WASHINGTON — A Republican attorney general who supported overturning the 2020 presidential election argued at a Senate hearing on Wednesday that voting laws should be guided by public confidence in voting — a difficult if not impossible to define metric — rather than on any evidence of fraud at the polls.
“We don’t hear enough about public confidence,” said Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, who was one of the Republican witnesses during a hearing on Senate Bill 1, the Democrats’ massive voting rights bill.
Rokita was elected to his post last fall and in January publicly supported a lawsuit joined by 17 Republican attorneys general that sought to overturn the 2020 election result that put Joe Biden in the White House.
Trump’s repeated lies about a stolen election created a false belief among many of his supporters that American democracy was at stake, and led to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. The most authoritative experts on voting in the Republican Party have categorically rejected not only Trump’s claims about last year’s election, but also the two-decade effort by many Republicans to claim that voting fraud is a significant problem.
Yet Rokita said that evidence of voter fraud was not the proper standard for crafting laws that regulate when, where and how Americans can vote. “It’s a very difficult crime to spot,” he said.
He argued that voting laws should instead be based on voters’ perceptions. “The measure should be the confidence it brings to the process,” he said.
Rokita said there had been “shaken confidence” in the 2020 election, but did not mention Trump’s avalanche of lies that the former president broadcast on Twitter and in public statements he made in the months leading up to the election and nearly every day after the election. Instead, Rokita blamed the fact that many states expanded access to voting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The 2020 presidential election was unlike any other in our history, and it doesn't need to be repeated, because we shouldn’t be having pandemics every time we have a presidential election,” Rokita said.
“Americans saw mountains of mail-in ballots being processed in cavernous voting centers,” he said, asserting that observers were “excluded,” a claim that was widely made last fall but for which there is very little proof. He cited “last-minute changes” to election laws and implied that the defeat of over 60 lawsuits was not on the merits but because the legal challenges had “overwhelmed the system.”
Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., criticized Rokita when it came his turn to speak.
"I take exception to the comments that you just made, Mr. Rokita, that public concern regarding the integrity of the recent election is born of anything but a deliberate and sustained misinformation campaign led by a vain former president unwilling to accept his own defeat,” Ossoff said. “I find it disturbing that a chief law enforcement officer from one of our great states would indulge in that kind of misinformation and spread those kinds of conspiracies.”
Rokita demanded he be allowed to respond, and after Ossoff refused to cede him time, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., interjected and encouraged Ossoff to give Rokita 30 seconds.
“You’re entitled to your opinion as misinformed as it may be,” Rokita said to Ossoff. “But I share the opinion of millions of Americans.”
Rokita added: “The other difference between my opinion and yours is mine comes with the ability to file lawsuits.”
Ossoff had the final word: “Whether our elections have been conducted with integrity is a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion,” he told Rokita.
Rokita also engaged during the hearing with Ted Cruz, in a back-and-forth during which the Republican senator from Texas repeated a number of canards that are often used to justify restrictions on voting, despite a lack of evidence. Cruz said Democrats “designed” the bill so that millions of undocumented immigrants would be able to vote, because anyone with a driver’s license would be able to register through automatic voter registration. Rokita agreed.
But efforts by Republican officials to find evidence of voting by undocumented immigrants have yielded no results, as most recently seen in a 2018 federal court case.
Automatic voter registration, meanwhile, is one of the most effective ways that confidence in elections could be bolstered and is already in use in 19 states and the District of Columbia. When implemented correctly, automatic voter registration makes the voting rolls more accurate and up to date, and is one tool to reduce the chances that mail ballots get sent to homes where someone has moved or died.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, told the Senate panel that voters in her state have to show documents to get a driver’s license, including proof of legal presence. She said that Michigan saw 250,000 new voters registered through automatic registration, and there were no examples of illegal votes.
Meanwhile, Republicans spoke regularly of the need for voter ID laws in the Senate hearing. Voter ID is intended to prevent voters from impersonating someone else and voting illegally. But one of the most exhaustive catalogues of examples of election fraud, compiled by the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, shows voter impersonation to be extremely rare.
But the biggest Republican objection to the For the People Act is that it is too broad and too sweeping, and amounts to a federal takeover of elections that should be run by states.
Benson responded to this as well. “It amazes me how so many of the arguments we've heard today were made against the Voting Rights act of 1965, almost verbatim,” she said.
The other objection made on Wednesday by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is that references to more than 250 bills proposed in state legislatures to restrict voting are a straw man because most of them “will not become law.”
But another witness for the Democrats said Blunt was understating the impact of the many proposals.
“These laws are being pushed hard,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights advocacy group. “It is only March, I should note.”
And the debate over this law is going to drag on for much of this year. Klobuchar told a virtual panel assembled by the Brookings Institution after the hearing that her goal is to get the bill through committee hearings and on to the floor of the Senate for a full debate.
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