PHOENIX — One in every three states across the nation have passed new laws restricting voter access to the ballot in the wake of the 2020 elections, a torrid pace that showcases the national battle over election reform.
Voting rights experts and advocates say they have never seen such an explosion of election overhauls: Legislatures in 17 states have passed 29 bills that would in some way curtail a voter’s access, according to a tally maintained by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, a voting rights advocacy organization.
“What is clear is that there is a wave of state laws that make it harder for Americans to vote, and in a really unprecedented manner. We haven’t seen the volume of these bills at all in a year,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel to the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “This is reflecting a real concerted effort in states across the country to make it harder for Americans to vote, to carve Americans out of the electorate rather than politicians trying to win over those voters.”
The overhauls vary widely by state. Six states have shortened the time period during which a voter can request a mail-in ballot. Four states have limited the number or availability of mail ballot drop boxes. Seven states have given election administrators more leeway or new requirements in purging inactive voters from the rolls. Six states have limited the help someone can offer a voter in returning their ballot.
The measures have sharply divided the two parties: Every new restriction has been passed in states where Republicans own total control of the legislature. All but two of the states where new restrictions have passed are also run by Republican governors, with the exception of Kentucky and Louisiana.
In some cases, legislators passed a single omnibus bill that made sweeping changes to multiple elements of state electoral code.
Florida’s Senate Bill 90 limited a voter’s ability to get regular absentee ballots; limited an election administrator’s authority to send absentee ballot applications; limited the help a mail-in voter could receive; restricted the number of ballot drop-boxes; boosted identification requirements for mail-in ballots; and prohibited handing out food or water to those waiting in line to cast their vote.
In Georgia, Senate Bill 202 — which sparked loud protests that led Major League Baseball to move its annual All-Star Game out of Atlanta — shortened the window in which a voter could request an absentee ballot; restricted the sending of unsolicited absentee ballot applications; limited drop boxes and added identification requirements; banned snacks and water to those waiting in line; and limited the number of early voting days and hours.
In other states, legislators passed several measures that targeted specific elements of the electoral process.
That was the case here, where the small Republican majority in the state Senate and House approved three different bills this year. One bill will purge inactive voters from a permanent absentee ballot list. Another allows broader purges of the voting rolls. A third adds signature requirements for mail-in ballots.
Voting overhauls are “definitely percolating as a more mainstream issue, but that’s because there were wholesale changes made without going through the legislative process, using Covid as the rationale for why. That has awakened the public,” said state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), the author of those bills and chair of the Senate Government Committee.
Ugenti-Rita, who is running to oversee elections as secretary of state, said the rush of new bills comes in response to administrative overhauls to electoral rules made amid the pandemic.
“The Democrats have misused, exploited and politicized COVID to implement changes in elections that could never get passed otherwise,” she said in an interview. “They kind of needed a vessel, and they used COVID as a vessel to weaken our election system.”