A headlong rush by states to attack voting access — or expand it

Long line on election day at polling locationElection day at polling place in Mableton Georgia in 2020 (Cobb County Courier/Larry Felton Johnson)

by Aaron Mendelson, Center for Public Integrity [This article was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.]

October 6, 2022

Iowa eliminated nine days of early voting. New Hampshire took away ballot drop boxes. And Georgia made providing water to voters waiting in line a crime.

In many states, nearly all controlled by Republicans, it will be more difficult to vote than it was two years ago. That’s especially true for lower-income Americans and people with disabilities, voting-access advocates warn. They stress that new restrictions target methods of voting used disproportionately by people of color.

In those states, voting has also been reshaped by rulings from conservative judges and newly drawn districts that favor Republican candidates.

A review of voting laws in the 50 states and Washington, D.C. by the Center for Public Integrity paints a stark picture of the state of voting in America — one in which states are taking two different paths. While several states passed bills that grabbed headlines and created barriers to the franchise, states controlled by Democrats made access to voting easier and more equitable. Some states with split-party control went one direction and some went the other.

We found:

  • Twenty-six states worsened equity in voting and representation.
  • Twenty states and Washington, D.C., improved it.
  • Four states have made little change in either direction.

Our review found that 160 million Americans live in the states reducing equity, and 151 million live in the places expanding it. About 20 million Americans live in the states where the situation did not change substantially.

The rollback in voting access has been fueled by falsehoods from former President Donald Trump and his allies about the 2020 election — an election that officials in his own administration, elections experts and state and federal judges have affirmed was secure and accurate. “Instead of celebrating that, what we saw was a rush to enact legislation on the false premise that the 2020 election, and elections generally, are riddled with widespread voter fraud,” said Jasleen Singh of the Brennan Center for Justice.

The attacks on access have targeted methods disproportionately used by people of color and younger, more Democratic-leaning voters. “These are direct attacks on voters that legislators think will vote for the other party,” said Sylvia Albert of Common Cause. “It is clearly an attack on Black and brown and low-income voters.”

The restrictive state laws have come as the Supreme Court has dealt several blows to the Voting Rights Act. The court will consider significant cases about gerrymandering and state legislative powers over elections in its current term, which began this week.

The Democratic and mixed-party-control states that made voting and registering easier since the 2020 election span the country: New Mexico created protections for polling places on tribal land; Illinois made vote-by-mail accessible to all voters permanently; Maine made it easier to participate in primaries.

In a handful of states where voting rules have barely budged since 2020, Democratic governors thwarted GOP legislation with vetoes, an establishment Republican blocked restrictive voting measures, or court challenges paused or prevented legislation from taking effect. In those states, the status quo could easily be shattered by a flip in control over the governor’s office or a handful of politicians retiring or losing primaries.

Voting laws, and the way they’re interpreted by election officials, depend on where you live. Voters in different states — and sometimes even neighboring cities or counties — can face sharply different options for casting their ballots.

In Utah, for example, all voters receive a mail ballot and can track its status online. If the voter wants to register and vote in person at a polling place, the law allows for them to do that on Election Day.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, voting in person on Election Day is the only option available to all voters. Excuses for voting absentee are limited, mail voting ordinarily requires multiple notarized signatures, and a voter must register 30 days before an election.

The varying rules make for a disjointed, unequal landscape of voting in the United States. 

“We should all have equal access to the ballot. Otherwise, we don’t all have the same freedom to vote,” said Danielle Lang of the Campaign Legal Center.

Our team of journalists took a close look at the details of voting across the United States, reporting on the registration process, voter-roll purges, redistricting and more. As Democracy Fund’s Tammy Patrick, a former elections official in Arizona, put it: “In elections, the details matter.”

Millions of Americans face challenges to exercising their right to vote, even if they live in a state that has increased access. For voters with disabilities, Indigenous voters living on reservations and eligible voters with felonies on their records, barriers have been especially high.

Many voters will also find that their influence in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress has been diluted by a round of partisan gerrymandering. Political districts are redrawn each decade, with the most recent round based on the results of the 2020 Census.

In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering is a political issue beyond the reach of federal courts. Politicians — who draw the maps in many states — took the cue.

Across the country, states have drawn maps in ways that reduce the number of competitive congressional districts nationwide. Republican leaders in Indiana created a congressional map an expert called “one of the most extreme gerrymanders in history.”

Many states’ redistricting maps have been contested in court, with plaintiffs alleging that their state’s constitution bars partisan gerrymandering or contending that the maps discriminate against Black or Latino voters. Judges have ordered maps in some states, including New York, to be redrawn. Ongoing litigation in several states means that district boundaries could change for some voters again before 2024.

