Following an election year where Democrats regained power in the Senate and the presidency and retained a majority in the House, Republicans in several states seized the opportunity to pass legislation around restrictions on voter and election laws. In this Election Report,, voting and elections expert, Rhodes Cook, discusses how the 2020 general election led to these laws and the response from Democrats.

Document Outline
GOP: “Good Voting” and “Bad Voting”
Georgia on Our Mind
Now What?

Election years traditionally have two parts—the primary stage, when parties nominate their candidates; and the general election, when the victorious contenders are elected to public office. In 2020, though, there was a third, post-election, phase, when the losing presidential candidate (Republican incumbent Donald Trump) fought tooth and nail to overturn his loss at the ballot box to Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump failed in his historically brazen quest, but it was not for lack of trying. In the last eleven weeks of his presidency, he and his allies spun unproven conspiracy theories that the election was not lost but stolen from him, pursued scores of legal challenges in a vain effort to prove voter fraud, and incited a mob attack by his supporters on the Capitol on January 6 in an unsuccessful effort to block the certification of Biden’s victory in the Electoral College.

The brazen assault on the citadel of American democracy stunned the nation. And it was so at odds with the normally peaceful transfer of power, Trump ended up being impeached by the Democratic House of Representatives for the second time in his presidency. As before, he avoided conviction in the Senate. But he left office on January 20 with the lowest approval score of his four-year tenure (34 percent), as measured by the historically long-running Gallup Poll.

Now, the political debate has morphed into a new stage, with the two parties engaged in a high-stakes battle over voting rights in 2022 (and beyond). Republicans are pursuing new restrictions on absentee and other forms of early voting that were loosened last year in many places because of the COVID pandemic. They are mounting a blanket effort to change the rules, flooding state legislatures in more than forty states with hundreds of vote-tightening proposals.

But it is the prominent battleground states where Republicans control the levers of power, such as Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and Texas, where they have the most potential to affect the shape of the electorate moving forward. At the core of the GOP argument is their claim that changes would provide “election integrity” that they say was largely lacking in last year’s presidential election.

Not surprisingly, Democrats see the Republican initiatives as something far different—less ethics driven than a matter of power politics. Democrats contend that what the GOP is doing is a loser’s lament, an effort to undermine Democratic turnout strength in an electorate that is increasingly minority oriented. Democrats refer to “voter suppression” to describe what is happening, and accuse Republicans of crafting an ugly racial side to their proposals that hearkens back to the “Jim Crow” era.

Democrats and their allies in the civil rights movement promise an array of legal challenges to the Republican state initiatives while creating legislation of their own at the federal level designed to ensure basic voting rights for all citizens across the nation. Such Democratic legislation passed the House of Representatives in early March but faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

GOP: “Good Voting” and “Bad Voting”

At the heart of the GOP effort to overhaul state voting laws is Donald Trump. Even though he is out of office, large numbers of Republicans still look to him for guidance and believe his oft-repeated charge that he was the victim of massive voter fraud in 2020. He has managed to make the huge voter turnout last fall appear sinister because of the successful Democratic effort to harvest a large early vote. Absentee voting in particular has been Trump’s special target, since by this method ballots are filled out by voters in private, unlike other forms of early voting and that on Election Day which are done in-person.

Voter turnout soared in the 2020 presidential election, from the previous record of less than 137 million ballots cast in 2016 to more than 158 million votes last year. The vote for Trump jumped by more than 11 million (from nearly 63 million to more than 74 million). But the Democratic presidential vote rose by more than 15 million, from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s almost 66 million votes in 2016 to Biden’s 81 million-plus in 2020. Biden triumphed by a solid 306–232 margin in the electoral vote, close to a reversal of Trump’s advantage the previous time.

Democrats used early voting as a critical part of their 2020 get-out-the-vote strategy, rather than emphasizing the in-person, Election Day voting in early November that has long been the norm. Altogether, more than 100 million votes in 2020, a clear majority of the overall turnout, were cast early, either by absentee ballots (using mail or drop boxes to return them) or by in-person participation at central voting sites days or even weeks before Election Day.

These additional options enabled Democrats to “bank” the votes of traditional lower-turnout groups such as young voters and those of color. They also provided an acceptable option for those Democratic voters concerned about in-person Election Day voting in the midst of the covid pandemic. Most Republicans, in contrast, followed Trump’s lead and turned out in huge numbers on Election Day.

Georgia on Our Mind

Both during the post-election period and since, the spotlight has been on Georgia. Biden carried the state by 11,779 votes out of 5 million cast, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1992. And on January 5, Democrats won a pair of closely contested Senate runoff elections in Georgia that gave the party control of the Senate. They were the first Democratic Senate victories in the Peach State since 2000.

According to the Washington Post, Biden took 65 percent of the absentee vote in Georgia in the general election, while Trump is credited with about 60 percent of the Election Day vote. Trump made two campaign appearances in Georgia in the weeks before the Senate runoffs, railing against the legitimacy of his defeat. He also made a fabled phone call in early January to Georgia’s Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, long after the state’s vote had been certified for Biden. He attempted to pressure the elections official to find “11,780” more Trump votes that would have given him Georgia by one vote. Raffensperger demurred.

But since then, Georgia Republicans have moved in lockstep to put new strictures on absentee and other early voting for 2022 (and presumably beyond). Their new voting law passed in late March. Among the features: it requires voters to show more identification in casting absentee ballots; limits the availability of drop boxes for receiving these ballots; curtails the organized distribution of water and snacks to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots (which the legislation’s authors argued could be seen as a bribe); and makes various shifts in control of election administration from the secretary of state to the state legislature.

Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp, who, like Raffensperger, was a target of Trump’s wrath for signing off on Biden’s victory in the 2020 vote, supported the recent changes in state voting law. They make “it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” said Kemp, although there is little doubt that Georgia Republicans hope that the new law will also help restore the state to its pre-2020 reddish hue.

Opposition to the Georgia action came quickly not just from Democrats and their allies, but from parts of corporate America, including the leadership of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Delta. But the most high-profile rebuke emanated from Major League Baseball, which in the wake of the bill’s passage moved this summer’s all-star game, originally scheduled for Atlanta, to Denver, Colorado.


Now What?

Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to blunt as best they can the multi-state Republican initiatives by passing a piece of federal legislation called the “For the People Act of 2021.” It would apply to federal elections across the country, and among other things, would extend early voting to all fifty states, provide for at least two weeks of early voting for at least ten hours per day, encourage voting by mail across the nation with “no excuse” absentee voting, and increase the number of drop boxes for absentee ballots.

The measure passed the House of Representatives on March 3 on a party-line vote of 220–210. But it faces a problematic future in the evenly divided Senate, where a supermajority of sixty votes is needed to pass it. Any chance for the Democrats to do that would require the elimination of the sixty-vote Senate filibuster, which at this point appears unlikely.

How this battle over voting ultimately ends is anybody’s guess. Normally, the year after a presidential election is a quiet one, at least in terms of electoral politics, with a couple of governorships and special congressional elections leading the way. But these days are not quiet.

Rhodes Cook May 7, 2021

Document Citation
New Voting Laws: Election Integrity or Voter Suppression? (2021).
Document ID: electrpts-2165-115660-2981937
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