maintain the poll watcher and voter-assistance provisions would amount to unconstitutional suppression of Black and Latino voters and could violate the rights of the disabled.
The Legislature has until the end of May to deliver a final compromise version to GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who has signaled enthusiastic support.
The main impediment to the legislative drive appears to be the newly energized level of corporate opposition — spearheaded by major Texas employers American Airlines and Dell Technologies. They signed, along with hundreds of other companies and executives, the petition released Wednesday denouncing "any discriminatory legislation" that would make it more difficult for people to vote.
Republicans are pushing such bills in all but a few states, and they have already become law in Georgia and a handful of other places. Beside the debate in Austin, some of the other most prominent efforts are in Michigan and Arizona — states President Biden turned blue for himself last fall but where the GOP still controls the legislature.
Prominent GOP officials in Texas and elsewhere have pushed back hard against their corporate critics, with some threatening future reprisals in the form of tighter regulations and higher taxes for companies with which they have long had symbiotic relations. Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, Atlanta-base corporate giants that condemned the Georgia law only after it was passed, have been whipsawed ever since and did not sign the petition.
"Stay outta things you don't know anything about," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick warned companies doing business in Texas at a new conference two weeks ago. "Corporate America does not run this country."
The measure would make even more restrictive some election regulations that are already among the tightest in the country; Texas, for example, is by far the biggest and most politically competitive state that still requires a specific excuse for voting by mail.
Republicans say a surge in vote totals in recent elections is proof the electorate is not being suppressed. Democrats note that it's natural for turnout to go up a lot in a state that's grown by an estimated 16 percent just in this decade. It's 4.2 million newer residents are almost half of the entire population of Georgia.
Of the 1.7 million ballots cast in Harris County last fall, 127,000 were at drive-thru centers and at least 10,000 were at 24-hour locations during non-business hours. Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston says more than half the people voting in their cars were Black, Latino or Asian.
That suggests the legislation's enactment could suppress the vote of minorities, who tend to vote Democratic, even as the GOP sponsors insist their efforts are about promoting election security and not about gaining electoral advantage.
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Scott is a staff attorney at the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization .
Researchers heralded the 2020 presidential election as having record turnout, with two-thirds of eligible voters casting a ballot. Yet, people overlook how this calculation excluded 5.1 million potential voters.
Currently, 48 states deem some residents ineligible to vote if they have a felony conviction. No matter how long ago that conviction occurred, or how the person's life may have changed since, states restrict their right to participate in elections.
While there is a growing trend towards modifying state laws to make voting easier for those with felony convictions, other states remain committed to suppressing votes. Even where advocates and policymakers have tried to change antiquated laws and improve systems, the most egregious states refuse to improve. They continue to treat voting as a privilege instead of the right it actually is.
Where these states insist on acting against full democracy for their residents, Congress is in a unique position to assure the basic right for all to have a voice in our political process. By passing the For the People Act — which the House passed in March as HR 1 and is now awaiting debate in the Senate as S 1 — we can make history in expanding the franchise to millions.
Felony disenfranchisement has existed for centuries. But beginning in the 1890s it was strategically used in the United States to minimize the Black electorate, especially in Southern states. Legislatures created laws to permanently remove a person's right to vote — or to only restore that right if certain requirements were satisfied, many of which were unfair, confusing and burdensome to navigate. Today, these laws continue to lock millions out the electoral process, disproportionately affecting voters of color.
Advocates have worked to reform these laws, crafting bills to simplify criteria and pushing state constitutional amendments to expand access. In spite of several significant wins in the last decade, states including Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida and Wisconsin adamantly persist in denying millions a full place in society.
According to a new report from my organization, Mississippi is one of the worst violators. The state's highly punitive law disenfranchises 235,150 Mississippians — one out of every 10 people in the state's voting-age population. For Black Mississippians the number is even higher: one in seven. Residents can only restore their rights by obtaining an individual order from the governor or winning passage of an individual bill by the Legislature. That process in particular is inaccessible and arbitrary, with legislators passing a very small percentage of such proposed bills. In the decade ending in 2017, for example only 45 people had their voting rights restored through legislation. Every year, legislators deny thousands of tax-paying citizens the right to choose their representatives and support measures that impact their communities. Mississippi lawmakers send their residents a clear message: We refuse to give up our oppressive and discriminatory system.
