POLITICS

Republicans Are Pushing A Wave Of Voter Restrictions. Democrats’ Top Priority Would Stop Them.

Trump’s election lies inspired new voter restrictions that could be nullified if Democrats pass the For The People Act.

Ex-President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud did not just lead to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol meant to overturn a free and fair democratic election. His lies also led to a new wave of more than 250 voting restriction bills introduced by Republican governors and state legislators across the country that would make it harder to vote.

But almost all of these restrictive laws could be nullified if Congress passes Democrats’ top legislative priority: the For The People Act, a package of voting rights, campaign finance, election and ethics reforms.

The For The People Act would set national standards for voter registration, early voting, absentee or mail voting, election administration and provisional balloting while limiting voter roll purges and voter identification laws. If enacted, these new rules would ban almost all of the new voting restrictions that GOP lawmakers are looking to enact in the wake of Trump’s reelection loss.

“H.R. 1 would not negate every harm posed by these legislative assaults due to the delegation of power to the states with regards to election administration,”  Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and founder of voting rights nonprofit Fair Fight Action, said at a House committee hearing on the For The People Act on Thursday. “However, the provisions of H.R. 1 create a uniform foundation for democracy in America that does not rely on geography.”

The bill is assured to pass the House the week of March 1 as all 221 Democrats have stated their support. But it faces the prospect of a GOP filibuster led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who calls the bill “socialism,” and a “power grab.”

Democrats will need to find a way around, over or through this filibuster if they hope to quash the new wave of Trump lie-inspired voter restrictions designed to suppress the vote. 

“The attack on our democracy right now, in almost half of state legislative chambers around the country, if not dealt with as part of dealing with the fallout of the insurrection is something we will live with this for a long time in this country,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action, said. “This is not something that can wait.”

New Wave Of Voter Restrictions

Republican lawmakers have introduced more than 250 new bills to limit voting, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a pro-voting rights nonprofit that supports the For The People Act. These bills would limit early, absentee and provisional voting, introduce new voter identification restrictions, expand voter roll purges and make it harder to register to vote.

“There’s an explosion of Republican activity, governors and legislatures across the country, working to pass bills to keep people from voting,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a lead sponsor of the For The People Act, said. “To me, this is entirely anti-democratic.”

The biggest targets for these new voter restrictions are, unsurprisingly, the biggest targets of Trump’s election fraud lies: Arizona and Georgia. Trump lost both states by a little more than 10,000 votes apiece and became the first Republican to lose both since George H.W. Bush in 1992. The response of Republicans in both states, where they occupy the governor’s office and hold majorities in the legislature, has been to push legislation to make it harder to vote.

Then-Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Grammy-winning artist Common leads voters during a "Souls to the Polls
Then-Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Grammy-winning artist Common leads voters during a "Souls to the Polls" march in downtown Atlanta on Oct. 28, 2018, in Atlanta.

“The wave we are seeing is unlike something we haven’t seen since 2010,” Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s voting rights program, said. That previous wave of restrictions came after President Barack Obama’s first election victory, which set turnout records at the time, particularly among Black and minority communities.

Republicans have been clear that the goal of making it harder to vote is to help their own prospects.

“They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning,” Alice O’Lenick, the Republican chair of the Gwinnett County, Georgia, board of elections, said about proposed changes by Republicans in the state.

Georgia Republicans didn’t only lose their state’s presidential race, but they also lost two Senate seats. Both losing senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, have since invoked Trump’s election lies in order to push for more restrictive voting laws.

“I am hopeful that the Georgia Assembly, along with our statewide elected officials, will correct the inequities in our state laws and election rules so that, in the future, every legal voter will be treated equally and illegal votes will not be included,” Perdue said in a statement announcing he would not run against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) in 2022. He noticeably invoked Trump’s false assertion that he won the 2020 election if you only “count the legal votes.”

Loeffler launched her own nonprofit to register Republican voters and support laws aimed at restricting voter access among groups that vote more heavily for Democrats.

“We had unprecedented changes to our election laws in 2020 because of the pandemic,” Loeffler said upon announcing her new group. “And we need to take a really hard look at the impact of those changes and why it drove trust in our elections so far down.”

Trump’s lies are now the justification for new voting restrictions because he made Republicans not trust democratic elections.

In the past week alone, the Georgia Senate has passed bills to end no-excuse absentee voting, eliminate automatic voter registration and add new voter identification barriers to absentee voting in the state. Both no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration were adopted by Republican legislatures and signed into law by Republican governors. Even more voter restriction bills are under consideration in the state House and Senate. An omnibus House bill would enhance voter identification laws, limit absentee voting and early voting, including ending Sunday early voting, which is aimed specifically at restricting the Souls to the Polls get-out-the-vote effort in Black communities.

