Republican legislatures in a dozen states have already passed new laws that restrict voting this year, a number that is likely to grow when Texas Democrats eventually return home from a walk-out meant to delay GOP efforts to pass yet another voter suppression law.
The wave of new voting restrictions could have been even bigger. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, Democratic governors have either vetoed or are likely to block Republican voter restriction packages. But in at least three of those four states, Republican leaders are either actively pursuing or at least considering ways around the vetoes.
Other GOP lawmakers in those states, meanwhile, are still seeking to relitigate the last election and propagate the lies former President Donald Trump told about it through more radical means, mostly by trying to convince their party to conduct the sort of sham election audit that is nearing its conclusion in Arizona.
“There’s a lot of different tools that the anti-voter side is using right now,” said Joanna Lydgate, the co-founder of States United Democracy Center, a national voting rights group. “It’s unfortunately not quite as kind of cut and dried as, ‘Well, if there’s veto power, then it’s all good.’”
And even if Republicans don’t succeed in working around the vetoes and implementing new voter restrictions immediately, they clearly seem to hope that continuing to weaponize “election security” will help them in heated gubernatorial elections next year, when GOP victories over Democratic incumbents could pave the way for Republicans to take even more aggressive steps before the 2024 election.
Circumventing Democratic Vetoes
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) vetoed a package of election reforms this month that the Republican-controlled legislature passed because he opposed a strict voter ID provision. The legislation contained a number of election reforms both parties agreed on, including provisions that would allow for absentee ballot drop boxes and that would permit election officials to begin counting mail-in ballots before Election Day.
But state Sen. Jay Costa (D), the leader of the state Senate’s Democratic caucus, said the voter ID provision “is a non-starter, no question” for his party, which sees it as an obvious attempt to suppress the votes of Black voters, college students, elderly and disabled Pennsylvanians and others who are less likely to have IDs that meet its strict criteria. (In 2014, a Pennsylvania court struck down the GOP’s last attempt to implement a strict voter ID law.)
Pennsylvania Republicans are seeking to go around Wolf’s veto with separate legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to require voter ID. The proposed amendment, which the state Senate has approved, is even more stringent than the voter ID provision in the bill Wolf already vetoed; it would require voters to show a valid form of government-issued identification and mandate that voters who cast absentee ballots submit a form of identification as well.
The bill heavily limits the types of IDs that are considered valid, Costa said: Under the proposed amendment, the photo ID he uses to enter the state Senate each day wouldn’t allow him to cast a ballot in Pennsylvania elections. (Under current law, Pennsylvanians only have to show ID the first time they vote.)
Amending the Pennsylvania Constitution requires both chambers of the state legislature to pass the same exact bill in two consecutive legislative sessions; then voters would have to approve the same language in a ballot referendum. Republicans have pointed to polls showing that Pennsylvanians favor voter ID to justify their current push, but Democrats like Costa argue that it abuses the spirit of the state’s constitutional amendment process, which hasn’t typically been used to go around vetoes.
“We’ve done a lot of constitutional amendments over the years, but rarely have they been used to legislate,” Costa said. “They’ve been used many times to address court rulings, but never as a means to circumvent the legislative process.”
But Republicans, he said, are willing to go to “whatever means necessary to achieve their goal of implementing a plan, in this case, that would disenfranchise voters.”
A Michigan Loophole
In June, Michigan Senate Republicans passed three voting restriction bills, two of which would require ID for in-person voting, and a third that would require ID to vote absentee. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) promised to veto any of the 39 voting bills Michigan Republicans proposed ― so the bills legislators have passed aren’t likely to go anywhere.
GOP leaders have openly considered a workaround that would remove Whitmer from the process. The state’s constitution allows the legislature to pass bills when 8% of the state’s voters have signed a petition supporting a particular piece of legislation. In other words, if roughly 340,000 Michiganders sign onto a proposed ballot referendum, lawmakers would then be able to take up the proposal and pass it without it even going to voters. The governor cannot veto bills approved this way.
State Sen. Ruth Johnson (R), who has spearheaded the GOP’s voting restrictions push in Lansing, did not respond to a request for comment about whether Republicans intend to pursue that path. It has taken GOP lawmakers longer than expected to coalesce around and pass voting-related bills this session, and voting rights advocates are watching the clock in hopes that Republicans will run out of time to initiate the referendum process in time for new rules to be in place for the next election.
“They have vocally expressed the intention to go that route, and I think the expectation for us and for many of our voting rights allies is that that option is on the table,” said Quentin Turner, a program director for Common Cause’s Michigan chapter. “But the window is closing for them to have it on the ballot for 2022.”
“For us, the good news is that they have so much disorganization in their camp that they can’t get behind actually making this process work,” Turner said.
An Election Appeal To Trump Fanatics
Conservative groups in Wisconsin have pushed lawmakers to adopt a constitutional amendment that would implement stricter ballot access provisions, but unlike in Pennsylvania, the GOP legislature hasn’t moved to do so yet, and there’s little expectation that it will this year or next.
Facing long odds in their efforts to pass legislation, some Republicans have begun to push their states to conduct conspiracy theory-driven audits of the 2020 election, an effort that has intensified as Trump has threatened to sic his supporters on lawmakers who refuse to follow Arizona Republicans down that path.
Wisconsin state Assembly leader Robin Vos hired state troopers to conduct a search for “potential irregularities and/or illegalities” in the state’s 2020 election, which Trump lost. In late June, Trump threatened to support primary challenges to any lawmaker who doesn’t back audits of the state’s results. Republican lawmakers in both Pennsylvania and Michigan have also pushed for audits, even though legitimate reviews of elections in both states have found no evidence of the fraud Trump and his supporters insist occurred.
But the audits aren’t meant to find fraud ― they are “efforts to undermine the way votes are counted, to question the integrity of the results, and ultimately to undermine public faith in our elections,” said Lydgate of States United Democracy Center. The organization recently launched a new website to track GOP efforts to conduct “audits” similar to Arizona’s.
As the audit pushes intensify, voting rights groups also expect the GOP to continue pushing new restrictions under the guise of “election security” in hopes of animating Republican voters ahead of next year’s gubernatorial elections, when they hope to unseat governors like Evers in Wisconsin.
“The Republicans fully realize that everything they send to the governor this year or next will get vetoed. They want to run on this in 2022,” said Jay Heck, the executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin. “They think Evers is vulnerable, so a lot of this is just campaign fodder for the 2022 election, and then of course for the Trump allies for 2024.”
That is likely to be the case in Pennsylvania and Michigan, too, as Republicans seek to defeat Wolf and Whitmer in high-stakes gubernatorial elections. Costa, the Pennsylvania Democratic state senator, expects Republicans there to continue to bring up voter ID bills and similar pieces of legislation to “rile people up” and “remind people that Democrats don’t want voter ID.”
But that should also make the stakes of next year’s elections clear for Democrats. Republican victories in those races could mark the beginning of open season on voting rights in key swing states where Democratic governors have thwarted their efforts so far, giving GOP lawmakers the opportunity to further restrict ballot access and enact new laws that make it easier to purge election boards, undermine free elections, or apply new criminal penalties to voting and protesting before the 2024 presidential election.
“There’s no question that if they win the gubernatorial race in 2022, that this will be one of the many bills they will put into place and have their governor sign,” Costa said of the Pennsylvania GOP’s voter ID push. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”