Districts for some state legislative, city council and school board seats have also been redrawn, often with little of the public attention that maps for congressional seats receive. Battles for the future of democracy are not restricted to statehouses and Washington, D.C. — they are taking place at city halls, county government buildings and school board meetings across the nation.

“Democracy isn’t just about voting rights, pulling a lever for your candidate. It’s the idea that everyone matters, that we’re in it together,” said Micah Kubic of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

Fights over access to the ballot box raise fundamental questions, he said: “Who counts? Who matters?”

Record voter turnout and conspiracies

Absentee voting surged in the 2020 election, conducted in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. States scrambled to craft policies that allowed more voters to cast a ballot without visiting a polling place on Election Day. When the dust settled, 2020 proved to be the highest-turnout election in 120 years.

“Voters responded to expansions in access in 2020 by coming out in record numbers,” said Common Cause’s Albert.

Falsehoods about Trump’s loss, many of which focused on mail voting and election results in racially diverse urban areas, became motivating forces for Republican candidates and elected officials at all levels — from Congress to sheriff’s departments.

On Capitol Hill, federal voting rights legislation stalled. Senate Democrats couldn’t break a filibuster to act on what President Joe Biden has called “the single biggest issue.”

Lawmakers in states where Republicans control all branches of government have run into no such gridlock. They seized on Trump’s rhetoric about fraud to pass a flurry of election-related bills in 2021 and 2022 that make voting more difficult.

“These changes are saying back to voters, ‘Oops, we don’t actually want you to vote,’” Albert said.

Texas, Florida and Georgia all attracted nationwide scrutiny for election bills that restrict access to ballot drop boxes, and several states have created potential criminal penalties related to the work of election officials

“This past session was spent on what I consider voter suppression bills,” said LaVon Bracy of Faith in Florida, a longtime voting rights advocate in the state.

In Virginia and Florida, Republican officials have created units to investigate and prosecute election fraud, an issue that is vanishingly rare in the United States. Florida’s election police recently made high-profile arrests of 20 people for voting with felony convictions, which the state allows in some cases but not others. But reporters quickly found major flaws, including evidence that state officials and even the head of the election police were involved in approving those Floridians’ efforts to register.

Beyond specific policies making voting more challenging, advocates fear that the headlines about arrests and criminalization of election violations will keep some people from even trying to vote.

And then there are the battles over mail and absentee voting. In places where these options have long been popular and uncontroversial, such as Utah and Arizona, the practice has come under attack by right-wing activists and elected officials. Republican legislators in Arizona passed a law to purge people from the state’s list of voters who automatically receive a mail-in ballot. They will now be removed if they fail to vote for two election cycles and don’t respond to a notice sent by mail.

Even proposals that haven’t become law concern elections experts. “We have never seen the number of restrictive laws being proposed,” said Singh, who tracks voting legislation at the Brennan Center for Justice.

The misinformation about voting has also upturned the lives of the professionals who run elections. Many have received threats and now fear for their safety. Others have quit.

“In that absence, you get the loss of institutional knowledge. But then you also have this void that can be filled by bad actors,” said Democracy Fund’s Patrick. “And that’s a concern by many election officials in the field: Who’s going to fill those roles?”

Patrick added that if the attacks on election officials continue, the profession could see another wave of resignations before the 2024 presidential election.

Disenfranchisement and barriers to voting as old as the country 

Changes in state laws are written in language that is race-neutral, but their impact is anything but.

“Racial discrimination in voting has been a particularly pernicious and enduring American problem,” a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report stated in 2018. The commission pointed to voter ID laws, voter-roll purges, challenges to eligibility and proof of citizenship measures as “voting procedures that wrongly prevent some citizens from voting.”

Legislatures in states around the nation debated and passed precisely those types of measures in 2021 and 2022, often invoking voter fraud and election security.

The current wave of election legislation comes less than a decade after the nation’s strongest tool for battling disenfranchisement was gutted.

Previously, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting to “preclear” changes with the Department of Justice or a federal court in D.C. Several southern states, along with Arizona and Alaska, fell under the preclearance requirement. So did counties in states including California, Florida and North Carolina.

All are now free to make changes without federal approval because of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.

Many of those jurisdictions began making major changes to elections well before 2020, with Texas alone closing over 700 polling places. Recently enacted laws in states including Texas and Georgia would have previously required preclearance. Now they don’t.

“There is a direct attack on Black voters,” said James “Major” Woodall of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Woodall and other voting access advocates say that the restrictive laws make their work even more difficult. Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials said the state’s 2021 law, SB 202, “leaves undue pressure on local organizations like ourselves that work to help people navigate the gauntlet of trying to cast your vote. It shouldn’t be that difficult to vote in our democracy.”

