A third of states have passed more restrictive voting laws. Here's what you should know

·8 min read

WASHINGTON — In the months since the 2020 election, which saw historic voter turnout amid a global pandemic, disputes over voting rights and election security have become a central debate in statehouses across the country.

As of July 14, at least 18 states have enacted election laws that would hamper voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy group affiliated with the New York University School of Law. Another 61 bills with policies deemed restrictive by the Brennan Center are still being considered by 18 legislatures.

Meanwhile, 25 states have enacted 54 new voting laws that expand access in some way, according to the Brennan Center.

While some states, like Louisiana, Nevada and Oklahoma, have taken steps in both directions, the overall trend in 2021 is a growing divide between states working to add more limits on voting and states looking to remove barriers.

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Where do changes mean big impact? Arizona, Florida, Texas, Georgia

Many of the states where voting legislation has been introduced have divided government between Democrats and Republicans, including battlegrounds like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In such cases, new policies in either direction are unlikely to pass, though Michigan Republicans have suggested using an obscure rule in the state's constitution to bypass the governor's veto.

Some states where the GOP-driven election bills have been passed, like Utah and Wyoming, are reliably conservative; the partisan impact of the law is expected to be minimal.

For some states considered battlegrounds during the 2020 presidential cycle, like Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas, voting rights advocates fear the impact of such laws could be seismic.

"We view these laws as a very serious threat to American democracy," said Steven Lance, policy counsel at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund.

"They're really a threat that is specifically targeting, in many of these cases, a means of voting that proved to be lifelines for Black and Latino voters in the 2020 election and other provisions that were necessary during a global pandemic,” Lance said, citing NAACP Legal Defense Fund data.

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Voting rights — including who can vote and when and how they do so — have surged as a critical dividing line in the country’s politics, putting basic questions about the nature of American democracy at stake.

The NAACP LDF has filed lawsuits in Georgia and Florida alleging that those state's new election laws will lead to the voter suppression of minority communities. Conservative groups have in turn rallied to pass the GOP-led laws, at times helping to craft and enact the new election regulations.

The Republican-driven election laws are spurred on by their base's anger at the results of the 2020 election, false conspiracy theories perpetuated by former President Donald Trump, as well as longstanding conservative skepticism of election security and voting law.

"I’m glad to see states like Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and others pass their own election integrity bills to ensure it’s easy to vote and hard to cheat, and I am proud of the work that grassroots Americans have done to urge their lawmakers to secure elections," said Jessica Anderson, the executive director for Heritage Action, the political division of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that helped develop many of the laws now being enacted by statehouses.

There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Multiple audits by state and local agencies, as well as investigations by the Justice Department, independent watchdog groups and media organizations, found no widespread conspiracy like those alleged by Trump and his allies.

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Most evidence introduced in court alleging widespread fraud was also thrown out for lack of standing or seen as unpersuasive, including before the Supreme Court.

While the exact policies and their expected impacts vary by state, most of the enacted GOP election laws share provisions that target practices conservatives widely criticized in the 2020 election: vote-by-mail, early voting access, poll watching and so-called “ballot harvesting,” when a person or advocacy organization carries multiple ballots to a polling site or mailbox.

"Reforms that require voter ID, protect poll watchers, and prevent ballot trafficking are common sense and widely supported, and they give Americans the confidence that their vote is protected and their elections are fair and secure," Anderson said.

"Voters on both sides of the aisle have concerns with our elections, and the Left’s smear campaign of these state election integrity efforts has only worsened voter confidence, but Americans will not be deterred," she continued.

Public support for different election policies, like voter I.D. laws and early voting, does not follow neat partisan lines. Voting rights advocates also contend that such polling doesn't account for the differences in severity of different laws.

"Let's say that one person votes and it takes them three minutes and they vote in an hour. For another person, it takes five hours to vote and they have to jump through all these hoops. They both cast a ballot but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t constitutional harm done to one of them," Lance said.

"It’s not sustainable, acceptable, or logical to expect Black voters to overcome all these voting laws simply because they can,” he continued.

The states with the most significant new voter laws will also see some of the most contested political campaigns in the coming years. Here are where those laws have been enacted and what the new policies will do:

Arizona

Well before 2020, Arizona passed two laws that were contested by voting rights activists as restrictive. One requires any ballot cast in the wrong precinct to be discarded, regardless of the person's eligibility. Another makes it a crime for anyone other than a family member or caregiver to turn in a voter's early ballot.

But in June, those laws were affirmed. A 6-3 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Arizona, finding arguments that the laws would disproportionately impact minority voters as unpersuasive.

The second provision, meant to curb so-called "ballot harvesting," has been criticized by voting rights activists for its banning of any measures to help people facilitate voting by community organizers.

Florida

In April, Florida passed a voting rights bill that included new regulations on ballot drop boxes and voting by mail. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill in May.

The new policies require that ballot boxes be monitored by election officials whenever they are available for deposit, as well as adding regulations on when and where drop boxes can be placed. Drop boxes can also now be moved no later than 30 days before an election.

Advocates have been most critical of a provision that requires voters to more regularly register for absentee ballots, calling the effort cumbersome. The bill also restricts third-party voter registration efforts, and bans election officials from using private funding to conduct election operations.

Iowa

Iowa lawmakers in March passed two election security bills. They cut Iowa's early voting period from 29 days to 20, and changed poll closing time to 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, made the bills law.

The law also takes aim at absentee voting by shortening the window for when absentee ballots must be received for them to be counted. Ballots must also be counted by the time polls close for them to be counted.

Georgia

In March, the Georgia legislature passed and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp enacted a bill that restricts hours of polling sites, implements tighter absentee ballot request deadlines and several changes to early voting policies.

The law also transfers many election duties and powers away from the secretary of state to the state legislature, a move that voting rights advocates criticize as a partisan power grab.

The Georgia voting law also restricts where ballot drop boxes can be deployed, bans volunteers from handing out food and drinks to voters waiting in line to vote, and authorizes state officials to take over county election offices seen as struggling.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that 272,000 registered voters don’t have a driver’s license or state ID. That cohort is disproportionately made up of Black and other minority voters, who typically vote for Democrats. In a state in which President Joe Biden won by only slightly more than 12,000 votes, such a shift in the electorate could be monumental.

Texas

The Texas legislature was poised to pass a new election law that voting rights advocates have called one of the most restrictive in the country. Many of the provisions directly address politically contested methods of voting Texans used last year amid the pandemic.

In a last ditch effort to thwart the state from passing the new round of election laws, a group of Texas Democrats left the state to deny the legislature a quorum.

Though the policies are not yet on the books, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to continue calling emergency sessions of the legislature until the Democrats return and the bill is passed.

The law would prohibit local election officials from sending mail-in-ballot applications to voters who haven't requested one, as officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, attempted to do during the 2020 election.

The bill also implements tighter restrictions on Texas' preexisting voter I.D. laws, and requires people bringing others not in their immediate family to vote to fill out paperwork identifying themselves.

The bill also expands the powers of partisan poll watchers and immunizes them from being removed from polling sites if they break other election laws. The bill also bans drive-through voting and cuts down on early voting hours for polling places.

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

Ella Lee contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voting rights: Here's which states have made elections harder

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