Over the past year, Republican party efforts to curb voting access have inundated state and local legislatures. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 7, 2021, more than 440 bills restricting voting access were introduced across the country. Thirty-four of those bills passed in 19 states.
“Over the past few years we have seen so many anti-voter laws that there is a danger of becoming accustomed to these laws. A danger of adjusting to these laws as though they are normal. A danger of being complacent,” said Vice President Kamala Harris during a recent speech in Atlanta.
There is no indication that introducing new, restrictive voting bills will slow down any time soon. Voting Rights Lab, which has been tracking the number of bills that either restrict or improve voting, found that there are currently 367 bills introduced that restrict voting in 35 states as of Feb. 23. Eight states introduced 17 bills requiring proof of citizenship in registering to vote, 32 states introduced 130 bills restricting voter identification laws, 16 states introduced 36 bills restricting voter list maintenance and purging, 10 states introduced 28 bills restricting same day registration, and 33 states introduced 223 bills restricting absentee voting.
Allison Riggs, the co-executive director and chief counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says the impact of voter suppression could affect 100 voters in a given county, which could determine elections.
“That’s how voter suppression is very insidious,” Riggs said. “It operates just enough on the margins. And we see close elections. We had an election here in North Carolina decided by 401 votes in 2020.”
One of the most common ways states restrict voting access is by requiring proof of identification. Studies have shown that requiring identification to vote disproportionately impacts people of color, poor people, and young voters. Millions of Americans don’t have documentation to prove their citizenship and obtaining official documents could cost up to $555. When Kansas implemented a proof of citizenship law to register to vote in 2013, 35,000 people were blocked from registering.
“Voter ID laws are very narrow laws about what can be used as identification,” said Charly Carter, executive director at the Democracy Initiative. “They have to have a certain state-issued identification, which costs money and requires people to take time off of work to go and get that identification.”
In recent months, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and New Hampshire all introduced stringent voter ID legislation and absentee ballot restrictions. The bills call for a range of restrictive new voting requirements, including specific forms of identification, voter affirmation protocols, new absentee ballot guidelines, and eliminating the use of ballot boxes.
Other states have taken the laws a step further. Florida, for instance, has introduced a bill to create an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State. The bill would make it a felony for anyone to distribute, order, request, collect, deliver, or possess more than two vote-by-mail ballots. This bill proposes a $50 fine per application for voter registration organizations that don’t deliver registration forms to the election division within 14 days of receiving them. The fine increases to $250 per application for such organizations if they act willingly, although it is unclear how intent will be determined.
Other states in the South have also introduced restrictive voting legislation. In January, a bill was introduced in Alabama that would establish criminal penalties for anyone other than an election official who fills out any section of the voter registration form without the voter’s consent. In Mississippi, lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this month that would allow the secretary of state to establish an election management system to ensure that non-U.S. citizens aren’t registered to vote. If the secretary of state finds a voter is in the registration rolls who isn’t a citizen, they have to notify the individual, and the individual must provide proof of citizenship to register, such as providing a birth certificate, U.S. passport, or naturalization documentation within 30 days.
In Pennsylvania, a new bill would limit absentee ballot drop boxes and limit the number of days ballot return locations are available to the seven days prior to an election. It would also require all absentee and mail-in ballots to be counted by 6 a.m. the day after the election or incur a financial penalty, and shift voter authority from bipartisan to partisan state officials.
In Arizona, a bill was introduced in December that would require proof of citizenship in order to vote—and this has proven to be problematic in the past. In 2017, thousands of people were illegally blocked from voting in Arizona’s elections for not providing proof of citizenship.
Barriers to the ballot box are likely going to continue throughout this year and well into the 2024 presidential election. Though much of the new legislation has been disheartening to voting rights advocates, states have also introduced bills to improve voting access. According to the Voting Rights Lab, 372 bills were introduced in more than 40 states that would improve access to voting by mail, registering to vote, or modifying voter ID requirements. But in order to make more progress and allow increased access to the ballot box, voting rights advocates say federal legislation is the most effective solution. James Gardner, a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Law and an expert on election law, says federal legislation is key to granting fair and open elections.
“Right now that commitment is not something that [we] can count on at the state level, so there needs to be uniform federal legislation that would protect the right to vote from any kind of garbage that people can think of,” Gardner said.
There are two key voting bills that could prevent a lot of these voter restriction bills from being passed: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Together, the bills require that early voting period starts 15 days before election day, establish no-excuse vote-by-mail systems, create a national standard for voter ID, increase protection for election administrators, ban partisan gerrymandering, and establish an automatic voter registration list.
With the midterm elections fast approaching and a Senate that will block voting legislation to preserve the filibuster, voting rights activists are holding out hope for some type of federal voting rights legislation later this year.