AUSTIN, Texas — Republican-controlled legislatures in Texas and elsewhere are charging forward with a raft of new state laws imposing limits on voting.
GOP lawmakers in Montana recently passed new voting restrictions. And GOP legislators in Florida, Arizona and Texas soon could follow — as Republicans scramble to change the ground rules for future elections.
“It’s continuing full-speed ahead on this nationwide trend by state legislators to restrict voting access,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel for voting rights at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
One of the most closely watched states: Florida, a major political battleground where lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn by month’s end. Bills under consideration there would limit who can return absentee ballots on behalf of voters, add identification requirement for absentee voting and bar outside groups from providing water to voters within 150 feet of a polling place.
One Florida provision would require voters to reapply for absentee ballots for every election, rather than remain on an absentee voting list. The state Senate could take floor action on its voting measures in the coming week.
The Republican-led moves nationwide come as Democrats in Washington have run into roadblocks on federal election legislation that proponents say could serve as a counterweight to the new restrictions.
The speed with which GOP-led states are moving to clamp down on ballot access has put fresh attention on federal efforts to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping election, campaign finance and ethics overhaul pushed by Democrats. Among other things, it would require states to have at least 15 days of early voting in federal elections, allow for automatic and same-day voter registration, restore voting rights to former felons and bar states from prohibiting mail-in and curbside voting.
It also says states must allow voters to submit sworn affidavits in lieu of photo identification.
The bill has passed the Democratic-controlled US House and is set for consideration by the Senate Rules Committee on May 11.
But it has run into a wall of opposition from Republicans who cast it a partisan power grab. It also has not won over the support of all Democrats, who hold just 50 seats in the 100-member chamber. The US Chamber of Commerce, one of the nation’s most influential business organizations, also is lobbying against the bill, saying it curbs the political advocacy of business groups.
One of the biggest potential obstacles: the reluctance of moderate Democrats, particularly Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to gut the Senate filibuster rules, which require 60 votes to advance legislation.
Still, Manchin has expressed support for expanding voting access.
Faced with the likely prospect of Senate inaction, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are discussing a different strategy: advancing a more focused voting rights bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis in the hopes of breaking through the impasse.
That bill, now under consideration in the House, seeks to restore key pillars of the Voting Rights Act, which required states and localities with a history of racial discrimination to first get federal approval on any changes to election laws or practices. In a 2013 ruling, the US Supreme Court gutted that requirement.
Rep. Anthony Brown, a Maryland Democrat who’s a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Democrats should consider adding the narrow voting provisions of the For the People Act to the John Lewis bill.
“We need action sooner rather than later,” Brown told CNN on Friday.
By focusing on voting rights, he said, “we might be able to get Democrats who are clinging to the filibuster maybe to accept a narrow exception for voting rights, civil rights legislation.”
But some watchdog groups are lobbying Democrats to pursue the full array of measures in both the For the People Act and the John Lewis bill. They argue that the voting provisions alone are no more likely to pick up support than a broader overhaul that tackles government ethics and campaign finance.
“There is no reason to not go for everything when we’ve done so much work to get to this point,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen.
New state action
While the debate rages in Washington, states are enacting new restrictions and more court battles are under way.
Laws signed recently by Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte end same-day voter registration and change the identification requirements for voting. A student with a college-issued ID, for instance, now needs a second proof of residency to cast a ballot in Montana.
Montana Democrats have sued to stop enforcement of the new laws. Lawsuits also are pending against new voting restrictions enacted this year in Iowa and Georgia.
But on Friday, Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly bucked the Republican-controlled state Legislature to veto two bills that would have imposed new election restrictions. She called the legislation a “solution to a problem that doesn’t exist” and said it would antagonize the kinds of businesses the state is trying to recruit.
One bill sought to limit the number of ballots an individual could deliver to election officials on behalf of another voter. Another would have banned the governor, the executive branch or the judiciary from changing the state’s election laws. It mirrored efforts in other states to strip governors and the courts of their power to change election rules — after election officials made it easier to vote during the pandemic last year and voters cast ballots in record numbers.
More fights are coming.
In Arizona, a bill that voting rights activists say would purge more than 100,000 people from the state’s permanent early voting list stalled recently after an unexpected revolt from one Republican senator. That defector, Sen. Kelly Townsend, has pushed tougher restrictions and said she was holding out for the results of a controversial audit of some of the 2020 ballots demanded by Senate Republicans before she would support any voting measure. That audit kicked off Friday.
The bill to remove voters from the early voting list still could be revived before Arizona lawmakers conclude their legislative session.
In an interview Friday on CNN’s “New Day,” Arizona state Sen. John Kavanagh argued that the state needs to fix the voting list, even without proof of any election fraud.
“We’re moving forward to do bills to correct problems that came up during the election that need to be solved, regardless of whether there was actual fraud or nonexistent fraud,” said Kavanagh, the chamber’s president pro tempore.
Texas, a traditionally red state where demographic shifts are changing the face of the electorate, is one of the next major battlegrounds over voting rights.
The Republican majority in the state Legislature is advancing sweeping measures to overhaul voting procedures. One bill would ban drive-through voting and limit extended early voting hours — measures undertaken last year by local officials in heavily Democratic Harris County to make it easier to vote during the pandemic.
Texas lawmakers also want to give partisan poll watchers broader authority, including allowing them to record voters who receive assistance while filing out ballots. Voting rights activists say that could lead to voter harassment and intimidation.
Legislative action is just beginning in other key states.
In Michigan, a presidential swing state that flipped to President Joe Biden in 2020, lawmakers are at work on a package of 39 election bills. Republicans there have said they want to exploit a quirk in Michigan law to circumvent a likely veto by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. If Republicans gather 340,000 signatures in a petition drive, the House and Senate can enact legislation without the governor having the power to veto it.
In Ohio, a political battleground with a key US Senate race next year, Republican lawmakers recently announced their planned election overhaul, which includes a limit on ballot drop boxes.
“This wave of voter suppression is not over,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, who is tracking the state laws as voting rights and election counsel at the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. “In many states, they are just getting into the swing of their legislative sessions.”
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