Voting Rights and Democracy

Everything You Need to Know About Republican Efforts to Restrict Voting in 2022

In the 2020 election, Joe Biden won the presidency with a history-making 81 million votes and the Democrats took back the U.S. Senate with two upset victories in Georgia. These were largely thanks to three crucial factors: record voter turnout, an expansion of absentee and advance-day voting, and hugely successful voter-registration drives.

The Republican Party is trying to make sure none of that is repeated in 2022.

Throughout the country, Republican-controlled state legislatures are attempting to roll back the Democrats’ gains, complicating the registration and voting processes and, in many cases, specifically targeting the Black electorate that went heavily for Democrats in the last general election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 43 states are now considering more than 250 Republican-introduced bills that would restrict voter access in future state and local elections, four times the number of such proposed legislation the year before.

“The typical response by a losing party in a functioning democracy is that they alter their platform to make it more appealing,” Kenneth Mayer, an expert on voting and elections at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently told The New York Times. “Here the response is to try to keep people from voting. It’s dangerously antidemocratic.” Below, a closer look at what’s at stake:

Where are the biggest fights taking place?

According to the Brennan Center, Arizona leads the nation in proposed voter-suppression legislation this year, with 19 restrictive bills. (One bill would even give the state legislature the power to reject the popular vote in a presidential election and appoint a different slate of voters to the Electoral College.) Pennsylvania comes in second with 14 restrictive policy proposals, followed by Georgia (11 bills) and New Hampshire (10 bills). Nearly half of the restrictive bills introduced this year seek to limit mail-in voting, which took on crucial importance during the pandemic, with mail-in votes in such states as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania giving Biden his margin of victory over Donald Trump. Lawmakers in Arizona, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Georgia are seeking to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, while a Missouri bill would specifically eliminate concerns about contracting COVID-19 as an excuse for not being able to vote in person. Even states that went heavily Republican in 2020 aren’t taking any chances: The Iowa state legislature voted late last month to cut early voting by nine days, close polls an hour earlier, and compress the deadline for absentee ballots.

…And then there is Georgia.

Of those 43 states that have introduced voter-suppression legislation this year, perhaps the one pursuing the most nakedly aggressive efforts is Georgia, the site of the Democrats’ greatest victory in 2020. Some proposed legislation there seems specifically aimed at the state’s Black voters: One bill severely restricts early voting on Sundays, when many Black churches throughout the state traditionally hold “souls to the polls” get-out-the-vote drives. According to a recent analysis of Georgia’s vote in the November general election, Black voters used early voting on weekends at a higher rate than white voters in 43 of 50 of the state’s largest counties. Black voters make up roughly 30% of Georgia’s electorate but comprised 36.7% of Sunday voters in 2020 and 36.4% of voters on early-voting days. Democrats say the impact of that bill could be staggering if it becomes legislation. “Under the Georgia GOP’s plan to dismantle our elections system, over 2.2 million Georgians’ votes would have been affected, causing hours-long lines during early vote, overwhelming elections offices, or even preventing voters from casting their ballots at all,” Maggie Chambers, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said last month. “This bill is a direct attack on Georgia voters, especially the communities of color who are already more likely to face long lines and barriers to casting their ballot.” And as Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, told Mother Jones: “This bill is Jim Crow with a suit and tie.”

Speaking of Jim Crow, aren’t some of these laws unconstitutional?

That’s exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court started considering last week, during oral arguments over two Arizona laws already on the books. In that case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the issue at hand is whether the Voting Rights Act bars state voting requirements that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color. One law requires ballots cast in the wrong location to be thrown out, even for statewide elections, a policy that Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s current secretary of state, has acknowledged unnecessarily disenfranchises voters, particularly in communities of color. The other criminalizes the practice known as harvesting (in which a friend or relative drops off a signed and sealed ballot on behalf of an absentee voter), a measure that passed the Republican-controlled legislature because of unfounded fears over voter fraud.

Do we know which way the court is leaning?

The current Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has been generally hostile to the Voting Rights Act and has already voted several times to restrict its protections, most notably with its Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013. In that ruling, the court struck down a provision that had previously prevented states with a history of discrimination from instituting voting changes without prior approval from the Department of Justice. As David Gans, director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights and Citizenship Program at the Constitutional Accountability Centerwrote at the time, “In the majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act—a statute that has ensured the protection of the right to vote for millions of Americans—without ever explaining what provision of the Constitution rendered this iconic, landmark statute unconstitutional.” Since that decision, the court has added three new conservative members—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—and legal scholars predict the Voting Rights Act is in peril. The lawyer representing Arizona in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee even freely admitted that the two laws were designed to suppress Democratic votes: “It puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game.” But it seems likely that the court will uphold the state laws under review.

What are the Democrats doing to counter these efforts?

Sunday marked the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of civil-rights protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, were viciously beaten by state troopers—a horrific moment that ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On that day, Biden signed a new voting-rights order, saying, “Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have it counted.” The executive order directs federal agencies to expand access to voter registration, provides voting access and education to prisoners in federal custody, examines barriers to voting for citizens with disabilities, and improves ballot tracking for overseas voters.

Anything else?

The most aggressive action is taking place in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, which last week passed H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act, which The New York Times said had the potential to become “the most significant enhancement of federal voting protections since the 1960s.” The bill aims to weaken restrictive state voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect people of color; mandate automatic voter registration; expand early and mail-in voting to at least two weeks before Election Day; make it harder to purge voter rolls; restore voting rights to felons who have served their time; and create independent redistricting commissions for House districts to prevent extreme gerrymandering. “Everything is at stake,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as House Democrats gathered on the Capitol steps before the vote. “We must win this race, this fight.” But the bill faces a tough road in the Senate, where Democrats would need enough Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold required for passage. Or they could take the controversial (and unlikely) step of eliminating the filibuster and allowing the legislation to pass with a simple majority. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already signaled his fierce opposition to H.R. 1, criticizing the bill as a “power grab” by Democrats. He added: “This sweeping federal takeover would be exactly the wrong response to the distressing lack of faith in our elections that we’ve recently seen from both political sides.”

What’s at risk if Republicans successfully suppress votes in future elections?

How does $1.9 trillion sound to you? The historic American Recovery Act, giving much-needed financial relief to American families battered by the coronavirus pandemic, passed 50–49 in the Senate over the weekend, without a single Republican vote in its favor. The clinching votes, in fact, came from Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the two Democrats that Georgia elected to the Senate in those runoff elections on January 5, giving the Democrats (and Biden) razor-thin control of the upper chamber. That overused saying “every vote counts” was never more powerfully accurate.

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