‘Textbook voter suppression’: How Trump’s stolen election lies are shaping the future of democracy

Republicans in 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills restricting voting rights, underscoring urgency in Congress to pass sweeping elections legislation, Alex Woodward reports

Thursday 04 March 2021 00:19 GMT
Demonstrators protest a sweeping elections bill to place greater restriction on voting in Georgia, one of more than 40 states where Republicans are proposing new restrictions on voting rights following 2020 elections.
Demonstrators protest a sweeping elections bill to place greater restriction on voting in Georgia, one of more than 40 states where Republicans are proposing new restrictions on voting rights following 2020 elections. (REUTERS)
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“We are legislating on lies.”

On the floor of Georgia’s House of Representatives on 1 March, state Democratic Rep Bee Nguyen warned her colleagues that the bill in front of them – a 66-page, Republican-backed proposal to drastically roll back voting access across the state – followed a months-long campaign from Donald Trump and his GOP allies to undermine millions of voters with baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and a “stolen” election.

“Lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories that have gone unchecked by many members of this body who stayed silent,” she said. “Members of this body aided and abetted a deliberate misinformation campaign to sow seeds of doubt among Georgia voters with absolutely no facts or evidence.”

The bill would, among other things, cut mail-in voting and early voting access, strip elections oversight from the state’s Secretary of State, and limit voting access that would disproportionately target Black voters.

After a massive voter registration and enfranchisement effort among voting rights groups in the state, Joe Biden defeated the incumbent, and voters elected two Democratic senators, shifting the balance of power in Congress and affirming Mr Trump’s ejection from the White House.

Nearly four months after Election Day, after two hours of debate, Georgia’s House Bill 531 passed by a vote of 97-72.

Georgia isn’t alone. In the weeks following Mr Trump’s election loss, Republicans in 43 states introduced more than 250 bills restricting voting rights, limiting ballot access or adding barriers to voting, from adding restrictive voter ID laws to preventing voters from requesting mail-in ballots after a spike in absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Voting rights advocates and civil rights groups say the former president’s persistent lie that the election was stolen from him, and his legal team’s attempts to overturn millions of Americans’ votes, has emboldened Republican state lawmakers across the US to do what Mr Trump and his attorneys could not.

“It was the principal incitement at the January 6 insurrection, and unfortunately they didn’t even catch their breath,” said Norm Eisen, outside counsel for the Voter Protection Program, a nonpartisan election advocacy organisation.

On 6 January, a group of congressional Republicans objected to the certification of Electoral College results on “completely spurious grounds, and it has continued since, as if the insurrection never happened,” Mr Eisen told The Independent.

“That has resulted in these hundreds of unneeded and unfounded pieces of legislation that are being proposed all over the country,” he said. “Totally divorced from reality. It’s the opposite of free and fair elections. These bills would hamper and suppress free and fair elections.”

The former president’s Justice Department and campaign found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and nearly all of the more than 60 lawsuits filed by his campaign were withdrawn, dismissed or dropped entirely by the campaign itself, while his attorneys have faced libel lawsuits from voting machine companies targeted by their conspiracy theories. Yet Republicans have continued to litigate the results and procedures of the 2020 election.

“It’s almost a religion of sorts – it almost doesn’t matter how much proof you put forward,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Those words are continuing to be said but I think the reality is clear. It’s really just a cover to adopt restrictive requirements to prevent certain voters from voting.”

GOP claims of voting “irregularities” and concerns over election “integrity” mask Mr Trump’s claims at the heart of their objections “that have been tested again and again in the courts,” Mr Eisen told The Independent.

“But his enablers are following him at the federal and state level, with these voter suppression bills that are based on the big lie that there was something wrong with the 2020 election,” he said.

The war on voting

More than 120 bills across the US would restrict mail-in ballot access, after more than 65 million ballots were cast by mail in the 2020 presidential election, nearly half of all ballots cast, as states expanded absentee voting amid the coronavirus pandemic to avoid crowding at the polls.

Four different proposals in Pennsylvania would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, despite it receiving bipartisan support in 2019 and widespread, bipartisan use in 2020 elections.

Republicans introduced a similar proposal in Georgia, along with an end to automatic voter registration in the state, which increased the number of voters by more than 1.7 million since it was implemented in 2016.

A bill in Arizona proposes purging people from a list to receive mail-in ballots every election. That list has roughly 200,000 voters. Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced a similar measure.

Another Arizona measure would also require mail-in ballots to be notarised.

One state Republican also proposed that state lawmakers – not the state’s voters – determine the outcome of elections to decide among themselves which candidate receives the state’s Electoral College votes.

The omnibus voting measure in Georgia proposes setting the same dates and times for the early voting period in all counties, which could undercut “souls to the polls” get-out-the-vote initiatives popular with Black churches.

At least 66 bills across the US have also proposed requiring photo identification to vote, alarming voting rights and civil rights groups over fears that they would disproportionately target Black voters. Roughly 21 million Americans do not have government-issued photo ID; roughly a quarter of Black Americans of voting age do not have one, compared to 8 per cent of white Americans, according to the ACLU.

A bill in New Hampshire would reject student IDs as a legitimate form of ID at the polls. State lawmakers in New Hampshire and Georgia also proposed that voters include a photocopy of their photo ID with their absentee ballot applications – as well as their completed mail-in ballot.

The list goes on.