The Center for Public Integrity’s reporting documented inequities in access to voting and representation in every state and D.C., regardless of which party controlled state government. In some cases, voting laws are governed by state constitutions that date back to the era when Black Americans, Indigenous people and women were denied the right to vote.

In many Democratic-controlled states, Black and Latino voters wait in long lines simply to vote — sometimes because their communities lack the resources to open additional polling places, staff additional early voting sites or provide language assistance.

Yet our review also found that in states controlled by Democrats, and some whose control is split between the parties, voting has become easier. Kentucky opened vote centers, allowing residents to cast ballots at any voting site in their jurisdiction. California made 2020’s universal vote-by-mail effort permanent, while Connecticut expanded access to absentee voting.

Voting access doesn’t always break down cleanly on red-blue lines. Voting in the United States is in many ways regional. Western states like Colorado, Washington and Utah have long embraced mail voting, among the biggest equalizers in access to elections. In addition to Washington, D.C., the two states that allow people incarcerated for felonies to vote are in northern New England and among the least diverse states in the country: Maine and Vermont. Southern states, where Black voters make up a significant share of the electorate, and conservative Midwestern states have enacted many of the strictest voter identification laws.

But in the aftermath of the 2020 election, with a weakened Voting Rights Act, national politics are playing a powerful role in the rules determining how Americans do — and don’t — cast their ballots.

More than a dozen GOP-controlled states adopted bans on outside funding for elections. Money from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life was a lifeline for underfunded elections offices in 2020 but became the subject of right-wing conspiracies centered around its ties to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“Those policies were being driven by a national narrative,” said the Campaign Legal Center’s Lang. “That came straight from the top in 2020, from President Trump.” 

In Idaho, League of Women Voters President Betsy McBride said she’d never previously heard concerns about voter registration drives or people delivering absentee ballots for their elderly neighbors.

That changed after national Republicans and right-wing media targeted both. “This list of bills all over the country look pretty much the same, the talking points are the same,” she said.

The Idaho League of Women Voters fought hardest against a proposed bill, similar to laws passed in other Republican states, that would have made it a crime to “knowingly collect or convey another voter’s voted or unvoted ballot.”

“It was a felony with a big fine,” McBride said. “So it was clear that a lot of the work that the churches were doing and other groups was just going to come to a halt. We have a huge veterans home. And whether or not they have a living spouse is quite problematic.”

Project team

Reporters: Aaron Mendelson, Jared Bennett, Karen Juanita Carillo, Gina Castro, Kimberly Cataudella, Ileana Garnand, Alan Hovorka, Lindsay Kalter, Robby Korth, Lizzie Mulvey, Pratheek Rebala, Hayley Starshak, DeArbea Walker, Jordan Wilkie, Peter Winslow

Editors: Matt DeRienzo, Jennifer LaFleur, Mc Nelly Torres, Jamie Smith Hopkins

Audience engagement: Lisa Yanick Litwiller, Janeen Jones, Ashley Clarke, Vanessa Lee and Charlie Hsing-Chuan Dodge

Fact-checking: Yvette Cabrera, Kimberly Cataudella, Ileana Garnand, Melissa Hellmann, Kristian Hernández, Aaron Mendelson, Corey Mitchell, April Simpson, Peter Newbatt Smith, Maya Srikrishnan, Joe Yerardi, María Inés Zamudio

Audio: Juliana Marin

The proposal was passed by the Idaho House along with a slew of other voting restrictions, but they died in the state Senate, where a single Republican legislator, State Affairs Committee Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, refused to give them a hearing. Lodge did not seek re-election, and McBride worries that there will be no stopping similar bills next year.

In the coming months, the Supreme Court will consider Moore v. Harper, a case that could give state legislatures nearly unchecked power to set election laws — even if those laws violate state constitutions or create extreme partisan gerrymanders. If the justices side with the “independent state legislature theory,” it will open the door for further restrictions in voting access in dozens of states.

The court also agreed to take up Merrill v. Milligan, another case that could weaken the Voting Rights Act. If the court’s conservative majority sides with Alabama’s attorney general in the case, they could make it possible for states to draw districts in a way that dilutes the power of voters of color. That would gut one of the last remaining voting rights provisions of the law.

Advocates for voting access say their work has never felt more urgent. “It’s pretty terrifying how fragile our democracy is right now,” said Davis Hammet, the president of Kansas-based civic engagement group Loud Light.

This article first appeared on Center for Public Integrity and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.