GOP seeks to roll back mail-in voting in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania
(USA Today) - As President Donald Trump continues to level baseless claims of voter fraud almost two months after his Nov. 3 election loss, Republican lawmakers in states Trump contested are pushing new voting restrictions for future elections.
That includes proposals to roll back laws in Georgia and Pennsylvania that allowed all registered voters to vote by mail – moves that civil rights and voting advocates say could suppress turnout.
It comes after nearly 160 million Americans – the highest share of eligible voters in more than a century – voted in the November election won by President-elect Joe Biden, fueled by a surge in mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. Americans cast 101 million mail-in ballots, accounting for 63% of the overall vote, with Biden supporters dominating mail-in voting by a 2 to 1 margin over Trump supporters.
"It's unfortunate that these lawmakers – some of whom actually put this in place and voted for it and worked on expanding it – are now looking at an outcome of an election and deciding that they think it didn't benefited them," said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute. "That's the most destructive way to enact policies around voting."
Civil rights groups are watching
Trump unsuccessfully tried to overturn election results in six battleground states he lost, falsely arguing the election was stolen from him despite no evidence of systematic widespread fraud. Congress is set to meet Jan. 6 to count Biden's 306-232 win in the Electoral College.
Since the election, the Supreme Court twice refused to take up Trump-endorsed lawsuits that sought to overturn the election results and federal and state courts dismissed Trump's claims of voter fraud nearly 60 times.
In Georgia, which Biden won by 12,500 votes after two recounts, the state Senate Republican Caucus said its leaders plan to "reform our election laws" by introducing legislation to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting that allows all voters to request a mail ballot without needing a reason. When the legislature reconvenes, they also plan to propose a photo identification requirement and the elimination of mail-ballot drop boxes.
In Wisconsin, where a Trump-led recount also reaffirmed Biden's win, Republican lawmakers have discussed proposals to tighten photo identification requirements for absentee voting, ban clerks from filling in the addresses of witnesses on absentee ballot envelopes and limit opportunities to drop off ballots.
Michigan Republican lawmakers have floated measures to ensure access of poll watchers and to remove ineligible voters from voting rolls, the news outlet Bridge Michigan reported. And in Pennsylvania, a state House Republican said he plans to file legislation to repeal the state's new no-excuse law that Republicans and Democrats worked to pass last year.
"You're likely to have fewer people voting if you put more restrictions on who can vote by mail and who can't," said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel and senior deputy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, which is tracking the legislative developments.
"It's unfortunate that you have states contemplating going backwards in terms of making voting more accessible. It's a very cynical way of looking at the world when one of your goals is that you want to have less voter turnout rather than more."
Raffensperger pushes changes in Georgia
Any changes to voting laws by the Republican-controlled legislatures of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan would face possible vetoes if Democratic governors in those states objected.
But Georgia, which flipped Democratic in the presidential race for the first time since 1992, is led by both a Republican-controlled legislature and Republican governor, Brian Kemp. That dynamic has made Georgia No. 1 on the radar of voting rights advocates.
Georgia has had no-excuse absentee voting since 2005. But state Senate Republicans have pledged to offer legislation that would limit mail-voting to only seniors, the disabled and overseas and military voters. Republicans' photo ID requirement would mirror the state's existing requirement for photo identification to vote in-person.
“I don’t think there should be different standards for the same process,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said.
Both measures have the support of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, who has drawn the ire of Trump for pushing back at the president's false voter fraud claims. Raffensperger said allowing all Georgians to vote by mail during the pandemic dramatically increased the burden on election workers.
“Asking county elections officials to hold no-excuse absentee ballot voting in addition to three weeks of early, in-person voting, and election day voting is too much to manage,” Raffensperger said. "For the sake of our resource-stretched and overwhelmed elections officials, we need to reform our absentee ballot system.”
Although the proposals would apply only to future elections, voting restrictions for the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoff elections – which has seen more than 2 million people vote early – are also under scrutiny.
In a win for Democrats, a federal judge in Georgia – Leslie Abrams Gardner, the sister of progressive leader Stacey Abrams – on Monday ordered two counties to reverse a decision to remove 4,000 voters from voting rolls. The judge ruled the counties improperly relied on change-of-address data that wasn't verified.
'I owe it to my constituents,' Pennsylvania lawmaker says
In Georgia, nearly twice as many Biden voters voted by mail than Trump supporters. The disparity was even greater in Pennsylvania, where nearly 2 million of the state's 2.6 million mail voters – 77% – voted for Biden, compared to nearly 600,000 – 23% – for Trump.
The past year marked the first time Pennsylvania allowed all voters to vote-by-mail after lawmakers from both parties joined with Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to pass the law, known as Act 77, in 2019.
How America voted:Four maps show 2020 results by county, number of voters
Pennsylvania state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, who voted for the law, is now sponsoring legislation to repeal it. He said he's not doing so because Trump lost Pennsylvania but instead pointed to feelings of mistrust from voters in his heavily Republican rural district.
"My constituents have, in no uncertain terms, let me know their feelings about the election," said Gregory, whose district backed Trump, 73% to 27%, in the election. He said they are convinced of fraud and irregularities, adding that "the thing that probably caught my attention the most" is some people told him they're never going to vote again as a result.
"And so I just feel like I owe it to my constituents to say that I voted for Act 77, but what I didn't vote for is what we ended up with as the election product in Pennsylvania. And that product is what they have a lot of mistrust in."
He blamed subsequent actions by Wolf, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The state's high court upheld Democrat-led measures to allow ballot drop boxes, permit ballots to be received three days after Election Day and to not require matching signatures.
'It's an accessibility issue'
Trump attacked mail-in voting in the months before the election, calling it rife with fraud and claiming it favors Democrats, even though in prior elections, Republicans had a mail-voting advantage over Democrats in many states.
Greenbaum noted that Georgia's Republican leaders did not require photo identification for absentee voting in 2005 when the state passed a law requiring photo identification to vote in-person. Back then, he said, Republicans generally voted by mail in higher numbers than Democrats.
"This has all flipped," he said. "It's not consistent – after this 2020 election in which voters of color and Democratic voters were more likely to use vote-by-mail – to now all of a sudden have all these restrictions."
Even though Democrats embraced mail-in voting nationally more than Republicans, McReynolds said politically red states such as Utah, Montana, Nebraska – where ballots were mailed to either all or most registered voters – voted in greater margins for Republicans than the past.
"It's an accessibility issue," said McReynolds, who previously oversaw all-mail elections in Denver. "There's a lot of reasons to vote absentee, and it's unfortunate that lawmakers would want to put barriers on people when they're just trying to cast their vote."
Some states could change when ballots are counted
The push to change voting laws among Republicans has expanded beyond states Trump lost.
Texas Republican lawmakers, according to the Texas Tribune, have filed nearly a dozen bills aimed at mail-in balloting, illegal voting and the conduct of elections officials. One bill would prevent officials from sending voters unsolicited applications to request mail-in ballots.
Despite the flurry of proposals, McReynolds said she believes many states will look to expand mail-in voting after record participation in 2020.