People stand in line on the first day of early voting for the general election at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation C
People stand in line on the first day of early voting for the general election at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on Oct. 12, 2020, in Atlanta. Early voting in Georgia ran from Oct. 12-30.

“At the end of the day, these bills are a complete and utter backlash to the Democratic win and it’s all based on the lie of voter fraud that the former president propagated,” Groh-Wargo said.

That is clear by the push to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, which Republicans dominated until 2018.

“We are seeing policies targeted that didn’t ruffle any feathers until they were used by communities of color,” Pérez said.

In Arizona, statehouse Republicans pushed a bill to end the state’s permanent early mail voting list by requiring anyone who does not vote in both primary and general elections for two consecutive cycles to be removed. Republicans in the state are reeling from the loss of both Senate seats since 2018 and Biden’s victory in the state, the first presidential win by a Democrat since 1992. This bill failed after one Republican state senator sided with Democrats to kill it, but more restrictive legislation awaits consideration.

The wave of voter restrictions is not limited to the states where Trump tried to overturn his election losses.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) called for the Republican-controlled state legislature to pass sweeping new voter restrictions in the state that would force voters to sign up for the mail voting list every election and limit the use of ballot drop boxes and ability of counties to receive outside funding for elections.

“We need to make sure that our citizens have confidence in the elections,” DeSantis said without noting that any lack of confidence was fueled by Trump’s lies about election fraud.

In Iowa, Republicans are pushing bills to limit early voting and place new restrictions on absentee voting. A bill in Tennessee introduced by Republicans would eliminate early voting entirely. In Montana, Republicans are advancing bills to limit student voting by imposing new identification restrictions. Nebraska Republicans aim to pass voter identification rules. In Mississippi, they’re pushing to purge voters from the rolls who don’t vote in a four-year period. And in Wyoming, they are limiting absentee voting.

“This wave of restrictions is all the evidence anyone needs that we need H.R. 1 and S. 1,” said Danielle Lang, a voting rights lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that backs the For The People Act. “It would provide a national baseline for the access to the right to vote and make it so these states can’t jerk voters back and forth based on political whims.”

The Solution

If passed into law, the For The People Act would override or circumvent almost all of the new voter restrictions proposed at the state level today and those passed in years past.

Absentee and mail-in voting are the most common targets of laws restricting voter access advancing in states after the 2020 election. The For The People Act forbids states from restricting voter access to mail voting, including forbidding the requirement of identification and witnesses or notarization and setting standards for states that require signature matching that provide voters a chance to correct signature mismatch errors. The bill would also set baseline rules for the operation of ballot drop boxes and require states to include prepaid postage on ballot return envelopes.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) speaks at the event in the Capitol to mark one year since passage of H.R. 1, the For The People Ac
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) speaks at the event in the Capitol to mark one year since passage of H.R. 1, the For The People Act of 2019 on March 10, 2020.

The bill would also override new restrictions forcing voters to reapply for the vote-by-mail list every election, like those pushed in Arizona and Florida, by requiring states to count any registration for a vote-by-mail ballot as permanent, unless the voter removes themselves from the list.

Legislation to limit or reduce early voting, as pushed by Republicans in states like Georgia, Iowa and Tennessee, would also be defanged. The For The People Act mandates all states allow at least 15 consecutive days of early voting while also providing for access near public transportation and within rural communities.

Voter registration restrictions, like those proposed in Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi and Texas, would be nullified by the For The People Act’s requirement that states automatically register all eligible residents to vote unless that person affirms they do not want to register to vote.

States like Mississippi, Nebraska and New Hampshire, where Republican legislators have proposed new voter identification requirements, would be required to allow voters without identification to sign an affidavit affirming their identity in order to vote.

The For The People Act would further limit overly broad voter purges by restricting states from removing voters from the rolls simply for not voting in a prior election and without first verifying that the voter is ineligible to vote in the state.

This would not necessarily mean that future state governments could not find new ways to restrict voting access.

“The story of voting access in America is one of ingenious new restrictions popping up where old restrictions are shut down,” Lang said.

That’s why voting rights advocates endorse the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring Justice Department review of election laws passed in the states that could potentially restrict or suppress minority voting rights, a practice known as pre-clearance. Conservative justices on the Supreme Court struck down this section of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

For both the provisions of the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to go into effect, though, the bills will need to pass the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 50-vote majority thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break ties. With very low chances of either bill receiving any Republican support, Democrats would need to change the Senate’s filibuster rules to pass the bill.

If Senate Democrats let the filibuster stand, this new wave of voting restrictions inspired by Trump’s lies could be enacted into law ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. And that could leave the party’s razor-thin majorities hanging in the balance.