States Launch Attacks on Voting Rights: How Can We Protect Our Democracy?

States Launch Attacks on Voting Rights: How Can We Protect Our Democracy?
A 2014 march against voter suppression. (Susan Melkisethian)

“I feel strongly that people should choose their representatives, and not vice versa,” said state Rep. Allison Dahle (D-N.C.) on an April 7 press call. But what is in theory a basic tenant of democracy can no longer be taken for granted.

In several states, Republican-controlled legislatures are launching attacks on voting rights, establishing barriers to access under the guise of “election security.” These laws take many forms—thwarting automatic voter registration and mail-in ballots; instituting strict voter ID laws, which disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, low-income people, women and young people; preventing third-party registration; even criminalizing providing food and water to those waiting in line—but they all work together to discourage as many people as possible from voting, allowing legislators to essentially cherry-pick the electorate in their own favor.

States Launch Attacks on Voting Rights: How Can We Protect Our Democracy?
As of March 24, legislators have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states.  (RepresentWomen)

The suppressive bills are especially prevalent in battleground states like Georgia and Arizona, where minor changes in the size of the voting public can (and did) cause major shifts in the election results. These tactics paint a clear picture: a minority party, fearful of losing its grip on power.

State Legislatures Launch Attacks on Voting Rights in 47 States

Georgia

Georgia’s SB 202—signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp (R) on Thursday, Mar. 25—garnered the most national attention, resulting in interference from businesses like Atlanta-based Delta and the MLB, which pulled its July all-star game from the capital city.

The law tightens voter ID requirements, criminalizes groups that provide food and water to those waiting in line to vote, and restricts the use of ballot drop boxes to business hours. In Atlanta, the number of boxes will drop from 92 to 23, according to state Rep. Erica Thomas (D-Ga.)—despite Kemp having proudly voted via drop box himself.

“They are looking for a solution to a problem that’s not there,” Thomas said. “For them, it is not about getting rid of fraudulent votes, it’s about getting rid of Democratic votes”—a reference to the fact that a growing percentage of the Georgia electorate is made up of people of color, who historically lean Democratic.

Latinos and Asian Americans make up a growing share of Georgia’s registered voters, while the White share has steadily declined since 2008
People of color are a growing percentage of registered voters in Georgia. (Pew Research)

But Georgia is only one of 47 states where legislators have introduced restrictive voting provisions, according to Brennan Center data from April 1.

Thomas and Dahle were joined by fellow progressive state Reps. Athena Salman (D-Ariz.) and Darrin Camilleri (D-Mich.) for a virtual event hosted by State Innovation Exchange (SiX)—a forum to discuss the onslaught of restrictive state voting bills across the country, following the 2020 election.

The representatives firmly believe that the increase in voter turnout among marginalized demographics in 2020—a result of hard work by advocacy groups like Nse Ufot’s New Georgia Project and Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight, which registered 500,000 and 800,000 new voters, respectively, in Georgia alone—prompted backlash in the form of these suppressive bills.

“By these numbers, you would think we should be celebrating. We should be providing voters with more resources to get out and vote all over Georgia. But instead of celebrating, we are trying to defeat bills that are popping up trying to stop people from voting,” Thomas said.

Michigan

The nationwide attack on voting rights generated political ammunition as a result of former President Donald Trump’s unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud.

“In Michigan, we were ground zero for the Big Lie,” said Camilleri. “They fomented lie after lie to try to discredit the votes that took place in our state.”

Those lies are inflicting tangible harm on Michigan voters, especially in predominantly Black cities like Detroit, which saw record high turnout. As of March 24, Republican state senators had already proposed 39 bills relating to elections, including stricter voter ID requirements and bans on online absentee ballot applications. State Sen. Erika Geiss (D), said the bills “put lipstick on Jim Crow” and were racist. 

Camilleri stressed that Michiganders cannot let their guard down simply because Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer has veto power. In fact, there’s not much Whitmer can do to stop the bills from progressing, due a unique loophole in state law. If Republicans collect a specified number of signatures from the public, they can pass the bill within the legislature, foregoing gubernatorial approval entirely. And the clause’s use would not be without precedent.

“They’ve attacked workers, they’ve attacked paid sick leave, and they’re looking to do it again with our democracy. So we need to be on alert,” warned Camilleri.

