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Election reform tug of war

Republicans and Democrats with tunnel vision are vying to change election laws across the United States


Voters mark their ballots on Nov. 3 at First Presbyterian Church of Stamford, Conn. Jessica Hill/AP

Election reform tug of war
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A remarkable tug of war is playing out between Republicans and Democrats in Georgia, a state President Joe Biden narrowly won in the 2020 election. There, since February—when the state’s legislative session began—lawmakers have introduced at least 75 bills aiming to overhaul election laws.

The bills propose an array of provisions, such as requiring photo ID for absentee ballot requests, banning drop boxes, ending no-excuse absentee voting, curtailing weekend voting, and more. One bill would bar voters who have recently moved to Georgia from participating in runoff elections. Another would have banned voting on Sundays, but Republicans dropped the measure after facing criticism that it was racially motivated. (Historically and currently, leaders at black churches have organized “souls to the polls” events where voters cast ballots together after church, in part because they found it safer to vote in groups.)

Some of the other provisions are now under consideration in omnibus form.

“These bills make it more difficult to vote,” said Darrin (DJ) Sims, a local organizer who works on prisoner reentry, anti-recidivism, and voter access issues. Sims warned the bills would restrict voting abilities for “older individuals, college students, young people, and those who lack access to technology or even just awareness about the law.”

On the other side of the debate, Virginia Galloway is aware of these concerns whenever she commutes to the state Capitol in Atlanta for her job working for a political advocacy group. Nearly every day since the start of Georgia’s legislative session, she’s walked past a protest on the election reform bills, she said.

“They’re outside yelling ‘Voter suppression!’ I would really like to stop and say, ‘Have you ever not been able to vote when you wanted to?’ I think we have made it so incredibly easy to vote—but almost so easy we could let fraud in and may have let fraud in.”

The divide between Sims and Galloway matches the divide across the country: Democratic lawmakers are introducing bills to lower barriers to voting they say will encourage higher turnout. Republican lawmakers, citing concerns of fraud and mistrust in the 2020 presidential election, are introducing bills to tighten voting protocols they say will restore trust in the electoral system. Democrats accuse Republicans of engaging in a form of voter suppression by making it harder for minorities to vote. Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to make it easier for bad actors to exploit vulnerabilities in election systems.

But political analysts and even some lawmakers say reforms can meet both goals: tighten security and make it convenient for people to participate in democracy.

Adam Carrington, an assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College, says the parties are pulling further apart on what should be a common aim: “Whereas Democrats recognize we are a government by and for the people, Republicans are recognizing we are a government of the rule of law. The rule of law says there are procedures and ways in which people express their views.”

Atlanta voters line up for early voting.

Atlanta voters line up for early voting. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

IN THE LAST FEW ELECTIONS, Sims, a seminary student at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, has worked with chaplains and other trusted community leaders to be on-site at polling places. They try to help people, often blue-collar workers and minorities, who run into obstacles at the polls.

In 2018, Sims witnessed widespread confusion from people who discovered on Election Day that officials had purged them from voter rolls: “You can request a provisional ballot … but [a lot of people] didn’t know that or didn’t know to ask for that.”

Another challenge for some voters in 2020 was polling places changing from past elections. Georgia has decreased the number of polling places steadily for years. Since 2013, the state has cut nearly 10 percent of polling places, an analysis from Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica found. Sims encountered voters who didn’t know their sites had changed.

“These are people who had taken off work or were going to work late. Many of them had taken the bus to the polling site only to find their polling site had been moved to a few miles up the road,” Sims said.

One such voter, a black man in his 70s, got a ride from his sister to a polling place at a library in southwest Atlanta. Sims helped the man, who was blind, get out of the car, unfold his red-tipped cane, and walk up to the polling site.

“As soon as he gets out of the car he immediately starts telling me, ‘I’m here to vote. I’ve been voting for 50 years and voting is what I do,’” Sims said. But when he checked in, an election worker told him he was at the wrong polling site. She offered him a paper ballot (instead of using electronic voting machines).

“I don’t want a paper ballot,” the man said, according to Sims. “I don’t vote on paper. I don’t trust y’all like that.”

Atlanta voters provide IDs to poll workers to cast their ballots.

Atlanta voters provide IDs to poll workers to cast their ballots. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Sims and the election worker eventually convinced the man the provisional paper ballot was secure. But Sims says changes that make it harder for voters who already face obstacles will only increase their distrust of election systems.

Galloway, meanwhile, is the regional field director for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group that advocates for “people of faith and like-minded individuals” to get involved in politics and policy. Her group has worked with lawmakers on several of the measures.

Galloway and other election reform proponents say changes are necessary to restore trust in the security of elections.

“COVID-19 changed so many things and brought a lot of faults to the surface … the accusations of impropriety had a lot of people convinced that there was a problem that needed to be fixed,” she said. The aim of such reforms is to help voters “have full confidence that their vote counts and is not shoved aside by an illegal vote or a fraudulent vote.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, and the State Election Board have considered and sent dozens of cases of election law violations to state authorities for criminal prosecution in February.

“Fortunately, these individual cases aren’t large enough to change the outcome of a statewide election,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “Their prosecution is an example to others who may contemplate skirting the rules that protect election integrity in Georgia.”

