Three States To Watch for New Voter Suppression Laws This Year

Issues
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Road signs for the states Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona against a blue sky with clouds

Despite a global pandemic, Americans turned out in record numbers to cast their votes in the 2020 election. Election administrators, volunteers, and voters overcame extraordinary obstacles to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

At the same time, however, we saw that our elections remain in need of improvement. For many Americans—especially Americans of color—participating in the democratic process remains a burdensome endeavor, requiring them to undertake extraordinary efforts just to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Likewise, election administrators must work under extreme pressure with minimal resources and are often hamstrung by restrictive election laws that limit their ability to make voting safer and our election systems more secure.

But rather than pass legislation to address the real issues—such as removing barriers to absentee voting or allowing state officials to start counting mail ballots sooner—state legislatures are mobilizing to impose new restrictions to make voting harder.

According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, 33 state legislatures have introduced more than 165 bills that would restrict Americans’ right to vote.

In most cases, these state lawmakers argue that these restrictive measures are necessary because, “the public has lost confidence in our election system,” but they refuse to acknowledge the reason some voters believe elections are unfair: because those same legislators spent months spreading disinformation about the integrity of the 2020 election.

Led by former President Trump, these politicians have made baseless accusations about widespread fraud and election misconduct—accusations that were roundly rejected by state and federal courts across the country because they are unsupported by even a shred of evidence.

Nevertheless, now lawmakers have seized on these lies to justify a wave of proposals aimed at suppressing voter turnout and gaining partisan advantage in future elections.

This new wave of restrictive election bills is gaining steam all over the United States, but there are three states where the risk of extreme voter suppression is especially high: Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.   

Arizona

The worst offender so far in the voter suppression sweepstakes is unquestionably the Arizona legislature, where more than 30 anti-voter bills have already been introduced.

Arizona has had a robust mail voting system for decades with no widespread fraud or administrative issues, and Arizona voters across the political spectrum have been voting by mail since long before the COVID-19 pandemic—78% of Arizona voters voted by mail in 2018.

And yet, Arizona legislators have committed to restricting Arizonans’ ability to vote. Arizona legislators have proposed legislation that would:

  • Eliminate “no-excuse” absentee voting, limiting voting by mail to only a few categories of voters who fit into narrow, predetermined exceptions.
  • Eliminate the long-standing and popular Permanent Early Voter List (PEVL), denying voters the chance to request their mail ballots for the entire election cycle at once, and requiring them instead to submit a separate request for each election. They have also proposed making it easier for officials to remove voters from the PEVL and requiring voters to provide a photo ID to be added to the PEVL.
  • Further restrict who can assist voters to collect and deliver mail ballots, a role already limited to family and household members.
  • Require voters to obtain a notary stamp on all absentee ballots, a not only burdensome but costly requirement.
  • Prohibit voters from mailing their absentee ballots to election officials, instead requiring them to return them in-person.
  • Require absentee ballots returned by mail to be postmarked by the Thursday before Election Day, even if the ballot is received by the Election Day deadline.
  • Impose stricter voter ID requirements for early in-person voting, making it harder to vote for people who cannot obtain or afford the required ID.
  • Require voters to provide documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote—a likely violation of federal law. 
  • Prohibit the state from adopting automatic voter registration—a system adopted on a bipartisan basis across the country to make it easier to register to vote and maintain accurate voter rolls—which Arizona does not even have.
  • Create a “voter fraud” unit in the Attorney General’s office with the power to investigate vague allegations of fraud without reasonable cause.
  • Purge eligible voters from the rolls if they change their address—even if that address is still in Arizona—another likely violation of federal law.
  • Remove authority for administering elections from the elected secretary of state and county election officials, transferring that power to an unelected and unaccountable group of partisan appointed officials.
  • Prevent county recorders from conducting community-based voter registration, significantly limiting registration activities in rural areas and Native American communities.
  • Limit voters’ ability to cure signature issues on their mail ballots, resulting in greater rejections of valid absentee ballots, especially among communities of color and Native American communities.

Two of Arizona’s discriminatory voting laws are already the subject of a legal challenge that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2021. Rather than continuing to restrict Arizonans’ right to vote, the Arizona legislature should focus on expanding Arizona voters’ options to vote safely and securely.

Georgia

Georgia voters turned out in massive numbers twice in recent months, for both the November 2020 general election and the January 2021 runoff election. After the November 2020 election, multiple recounts and audits all confirmed that Georgia’s election results were accurately tabulated and that there was no indication of fraud or misconduct.