Arizona

Arizona—another state that went for President Biden and sent two Democratic senators to Congress 2020—is uniquely positioned given its 3.2 million-member early voting list. Although absentee voting was fairly popular in the state even before the pandemic, and across both parties, Trump’s Twitter rampages seem to have prompted sudden concern regarding the security of their electoral process.

If the handful of bills currently on the table make it through the Arizona legislature, millions are at risk of being purged from the permanent early voting list, should they skip voting in consecutive cycles. And the state’s conservative majority is determined to make that a reality before their next election. In fact, according to Salman, the same auditing firm that is attempting to retroactively undermine the 2020 election results in Michigan was recently hired by Arizona Senate Republicans to do the same.

“The Republicans have a very slim majority. By no means do these Republicans have a mandate. Each chamber in the [Arizona] legislature, they only have a one-member majority, that’s it. And yet here we find ourselves, where they are still governing from the most extremist policies,” Salman said. “They’re working very hard to make sure that turnout never happens again.”


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Federal Protections Can Still Override State Legislation

States Launch Attacks on Voting Rights: How Can We Protect Our Democracy?
A march for voting rights in New York City on December 10, 2011. (Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

Over 360 bills restricting voting access have been introduced in state legislatures this year. But just one bill in the U.S. Congress could protect citizens in all 50 states.

H.R. 1/S. 1—the For the People Act—passed the House last month, and includes several provisions that aim to standardize voting rights in each state. It would establish automatic voter-registration systems, guarantee same-day registration and 15 days of early voting, and prevent gerrymandered congressional districts by outsourcing to independent commissions for approval.

Beyond voting procedure, it would increase donor transparency for PACs, establish ethics codes for Supreme Court justices, and require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns (a clause which perhaps would have been deemed frivolous just a few years ago).

“Progress in the right to vote is a hallmark of this nation. Our move to equality, our move to fairness has been inexorable,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Chair of the Senate Rules Committee Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) boiled the bill down to three major components: “making voting easier, getting big money out of politics, and strengthening ethics rules.”

“We know that this is going to be the fight of our generation, where Michiganders and Americans across the country have to again fight for our right to vote,” Camilleri said. “That’s why we need H.R. 1 to pass, so that these attacks at state legislatures cannot happen anymore.”

And as crucial as H.R. 1 would be to warding off attacks in Michigan, its passage would hold even more significance in a state like Georgia, where residents are already bound to see a much less inclusive election in 2022 if there is no change at the federal level.

“Because [SB 202] is already signed into law, we are now going to fight it in court. But we need the people of America to urge your Senators to pass H.R. 1 and H.R. 4,” said Thomas.

H.R. 4—the John R. Lewis Voting Right Act—passed the House during the 116th Congress, and died without a Senate vote. It is yet to be reintroduced, despite regaining media attention in response to recent attacks on voting rights. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), however, intends to propose it in the coming months, having had time to build an evidentiary record.

The bill “establishes new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changes to voting practices in these areas may take effect.”

Harkening back to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it would essentially reinstate a provision that required approval before certain states could implement new voting restrictions. The provision, Section 5, was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, leading to 1,688 poll closures.

“We need to figure a way, and I work towards this everyday of my life, to make voting important to everyone,” said Dahle. “Because squelching the voice of anyone is not helping us get to a better democracy.”

Take Action

Although democracy should not be partisan, the Senate remains divided along party lines when it comes to voting rights. Contact your senators and urge them to vote in favor of the For the People Act, and—once it is reintroduced—H.R. 4.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) composed a guide for contacting your representatives:

  • What can I do? Make sure this critical bill does not end up in the legislative graveyard by contacting your Senator, voicing your support and urging them to take up and vote YES on H.R.1.   
  • How do I do it? Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and be connected to your Senator’s office. Here is also a directory of current Senators, where you can find their websites and ways to contact them online.  
  • What do I say? I am calling to urge Senator [NAME] to vote in favor of H.R.1, the For the People Act. This is a critical step needed to reform our democracy, endvoter suppression efforts and ensure that voting rights are protected for ALL constituents of [STATE]. 

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About

Sophie Dorf-Kamienny is a freshman at Tufts University. She was a Ms. editorial fellow and assistant editor of social media. You can find her on Twitter at @sophie_dk_.