Phillip Meylan - Mar 28, 2021

America's Voting War

Republican and Democratic legislative forces are at loggerheads over voting reform efforts across the country, with Republicans referring to election security as an “all-hands moment” and Democrats calling the For the People Act the “most significant voting rights and democracy reform in more than half a century.”

Many Republicans at the local and national levels have honed in on the issue of election integrity, introducing legislation that would limit when and how people can vote. In parallel, Democrats have introduced the broad-reaching For the People Act, a federal bill that would impose rules on states to broadly make voting easier

Left in the balance are everyday Americans who identify with the importance of election security but also with the centrality of the right to vote as a great equalizer and fundamental right of American society. This week, The Factual used 36 articles from 25 sources to unpack the rationales behind these measures, as well as their flaws.

Source: NPR

How Could Republican Proposals Change Voting?

The Brennan Center for Justice recently found that in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, some 43 states are pursuing at least 253 bills “that would make it harder to vote.” Republicans, however, say such measures are needed to strengthen election integrity. Thus far, such measures include varying combinations of reducing vote-by-mail eligibility, reducing the number absentee ballot drop boxes, banning same-day and automatic registration, reducing the number of days when people can vote, and pursuing more stringent voter ID laws, among others. This is being led by Republican lawmakers as a direct response to concerns about voter fraud and electoral integrity, at least in part spurred by former President Trump’s unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud.

Broadly, Republican lawmakers are arguing that existing rules and procedures for elections leave too much room for fraud. Suggested shortcomings include that abundant absentee voting is liable to manipulation, that voting signature verification is insufficiently reliable, and that drop boxes should exist in more limited numbers and a more limited set of locations. Elsewhere, they take issue with practices like ballot harvesting, whereby people other than the voter or a family member can deliver a ballot. The practice is used by both parties to get absentee ballots returned, but it has led to some instances of abuse. From the widest angle, Republican measures aim to funnel voting towards in-person voting on election day, with purported benefits in terms of transparency and security.

Though many legislators have taken issue with procedural changes to enable voting in the 2020 elections amid the Covid-19 pandemic, various courts and audits of election tallies have repeatedly confirmed that these votes proceeded legally and with minimal electoral fraud. For instance, The Economist estimates fraud is “vanishingly rare, constituting an estimated 0.0025%,” or fewer than 4,000 of the 160 million votes cast in the 2020 presidential race. Trump’s director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency noted that the 2020 election may have been the “most secure in U.S. history.” Nonetheless, Republican voters now identify election security as a seminal issue, and Republican legislators have responded. 

Do These Measures Suppress Voters?

Some of the proposed measures, knowingly or unknowingly, could have troublesome side effects for voters. Unsubstantiated worries about the security of mail-in voting have led to proposed reductions in the time when such ballots can be received and reduced eligibility for who can vote or deliver such ballots. This may, for example, affect the disabled, who could face additional hurdles to securing formal documentation of their disabilities; further provisions that force materials to be delivered in-person may present a major deterrent to those with limitations on physical mobility. 

Other proposals seem more pointedly directed at reducing access among Democratic-leaning populations. For instance, Georgia just passed a law that could enact more stringent ID requirements and limitations in the number of drop boxes, moves that are likely to have an outsized impact on Black communities. The law also makes it a crime to pass out water to voters at polling places (self-service water would remain legal), an issue acutely felt by Black voters, who are more likely to experience longer waiting times, sometimes for hours. Earlier versions of the bill also forbid Sunday early voting, though that provision was removed following outcry that it would directly affect the get-out-the-vote efforts tied to Black churches.

The worst of the worries about voter suppression are seemingly backed up by forthright statements from key Republicans about limitations in voting access directly benefiting Republicans. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) has warned that if Republicans “don't do something about voting by mail, we're going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country.” Likewise, when asked about the interest in a law limiting out-of-precinct ballots in Arizona, a lawyer representing the Arizona Republican Party stated that such voting “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.” These statements are further substantiated by Trump’s own warnings, like that if the U.S. adopted all-mail voting, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Interestingly enough, natural experiments comparing locations where people 65+ could vote by mail and those 64 or younger could not found that Democrats’ advantage in mail-in voting was “statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

Many also highlight how some of the measures proposed by Republican legislators may actually negatively impact their own voters. For example, mail-in voting is typically heavily used by older, whiter, and wealthier demographics, groups that on average trend Republican. If some measures are meant to reduce access among largely Democratic voters, as some argue, it is worth noting that the measures may effectively also limit Republican voters who typically rely on such methods. (As recently as 2019, some states had approved mail-in voting with unanimous Republican support.) Similarly, new voter ID requirements that create obstacles particularly for Black voters in places like Georgia, who tend to vote Democrat, may similarly impact rural, white voters in the same areas, who tend to vote Republican, because both groups face barriers to obtaining adequate identification. 