But rather than celebrate this unprecedented level of civic engagement, Georgia lawmakers are now seeking to roll back voter participation and make it harder for Georgians to vote. Proposed election changes in Georgia include:

  • Eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, which was passed on a bipartisan basis in 2014, and limiting absentee voting to only a few categories of voters who fit into narrow, predetermined exceptions.
  • Requiring first-time voters in Georgia to vote in person, regardless of whether they are eligible to vote by mail, unless they are over 65 years old, physically disabled, or are an overseas or military voter.
  • Requiring voters to provide a photocopy of their photo ID both when they request and cast their absentee ballots—a particularly burdensome requirement for voters who lack access to a printer or copier and who may not be able to obtain or afford the correct form of ID.
  • Restricting county election officials’ ability to utilize mobile precincts to serve rural and other hard-to-reach voters.
  • Prohibiting the use of ballot drop boxes, limiting voters’ options for safely and securely returning their absentee ballots on time.
  • Removing restrictions on poll watchers that keep election officials safe without facilitating additional transparency for voters.
  • Eliminating automatic voter registration, making it harder for Georgians to register to vote and less efficient for Georgia election officials to update and maintain accurate voter rolls.

The motivation behind these new proposed restrictions is transparently partisan. After Democrats won the Georgia presidential and senate contests for the first time in decades, a Republican county election official said that these restrictive changes were necessary “so that we at least have a shot at winning.”

Election laws should be based on increasing voter participation, improving transparency, and protecting voters’ constitutional right to vote—not structured to maximize partisan gain.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania was among the most competitive states in the 2020 election, and its laws and administration were repeatedly challenged in court over the course of the election cycle.

In those cases, dozens of judges in state and federal courts from across the ideological spectrum dismissed claims that Pennsylvania’s election was tainted by fraud, illegality, or other electoral misconduct.

Yet despite the absence of any systematic flaws in the conduct of the 2020 election, Pennsylvania lawmakers are undertaking efforts to restrict access to the ballot and make voting harder for Pennsylvanians. This year, the Pennsylvania legislature has introduced bills that would:

  • Eliminate no-excuse mail voting, a policy adopted on a bipartisan basis in 2019, instead limiting absentee voting to only a few categories of voters who fit into narrow, predetermined exceptions.
  • Eliminate the permanent early voter list, requiring voters to submit a separate application for each election, rather than submitting one application for the entire election cycle.
  • Prohibit election officials from sending absentee ballots to voters without a specific request.
  • Prohibit the use of ballot drop boxes, eliminating a safe and secure option for voters to ensure that their mail ballots are returned directly to election officials on time.
  • Require the rejection of absentee ballots solely on the basis of mismatched signatures, unless the voter cures the perceived mismatch within six days of notification. Current Pennsylvania law does not permit mail ballots to be rejected solely on the basis of a mismatched signature.
  • Increase poll watcher access to absentee ballot processing and canvassing activities (which are already publicly observable), allowing poll watchers to more easily harass election officials and volunteers and reducing limitations that keep our election officials safe while maintaining transparency.
  • Require the rejection of all mail ballots not received by Election Day. Current Pennsylvania law allows ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they are received within three days of Election Day.
  • Require voters to provide photo ID when voting in-person, even though voters already verify their identity and their eligibility when they register to vote.
  • Expand voter roll purges, requiring the removal of voters from the rolls immediately on the basis of unreliable data from external sources.
  • Move the deadline for Pennsylvanians to register to vote from 15 days before Election Day to 30 days before Election Day and move the deadline to request an absentee or mail ballot from seven days before Election Day to 21 days before Election Day.
  • Prohibit counties from notifying voters about issues with absentee or mail ballots and providing voters an opportunity to fix those issues. Current Pennsylvania law allows, but does not require, counties to contact voters and give them a chance to fix issues with their ballots.

One legislator who sponsored an anti-voter bill said that his goal was “not to fix what happened but to restore integrity and trust” back into the voting process. That’s because these new voting restrictions wouldn’t “fix” anything—they only make voting harder for Pennsylvanians.

If legislators are truly concerned about restoring integrity and trust in elections, they should stop spreading false claims about voter fraud and instead work to make voting more accessible and transparent.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution to counteract this wave of voter suppression activity on a nationwide scale. Congress must pass the For The People Act, H.R.1/S.1, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, H.R. 4.

The For The People Act sets national minimum standards for our elections based on bipartisan best practices, ensuring that Americans’ ability to access the ballot isn’t dependent on which state they live in, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would revitalize the Voting Rights Act to defend against racial discrimination in our elections.

Lawmakers across the country have pledged to restore faith in our election system; they can start by supporting these bipartisan reforms to protect Americans’ right to vote and make our democracy more accessible, transparent, responsive, and secure.

Jonathan's work focuses on overcoming barriers to accessing the ballot, including issues related to local election administration, the census, and the intersection of elections and the criminal justice system.