Florida is another place where the Legislature is failing to act in the interest of its residents. In November 2018, more than 64 percent of Floridians voted to restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million people. The following spring, though, legislators reversed one of the largest expansions of voting rights in decades. It passed a bill requiring payment of legal fines and fees before a person could vote. These additional barriers drastically shrank the number of newly eligible voters and made a person's right to vote dependent on wealth. Florida lawmakers clearly chose suppression over the will of the people.
Congress has an opportunity to remedy state inaction and voter suppression by passing the For the People Act, which President Biden says he's eager to sign. The comprehensive legislation includes a provision that ensures everyone with a felony conviction may vote in federal elections if they are not currently incarcerated. The provision would supersede state felony disenfranchisement laws and expand the number of eligible voters for federal elections to millions across the country. Voting rights would no longer depend on geography or the whims of elected officials. All voters would be on equal footing.
The only way our democracy can thrive and truly represent the will of the people is if everyone has a voice in the trajectory of our country. People who live, work in and contribute to our communities deserve to have a voice in what happens to them and their families. Congress has the power and opportunity to give them this assurance by passing the For the People Act.
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Arkansas is positioned to become the next state to tighten rules around voting and election procedures.
This week, the Republican-majority Legislature approved two measures that would implement new restrictions on absentee voting and activities near polling places. Both bills now head to GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is expected to sign them.
This continues a nationwide trend of Republican lawmakers pushing hundreds of restrictive voting bills in response to false claims of fraud in the 2020 elections. At the same time, Democratic legislators have been advocating for easing access to the ballot box.
One of the bills recently approved by the Arkansas Legislature would amend the absentee ballot process in the state. County clerks and other designated election officials would be barred from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who had not requested them. But election officials could display a mail voting application form online.
Arkansas is one of 15 states that currently requires an excuse to vote by mail.
The bill would also deny an absentee ballot to any voter if their signature on the application does not match the signature on the voter registration form. Another provision of the bill would make the possession of more than four absentee ballots by one person "a rebuttable presumption of intent to defraud." Democrats argue the practice of collecting ballots helps the elderly and those who live far from mail service or ballot boxes.
Democrats pushed back against the signature matching rule, raising concerns that it would disproportionately impact elderly and disabled voters. But Republicans maintained it would prevent voter fraud — of which there was scant evidence in last year's election.
On Tuesday, the state Senate voted 27-8, along party lines, to approve this legislation, which was passed by the state House earlier this month.
The other bill would prevent someone from being within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling site while voting is taking place, unless they are entering or leaving the building "for lawful purposes." Arkansas's current laws already ban electioneering and other political activity outside polling places.
Proponents of the bill said it is intended to stop groups from handing out water, food or other items to voters in line outside polling places. A similar prohibition recently passed in Georgia has been decried by voting rights advocates.
Before the Arkansas House voted 74-23, also on Tuesday, to send this bill to the governor, Republican lawmakers defended the legislation by saying it would protect voters and prevent people from congregating outside polling locations.
But Democrats argued it went beyond addressing electioneering and could deter voters from coming to the polls.
"I want you to think very carefully about what our state looks like when we pass legislation that creates barriers, however small, to keep people from the polls in whatever way," said Democratic state Rep. Vivian Flowers.
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Nearly every state legislature is considering bills to either roll back pandemic-era voting easements or make permanent the rules that allowed a record-breaking number of Americans to cast their ballots ahead of Election Day.
But with election officials already looking ahead to the 2022 midterms, the Center for Election Innovation and Research is concerned with the rules that are on the books right now. So CEIR released a report Monday analyzing the current laws in each state to determine where it will be easiest to cast a ballot early in person or by mail next year.
CEIR found that almost every state offered at least one method of early voting to all eligible voters. Only a handful make voting before Election Day difficult for most Americans.
Thirty-five states, plus Washington, D.C., have both no-excuse absentee voting (or run predominately vote-by-mail elections) and in-person early voting for federal races.
Eight states offer early in-person voting, but require an excuse to vote by mail: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. Delaware and New York are also currently in this category, but lawmakers in the two Democratic-controlled states are likely to pass amendments eliminating the excuse requirement to vote by mail later this year.
Seven states are considered to have the most restrictive access to early voting because they require an excuse to vote absentee and they don't offer in-person voting to all voters before Election Day. These states are Alabama, Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
While most states now offer multiple voting options, there are ongoing efforts in state legislatures to restrict access to early and mail voting because of erroneous claims that these methods are more susceptible to fraud.
"These efforts not only could create barriers for eligible voters, but also negatively impact election integrity by concentrating voting on a single day instead of over a longer period, which could hamper efforts to detect fraud or cyber-attacks," said David Becker, executive director and founder of CEIR.
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