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

Feb 28, 2021
Originally published on March 1, 2021 9:44 am

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

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

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.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's a busy week for voting rights. The Supreme Court considers whether Arizona law violates them. The House votes on a Democratic bill to expand voter access. And Republicans, who control most state legislatures, want to tighten access. Republicans hope to reshape future elections based on their false claims about the 2020 vote. Even as Donald Trump was trying to overturn that democratic election last fall, his ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, went on Fox News and spoke of mail-in ballots, which have been used securely for years but were used more by Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Mail-in balloting is a nightmare for us. So if we don't fight back in 2020, we're never going to win again presidentially. A lot's at stake here.

INSKEEP: In a separate Fox appearance, Graham repeated false claims about mail-in ballots and predicted Republicans would crack down in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAHAM: If we don't do something about voting by mail, we're going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country.

INSKEEP: Republicans lost control of the Senate, limiting Graham's power to follow up. But Republicans still control many state legislatures, and many are considering bills to change voting laws based on the falsehoods of 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARRY FLEMING: Ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate you being here today. There are a couple of bills on...

INSKEEP: Georgia's Republican-dominated House of Representatives held hearings on a plan for multiple new rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLEMING: There has been controversy regarding our election system.

INSKEEP: So Chairman Barry Fleming introduced House Bill 531.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLEMING: An attempt to restore the confidence of our public.

INSKEEP: He said Democrat Stacey Abrams criticized Georgia voting after losing a governor's race in 2018. She successfully pushed for greater voter access, and now Republicans want changes of their own.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: The biggest one would limit early voting to no more than 17 days.

INSKEEP: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting covers elections in the state, and he says big Democratic-leaning counties used to do more days than that to manage their big populations.

FOWLER: They're talking about making things uniform. Georgia has 159 counties, which is second only to Texas, and there are some counties that have as many voters as maybe a small neighborhood in Atlanta. 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, like some other measures in the Legislature.

INSKEEP: Voting on weekends would also be harder to schedule, affecting Souls to the Polls events that Black churches hold on Sundays. The Legislature is considering other bills. The state Senate last week passed Senator Larry Walker's plan to add an ID requirement to request an absentee ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY WALKER: Ninety-seven percent of the registered voters have either a driver's license number or a personal ID number issued by the state of Georgia.

INSKEEP: Walker's bill is less dramatic than some, and he says it's a basic reform. Though as the Senate voted, Democratic Senator David Lucas tearfully said it would keep some people from voting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID LUCAS: Every last one of these election bills is about - the election didn't turn out the way y'all want and you want to perpetuate the lie that Trump told

INSKEEP: The nonprofit Brennan Center is tracking proposals like Georgia's across the country.

MYRNA PEREZ: Hi. It's Myrna. How are you?

INSKEEP: Hey. I'm doing OK. I'm doing OK. Thank you.

So we called Myrna Perez of its voting rights team. We'd heard the Brennan Center had counted 106 bills to restrict voting. By the time we got on the line with Perez, the number had grown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

INSKEEP: You looking it up now?

PEREZ: When we did the update on February 8, they were at 165 bills.

INSKEEP: A hundred and sixty-five bills?

PEREZ: Restrictive bills, yep.

INSKEEP: After we spoke, the number rose again to more than 250, concentrated in competitive states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas.

What are some of these bills proposing to do?

PEREZ: In a very discernible and disturbing pattern, we see many of the bills restricting mail voting. And they do it in different ways. We've seen bills that would introduce witness requirements, limit the use of drop boxes or increase poll watcher access of these ballots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAHAM: Philadelphia elections are crooked as a snake. Why are they shutting people out?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWT GINGRICH: The Atlanta machine is corrupt. The machine in Detroit is corrupt.

PEREZ: What I think was really obvious and really upsetting about the 2020 election was that there was very little attempt to hide the racialized nature. I mean, where did we hear that there was impropriety happening? In very diverse cities, in places like Detroit, places like Atlanta.

INSKEEP: Philadelphia.

PEREZ: And what sort of attacks did we see? We saw attacks on methods of participation that had been used by older white voters for a very, very long time.

INSKEEP: What's a method that had been used successfully with no real trouble by older white voters that suddenly became...

PEREZ: Vote by mail.

INSKEEP: Republicans who favor voting changes include many who signed on to efforts to overturn last year's election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUDDY CARTER: Hey. It's Buddy Carter. Today, we're asking the Supreme Court to...

INSKEEP: This video shows Republican Congressman Buddy Carter of Georgia, who supported a lawsuit last December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: Chip in to assure that we get fair and free elections.