A Heritage Foundation database of election fraud cases shows very few cases from the 2020 election have resulted in criminal conviction so far. There’s no widespread evidence that fraud was enough to change the election’s outcome, but problems that did arise helped spur the election reform bills in Georgia and elsewhere.

Cue the court battles. The U.S. Supreme Court in February rejected a review of Pennsylvania election cases, over the objections of some of the conservative justices. In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said that would leave “election law hidden beneath a shroud of doubt” and “invite further confusion and erosion of public confidence” around elections. In Pennsylvania, a court overrode state law to allow absentee ballots that came in three days after Election Day to count. According to Thomas, the court’s decision “does not appear to have changed the outcome in any federal election. … But we may not be so lucky next time.”

The high court is also considering whether two Arizona state laws violate Section 2, a provision of the Voting Rights Act that bans racial discrimination in election law. The state is arguing to preserve laws that allow ballots cast in the wrong precinct to be thrown out entirely and that ban third-party ballot collection (also known as ballot harvesting).

When Judge Amy Coney Barrett asked lawyer Michael Carvin, who represented the Arizona Republican Party, why he wanted to keep the laws on the books, he said that any loosening of the laws “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.” He added: “Politics is a zero-sum game. And every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretations of Section 2 hurts us.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi unveils H.R. 1, the For the People Act, on the steps of the Capitol.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi unveils H.R. 1, the For the People Act, on the steps of the Capitol. Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/Redux

ON MARCH 4, U.S. HOUSE DEMOCRATS passed H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” a nearly 800-page bill that would drastically overhaul election laws across the country. It would implement a single federal standard for many aspects of election administration that states currently decide individually. Not a single House Republican voted in favor.

H.R. 1 mandates automatic voter registration, requires 15 days of early voting, compels states to send out absentee ballots, sets limits around how states clean voter registration rolls, allows ballot harvesting, and includes a host of other provisions.

Democrats say this is their answer to a Republican-led push to change state laws. But Democrats first introduced H.R. 1 after retaking control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, suggesting that this is the party’s overall position on election administration. Right now, the bill has little chance of becoming law as long as Democrats can’t get around a filibuster in the Senate.

At the state level, the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice has tracked 253 bills that would largely restrict access to voting in 43 states, and 704 bills that would expand access in 43 states. The Brennan Center notes that some bills have provisions that would both restrict and expand access.

Yuval Levin, a political and constitutional studies expert at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a National Review op-ed that “most states are in both categories at once, and most of these bills in both categories aren’t going anywhere.” Levin pointed out that some of the bills in the restrictive category would simply roll back voting laws to where they were pre-pandemic.

Levin also pushed back against the idea that higher turnout is bad for Republicans: He noted that thanks to higher turnout, 11 million more Republicans participated in the 2020 election than in 2016, though Democrats got a bigger increase, with more than 14 million additional voters.

“The 2020 election offers strong evidence against the entrenched Republican view that high-turnout elections are only good for Democrats,” Levin wrote. “But the election was close enough that it should suggest to both parties that making it easier for more people to vote and bringing out more people to do so can enable them to win—a thought that would be unfamiliar to too many Republican politicians.”

“The election was close enough that it should suggest to both parties that making it easier for more people to vote and bringing out more people to do so can enable them to win.”

BUT THE GENERAL ELECTORATE may not be clamoring for all-or-nothing reforms. Kevin Kosar, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that politicians may be more polarized on the issue of voting than the majority of Americans: “Most Americans want to be able to vote early, they want the option of voting in person if they choose, and most people want the option to vote absentee.”

A 2016 Gallup poll found that 4 in 5 Americans support both early voting and voter ID laws. One state several experts have pointed to as charting a third way is Kentucky: Politicians are working along bipartisan lines both to expand voter access and implement security measures.

Kentucky’s Republican-dominated Legislature approved a measure in March that would both expand voter access and tighten security measures. The bill makes permanent many of the emergency changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It allows three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting, including a Saturday. The bill would also allow counties to establish vote centers where voters in the county could vote regardless of their precincts. And the bill creates an online portal for voters to request mail-in ballots, while maintaining restrictions around who can request an absentee ballot.

The bill also bans ballot harvesting, begins a process for replacing electronic-only voting machines for those that create paper trails, and eases the process for removing ineligible voters from voter rolls. Prior to last year, the state did not allow early voting or mail-in voting unless someone met certain age, illness, disability, or geographical requirements.

Meanwhile, Democrats have joined with nearly every Republican in voting for the measure. If it clears a reconciliation process in the Kentucky House of Representatives, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, will likely sign it into law.

“It’s a really good reflection of the fact that while other states are bickering over voter access and Congress is bickering over security, we’re a national example of reform both enhancing voter access and election security,” Michael Adams, Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State, told WORLD.

“You don’t have to make it hard for people to vote to make elections safe, and you don’t have to do the opposite,” Adams said. “Unfortunately on the left there’s a myopic focus on access but not much about security, and on the right you’ve got the opposite—concerns about security and a real blindness to access.”

—WORLD has updated this story since its original posting to correct the title of Kevin Kosar.


Harvest Prude

Harvest is a former political reporter for WORLD’s Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate.

@HarvestPrude

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