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Why Republicans Are Moving To Fix Elections That Weren't Broken

People wait in line on the first day of early voting for the 2020 general election on Oct. 12 in Atlanta.
People wait in line on the first day of early voting for the 2020 general election on Oct. 12 in Atlanta.

Republican-led legislatures in dozens of states are moving to change election laws in ways that could make it harder to vote.

Many proposals explicitly respond to the 2020 election: Lawmakers cite public concerns about election security — concerns generated by disinformation that then-President Donald Trump spread while trying to overturn the election.

The Brennan Center, a nonprofit that tracks voting laws, says that 43 states — including key swing states — are considering 253 bills that would raise barriers to voting, for example by reducing early voting days or limiting access to voting by mail. Lawmakers in a different set of 43 states have proposed expanding voter access, but Republicans have prioritized new security requirements and shorter voting periods.

In Georgia, which President Biden won by nearly 12,000 votes, legislators are considering multiple bills to restrict voting. The most significant, House Bill 531, is before a committee chaired by Republican Rep. Barry Fleming. He said Democrat Stacey Abrams campaigned to expand voter access after losing a governor's race in 2018, and now Republicans want their own changes. The bill is "an attempt to restore the confidence of our public," he said, because "there has been controversy regarding our election system."

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That controversy had no basis in fact. Audits and recounts confirmed the accuracy of the vote count in Georgia, and lawsuits there and in other states by the Trump campaign and allies failed to show otherwise. But Trump sought to discredit the vote and even asked Georgia's secretary of state to change the vote totals. Now Georgia lawmakers are moving to repair a system that was not shown to be broken.

The latest amended version of HB 531 would instruct Georgia counties to hold no more than 17 days of early voting. Populous counties held more days than that in 2020.

Republicans say they want to make voting rules "uniform" across the state's 159 counties.

"There are some counties that have as many voters as maybe a small neighborhood in Atlanta," reports Stephen Fowler, who covers elections for Georgia Public Broadcasting. "And this would treat all of them the same, which would tend to make it harder for the bigger, more urban, more Democratic metro counties to account for everyone and get them through the early voting process — especially if vote by mail is restricted by some other measures in the legislature."

The bill would also put new limits on weekend early voting, which would complicate efforts to allow voting on the Sunday just before an election. "Sunday voting," says Fowler, "is when Black churches in Georgia typically host a 'Souls to the Polls' event and where we statistically see the highest Black turnout during early voting."

Another bill, SB 67, would strengthen ID requirements when requesting an absentee ballot. The sponsor, state Sen. Larry Walker, argues that 97% of voters have the necessary identification; he told NPR it's a basic reform as mail voting expands.

But Democratic Sen. David Lucas said some voters would be disenfranchised, and in a tearful speech on the Senate floor, he told his Republican colleagues: "Every one of these election bills is [because] the election didn't turn out the way you wanted, and you want to perpetuate the lie that Trump told."

A promised follow-up to 2020

Even as Trump was attempting to overturn the election last year, his allies said they would use his false claims to shape future elections.

"Mail-in balloting is a nightmare for us," Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News on Nov. 8, referring to a form of voting that had been used securely with little controversy for years but was used more often by Democrats in 2020. Graham said that without changes, "we're never going to win again presidentially."

Appearing again on Fox News on Nov. 9, Graham said Senate Republicans would conduct "oversight" of mail-in balloting because "if we don't do something about voting by mail, we're going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country."

Republicans lost control of the Senate in January, curtailing Graham's ability to follow up. But the Republican Party remains in control of most state legislatures, which make most election laws.

Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center describes "a very discernible and disturbing pattern" to reduce mail-in balloting — for example, by adding requirements to request a ballot or changing the rules for drop boxes. She described the bills as "attacks on methods of participation that had been used by older, white voters for a very, very long time."

The line to vote outside the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections in Georgia stretched around the building and lasted an hour and a half on the first day of early voting in October 2020.
Grant Blankenship / GPB
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The line to vote outside the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections in Georgia stretched around the building and lasted an hour and a half on the first day of early voting in October 2020.

Mail-in balloting is questioned only now, Pérez said, because nonwhite voters have taken advantage of it. "There was very little attempt to hide the racialized nature" of the attacks on mail balloting in 2020, she said, noting that Trump allies constantly claimed corruption in big diverse cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit.

A divide among Republicans

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., is among those who questioned the 2020 election results. He supported a lawsuit to overturn the results in six states. The Supreme Court dismissed the suit, but not before Carter recorded a fundraising video promoting it, urging supporters to "chip in to assure that we get fair and free elections."

Today, Carter acknowledges reality, telling NPR: "President Biden was the victor in the state of Georgia," and "I don't believe that there was voter fraud." Yet he still voices concern about how Georgia applied its election laws.

"Absentee voting needs to be cleaned up. It needs to be tightened up," he said. "What other state is there, aside from Georgia, where if you vote in person you have to have a photo ID, but if you vote absentee, all you have to have is a matching signature? That's not right."

Carter's claim is not entirely true. Of the six states that strictly require a photo ID to cast a vote in person, only two — Wisconsin and Kansas — mandate a photo ID for absentee ballots. Tennessee and Indiana will let you submit other documents, such as a copy of a utility bill, to establish residency. Mississippi requires a witness, such as a notary public.

Georgia Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs, a Republican, concedes that many voters distrust the system. "I have a Facebook feed of individuals who don't trust the voting machines," she said. But she said it is only because many believed Trump's lies.

"We need to move into a narrative where you're not attacking election administrators for your loss," she said.

Voters queue outside Philadelphia City Hall to cast their early voting ballots on Oct. 27.
Mark Makela / Getty Images
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Voters queue outside Philadelphia City Hall to cast their early voting ballots on Oct. 27.

Fuchs said Georgia's repeated audits and recounts found two absentee ballots cast by dead people, out of 1.3 million absentee ballots and a total of about 5 million votes cast in Georgia. The secretary of state's office is prepared to back reforms, she says, but only if they make sense.

On Republicans and democracy

Some conservatives fear that attacking elections is the point of these proposed voting law changes.

"Rather than celebrate the massive voter turnout that we saw, they want to dial that back," said Charlie Sykes, a writer and conservative talk show host. He left the Republican Party, and was ostracized, after he criticized Trump.

Sykes said his former Republican allies "see the country slipping away from them" through demographic change. He sees some of them embracing alternatives to democracy, including "anti-democratic authoritarianism."

We put Sykes' concern to Carter, the Republican Georgia congressman who supports changes to voting laws. Are Republicans giving up on democracy?

"I'm the eternal optimist," he replied, but "I do know that there are a number of Republicans who are very concerned." He described a meeting with one of his strongest supporters, who "was very concerned about the future of our party" and also about "the future of our country. And that's why what the Georgia state legislature is doing right now is extremely, extremely important."

Republicans maintain they're pushing to change voting laws at the urging of Republican voters. Those voters are following the lead of the former president, who remains a dominant figure in the party despite trying for months to overturn a democratic election.

Bo Hamby and Scott Saloway produced and edited the audio story. Stephen Fowler contributed reporting.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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