INSKEEP: The Supreme Court dismissed the suit. On January 6, Carter - like most House Republicans - voted to object to the results in several states, even after rioters attacked the Capitol. We called to ask what he's thinking now.

Do you accept that Joe Biden won Georgia?

CARTER: I do. And I have been very clear and concise on that. President Biden was the victor in the state of Georgia. There's no question about it in my mind, anyway. I know that there are those who question that. I am not one of those. I don't believe that there was voter fraud.

INSKEEP: Doesn't believe there was fraud, but he still says he's concerned about how Georgia applied its election laws.

Why do you think it was that every single court case failed?

CARTER: Well, that's - you know, that - we do have a judicial process, and that was followed. And I can't say specifically as to each one, but what I'm talking about is specifically voter confidence and constituents having confidence in the voting system, that there is integrity in the system. Just because a court has ruled against it doesn't mean that people still should have confidence in it.

INSKEEP: Many voters don't have confidence because President Trump falsely claimed fraud. Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rejected Trump's demand to, quote, "find" just enough votes for Trump to win.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Look - we need only 11,000 votes. We have far more than that as it stands now.

INSKEEP: But the deputy secretary of state, Jordan Fuchs, says some voters still buy Trump's claims.

JORDAN FUCHS: I have a Facebook feed of individuals who don't trust the voting machines, you know. The state turned blue. It was a shock to a lot of folks.

INSKEEP: Fuchs is Republican and used to work as a consultant for Buddy Carter, the Georgia congressman. She says she was surprised to learn last fall that he was among those questioning the election results.

FUCHS: He slowly became attached to this rhetoric that the election had been stolen, and so it was shocking to see him latch onto disinformation so quickly.

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

FUCHS: Our office is going to support sound election administration-focused legislation. That's it. We need to move into a narrative where you're not attacking election administrators for your loss; you're attacking the more traditional routes - maybe blame, you know, yourself for not fundraising enough. But blaming it on the voting machines or blaming it on a process needs to end.

INSKEEP: Some conservatives fear that attacking the process is the point. One of them is Charlie Sykes.

CHARLIE SYKES: When the idea of voter ID first came up, I thought it was simply a commonsense measure to assure voter integrity. I think in retrospect, you look back on it and this was part of a larger pattern of trying to keep the number of minorities, young people, away from the ballot box.

INSKEEP: Sykes is a writer and talk show host who was influential among Republicans until 2016. That's when he was ostracized for criticizing Trump.

SYKES: Rather than celebrate the massive voter turnout that we saw, they want to dial that back. So they're going to be pushing restrictions on mail-in voting. They're going to be pushing restrictions on voter ID to make sure that the wrong people don't vote again.

INSKEEP: How much do Republicans talk about the demographic change in this country and what it means to them?

SYKES: I think they think about it all the time, and I think that that drives a lot of it. I think they see the country slipping away from them, and a lot of that is, in fact, the demographics. They understand that a party based on white identity is going to be doomed if, in fact, they don't find ways to circumvent that.

INSKEEP: So this is a pro-Trump party still.

SYKES: Yes.

INSKEEP: Is this an anti-democratic party at this point? Small-d democratic.

SYKES: Yes. This is one of the most troubling developments in Republican politics, especially from my point of view as a conservative, because over the last four years, there seems to be a trend toward embracing or at least tolerating different forms of extremism, including anti-democratic authoritarianism.

INSKEEP: We put Charlie Sykes' concern to Buddy Carter, the Georgia congressman who supports changes to voting laws.

This may be a statement you disagree with. I don't know. But I think you should have a chance to respond to it. I was talking to Charlie Sykes. He reviews the events of the last few months and he sees a very big part of the party objecting to the results of a democratic election and now moving on to tighten voting rules in certain ways, and he thinks that Republicans are feeling outnumbered and giving up on democracy. Are you?

CARTER: I don't - look; I'm the eternal optimist, and I try to see the best in everything. I do know that there are a number of Republicans who are very concerned. I had a meeting this morning with one of my strongest supporters and longtime supporter, and that person was very concerned about the future and very concerned about the future of our party but of the future of our country. And that's why what the Legislature - what the Georgia state Legislature is doing right now is extremely, extremely important.

INSKEEP: Republican officials maintain they are pushing to change voter laws at the urging of Republican voters. Those voters are following the lead of the ex-president, who is still a dominant figure in the party. He's the president who tried for months to overturn a democratic election but was still welcomed to speak at a conservative political conference over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.