Proponents argue they want to ensure voter “confidence” and promote election “security” after raising “legitimate” questions about the 2020 election and its integrity. Their opponents argue they are merely an attempt to steal elections before they’ve even begun, while legitimising the false premise of a stolen election.

No more ‘quiet parts’

The threats are not new – Republicans have long held, and said explicitly, that mail-in voting and expanding voting rights would hurt their chances of winning elections.

“What we’re seeing right now is an unfortunate and fairly obvious response to the results of the presidential election, and in Georgia, the senate elections,” Ms Lakin told The Independent. “But it’s part of a much larger pattern in US history of making voting an exclusive franchise, and fencing out Black and brown voters.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to obtain permission from the courts or federal government before implementing new voting laws in order to prevent discrimination at the polls.

The decision rocked voting advocacy and civil rights groups and saw scores of election-related bills in state legislatures.

In 2015, Republican state Rep Barry Fleming of Georgia challenged the voting eligibility of nearly 20 per cent of residents in Sparta, a predominantly Black city in Hancock County. Nearly all of those voters were Black. He sent law enforcement to issue them a summons to appear at elections board hearings or risk being removed from voter rolls.

That year, voter participation dropped, and the city elected a white candidate for mayor for the first time in decades.

In May 2020, with the presidential election still months away, the former president said it would be “rigged” against him if he were to lose. In June, he said the election would be the “scandal of our times”, called it “inaccurate and fraudulent” and the “greatest election disaster in history”. Not a single ballot had yet been cast.

Republicans have said fairly explicitly that expanding mail-in voting options would hurt their chances of winning elections.

In March 2020, Mr Trump condemned a coronavirus relief proposal from Democrats that included funding for vote-by-mail efforts.

“They had things – levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he told fox News.

“If we don’t do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country,” Senator Lindsey Graham said in November.

The 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, the nation’s largest right-wing summit, devoted at least seven panels to re-litigating or amplifying false claims about the 2020 presidential election, capped with a speech from the former president himself.

Former congressman and Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz delivered remarks on “The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It” directed at congressional voting rights legislation, which he claimed “has nothing to do with ‘for the people’ and everything to do with winning elections and securing elections” for Democrats, as he summarised a report from right-wing think-tank the Heritage Foundation.

“Don’t fall into the trap that liberals want to go, which is federalising this,” Mr Chaffetz said, urging Republicans to “fight it in your own community” against election reforms.

“That’s where conservatives need to be organised,” he said.

Now leading a “committee on voting integrity”, Rep Fleming of Georgia said his omnibus proposal will “begin to bring back the confidence of our voters back into our election system.”

One of the more controversial elements of his proposal would set the same dates and times for early voting in all counties, in an attempt to “bring more uniformity to our state and less confusion,” Mr Fleming said, despite pushback from elections officials.

The proposal would create more confusion and discriminate against Black voters who rely on “souls to the polls” events, Democratic Rep Calvin Smyre said.

Black voters constitute roughly 30 per cent of Georgia’s electorate, but made up nearly 37 per cent of Sunday voters during the early-voting period in 2020, according to voting rights group Fair Fight Action.

Rep Jasmine Clarke called the bill “textbook voter suppression”.

“This bill reduces, restricts and limits every single aspect of our elections,” she said.

The Supreme Court is now mulling whether to review a provision in the Voting Rights Act that prohibits laws that result in racial discrimination, following a challenge from the Democratic National Committee against two voting provisions of an Arizona law.

A lawyer representing the Republican Party in the nation’s high court on 2 March defended the state’s policy of tossing out ballots if they arrive at the wrong precinct.

“It puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” he said. “Politics is a zero-sum game.”

“They’re not even trying to be subtle with this anymore,” Ms Lakin said.

These simultaneous efforts – a nationwide attempt to restrict voting access, a congressional push to expand it, and a Supreme Court decision that could undermine voting rights for Americans of colour – has set a powder keg for American democracy ahead of 2022 mid-term elections.

With those critical elections in sight, Republican lawmakers now are hoping to redraw the boundaries of electoral districts, further carving out their district maps to favour Republican victories.

New Hampshire’s Republican Party chair Stephen Stepanek told his GOP colleagues that he can “guarantee” a Republican candidate will win a US House seat.

“Elections have consequences,” he told the news outlet Seacoastonline. “Republicans are controlling redistricting.”

‘We have to find a way’

While state houses deliberate voting restrictions, state lawmakers in at least 43 states have also proposed more than 700 bills to expand voting access.

But the debate in legislatures across the US has underscored voter advocates’ urgency to pass HR 1, the For The People Act, a 791-page bill in Congress that would represent the largest voting rights measure in the US since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

HR 1 is a “once in a generation opportunity to expand voting rights” to “fully modernise American elections and make sure our elections live up to the promise of American democracy,” Mr Eisen said.

The legislation would enshrine some voting access efforts in place in several states, including automatic voter registration and same-day registration. It also restores voting rights to formerly incarcerated people and seeks to eliminate partisan gerrymandering and the influence of dark money in politics.

Following the bill’s introduction in 2019 and subsequent rejection by a then-GOP-dominated Senate under Mitch McConnell, the measure was re-introduced in 2021. But without significant Republican support in the upper chamber, the measure is likely to fail.

“If Mitch McConnell is ready to supply 10 Republicans … that would be terrific,” US Rep John Sarbanes, who sponsored the legislation, told reporters on 2 March. “If the will is there, we have to find a way.”

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