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State legislative sessions often see an uptick in the introduction of restrictive voting bills following an election year, but legislation that aims to limit who can vote, where, when and how has reached unprecedented levels this year.
The Brennan Center, an independent nonpartisan law and policy organization in New York, found that more than 253 restrictive voting bills had been introduced in legislatures across 43 states just this year through Feb. 23 — up from 35 bills across 15 states in all of 2020.
“The lies about election fraud and election irregularities last year are directly fueling these proposals to limit voting access,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, an attorney with the Brennan Center, said in reference to efforts by former President Donald Trump and his supporters to sow doubt in the election’s integrity both in advance of his anticipated loss and after, as he repeatedly claimed without evidence that he was the true victor.
Joe Biden defeated the incumbent president amid record turnout, as roughly two-thirds of eligible voters cast 158.4 million ballots, a large share of them at early voting sites and by mail.
READ MORE: Iowa governor signs GOP-backed voting changes bill into law
The states leading the nation in these restrictive bills — namely, Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania — are among those that flipped from red in 2016 to blue in 2020, giving Biden enough electoral college votes to secure his win. The three states account for 26 percent of the voting restriction bills introduced in state legislatures.
“The volume of bills really does surprise me,” said Darrell Hill, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. Arizona lawmakers have proposed at least 19 bills this year that could make it more difficult to vote and potentially undermine election results. A resolution that would give the legislature “sole authority” over presidential election results — meaning they could overturn the popular election results and choose the candidate who would receive the state’s electoral votes — died in committee. But SB 1713, which would require early voters to include a copy of their ID, passed committee and is headed to debate.
While many of these bills are unlikely to be passed into law, voting rights advocates argue that simply introducing such bills, especially at this volume, can lend legitimacy to conspiracy theories and lies like those that fueled many of the perpetrators of theJan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“It further alienates people from the system because they think that their vote won’t count even though our elections are secure and safe,” Hill said. “It breeds mistrust with the system,” he said, expressing disappointment that moderate Republicans in the Arizona legislature are not standing up to those in their party who are introducing these bills.
But what some consider to be a threat to free and fair elections, others see as a defense against another perceived election threat: fraud.
John Kavanagh, a Republican in the Arizona House, said he does not see voting access and election integrity as mutually exclusive and that the measures he is sponsoring, like tightened voter ID laws and only sending voter registration information to those who request it, do more to prevent fraud than they do to restrict voting. Kavanagh sponsors or co-sponsors more than half of the Arizona bills deemed restrictive by the Brennan Center.
Kavanagh recently came under scrutiny after CNN reported that he said “everyone shouldn’t be voting,” and discouraged outreach efforts by Democrats to get more people involved in the election process, saying “quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”
Kavanagh clarified his comments to the PBS NewsHour, saying he meant that fraudulent voters should not be voting, not that “less informed people who have every right to vote” shouldn’t be. He said his comment about the outreach efforts and quality of votes was in reference to the possibility of fraud in automatic voter registration and ballot mailing.
But in seven states and the District of Columbia, which implemented automatic voter registration ahead of the presidential election, there was no evidence of widespread fraud, and federal election security experts have on multiple occasions called the election “the most secure in American history.”
READ MORE: As Trump continues to push false claims of fraud, top officials say election was most secure in history
Sweren-Becker of the Brennan Center said that automatic voter registration makes elections more, not less, secure because it connects someone’s voter registrations to their DMV registration, so when people update their addresses for their licenses, their voting registration moves with them.
While restrictive voting laws apply to all voters, they disproportionately affect people of color, people with disabilities and people with lower-income, Sweren-Becker said. Some people may not have access to broadband for online registration, be able to afford to take time off work to register in person, or physically be able to attend a voter registration drive.
Some advocates say that the true intention behind many of the restrictive bills introduced by GOP lawmakers is to make it harder for historically marginalized groups to vote. Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said legislators are “counting on” preventing some of those populations from voting, as they tend to vote for Democrats.
Young said she has been advocating for voting access since she was a child marching with her parents, civil rights leaders Andrew and Jean Childs Young, to advocate for Black people to have the right to vote.
“This is supposed to be a democracy and if you don’t have the right to vote, then it’s not a democracy for you and it’s not a democracy for your community,” Young said. “That’s been the experience of African Americans for hundreds of years, and I never thought I would still be fighting for it more than 50 years later.”
Georgia lawmakers have introduced at least 11 restrictive voting bills that address mail ballots and early voting, voter roll purges, and polling hours and locations. HB 531, which was passed by the Georgia House and has moved on to the Senate, would prevent counties from allowing regular in-person early voting on nights and weekends. Black voter turnout in Georgia is often high on Sundays because of “souls to the polls” events hosted by local churches.
READ MORE: Georgia’s new election legislation highlights stark divide on voting access
Young said GOP lawmakers should do the work to connect with these communities and earn their votes, rather than trying to suppress them.
“We either are going to be a multiracial democracy or we’re not going to be a democracy. And that’s sort of the struggle that we’re in right now,” Young said.
Countering the restrictive efforts are an even greater number of expansive voting bills — more than 704 introduced nationwide this year, according to the Brennan Center report, which Sweren-Becker said is more than in any other year.
For Sweren-Becker, it’s too early to decide whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of elections in the United States, but she said that the U.S. House’s passage earlier this month of the For the People Act, which among other reforms would expand voting rights, gave her some hope.
“The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act offer a once in a generation opportunity to protect voting rights — and this is the civil rights legislation of our time,” Sweren-Becker said. “The efforts to suppress votes in the states are certainly disheartening, and we’ll see how they play out.”
Chloe Jones is the Roy W. Howard fellow for the PBS NewsHour. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chloeleejones.
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