Source: Brennan Center for Justice

How Could Democrats’ For the People Act (HR1) Impact Voting?

The For the People Act (HR1) seeks to enable voting access across the country using federal law to mandate many minimum requirements and standard procedures in every state. Though the bill has an uncertain, even unlikely, future given the filibuster-proof vote threshold needed in the Senate to pass legislation, it may strike Democrats as important enough to warrant an alteration of filibuster rules, as evidenced by comments made by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and President Biden.

Many Democrats see this reform measure as a long-overdue update to voting procedures and standards across the country, in large part meant to make it easier for people to vote. Worries abound that local rules, especially like those currently proposed in many Republican-led states, are being manipulated under the false guise of election security in ways that may unfairly benefit specific groups electorally or harm others. By mandating certain rules at the national level, the bill might serve to make voting more accessible and increase engagement from the voting population. Though the common assumption is that Democratic candidates would benefit from more people voting, research has shown that increased voting access tends to help both parties — essentially suggesting that when voting is easier, everyone wins.

Among other elements, the bill would make states automatically register eligible voters, mandate the availability of same-day registration, require 15 days of early voting, permit no-excuse absentee balloting, and restore former felons’ voting rights. Furthermore, the bill would establish a bipartisan committee on redistricting to limit gerrymandering, create a public campaign finance system to reduce the sway of large donors, and endorse statehood for Washington, D.C. These larger changes could have major impacts on representation in state legislatures, broaden who can realistically run for office, and provide representation to underrepresented citizens

Is HR1 a “Bad Bill?”

The bill faces many of its own flaws. The size and scope of the bill would mean a seismic shift in voting systems, one that even supporters aren’t quite sure how the U.S. will handle. And while Democrats will point to the proven track record and security of tools like mail-in voting, Republican voters harbor significant skepticism about electoral integrity. Far from a motion with bipartisan support, the bill passed in the House without a single Republican vote in support.

Many of the critics of the bill, even those who broadly support it, worry about the ability of states to enact the mandated changes smoothly and in time for subsequent elections. For example, longtime election officials note that the bill seems to be written by election activists and policy advocates without sufficient consultation with actual election administrators, such that the required changes needed at the state-level seem untenable in the suggested time frames. The potential punitive measures for failure to implement changes on time could levy additional costs on localities that will already struggle to implement the required changes in the first place. As a further example of potential problems, the bill requires new voting machines, which is in itself desirable, but gives conflicting deadlines about when those must be in place — worse still, the machines in question don’t actually exist yet. Some of these inconsistencies would likely be resolved during implementation, but when Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently said the legislation was “an invitation to total chaos,” his premonition may not have been hyperbolic. 

Republicans levy a range of other complaints against the bill. For some, the measures would be overstepping the boundaries and role of the federal government, particularly when it comes to dictating how elections should be operated at the local level. This encompasses a worry that rules will not be tailored enough to meet the expectations of voters in specific areas, hamstringing districts with small budgets. Lawmakers like Senator Cruz have further tried to stoke fear about the effects of HR1, claiming the bill would enable “criminals,” “illegal aliens,” “murderers,” “rapists,” and “child molesters” to vote, while others have decried the legalization of ballot harvesting, “though H.R. 1 specifies that those returning ballots cannot be paid based on the number of ballots returned.”

Narrow Room for Bipartisan Action

Partisan divisions seem as deep as ever, with the legislative roadmap for the years ahead hanging on the existence of the filibuster. At present, the most restrictive voting measures will likely be kept at bay, to an extent, by mixed state legislatures and governors, but those states where Republicans dominate the house, senate, and governor’s office are likely to see restrictive voting reforms passed. Meanwhile, Democrats will struggle to see HR1 take flight.

There are some instances where bipartisan reform has taken place. Kentucky seems to have achieved such a balance with a recent bill that “would expand early voting, including three days of in-person voting, and mandates a universal paper ballot, while adding an ID requirement and banning third-party collection of ballots.” Kentucky’s Republican-held House and Senate have passed the bill, and Democratic Governor Andy Beshear intends to sign it into law. In consultation with academic election experts, the bill attempts to balance interests in voter access with concerns about election integrity, captured by the notion “easy to vote, hard to cheat.” 

This rare instance of cooperation shows that there may be a way to both strengthen voter access and allay fears about election integrity. The current tug-of-war now underway will reveal if lawmakers can restore Americans’ confidence in electoral systems all while making voting accessible and easy for all eligible U.S. voters.

Note: This Google Sheet lists articles used to inform the findings of this article and indicates how the articles scored according to The Factual's credibility algorithm. To learn more, read our How It Works page.

Written by Phillip Meylan

Phillip is a writer, editor, and researcher. Before completing his MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2019, he worked as an editor and content strategist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. When he’s not working, you can find him playing soccer, hiking, or cooking.

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