Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, has publicly committed to spending at least $10 million to “secure and strengthen state election systems.” And guidelines sent out earlier this year by the Heritage Foundation — including extending identification requirements to absentee voting and barring third-party groups from collecting voters’ absentee ballots — have emerged in bills now racing through the Legislature in Georgia and other statehouses.
Organizations ranging from the libertarian-leaning advocacy group FreedomWorks to the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List also have jumped into the voting rights battle this year.
The involvement of national groups shows that efforts to restrict voting in dozens of states “are not a coincidence,” said Hillary Holley, organizing director of the Georgia-based voting rights group Fair Fight Action. “This is a strategic imperative that’s well-funded.”
The Republican-controlled House in Georgia is slated to vote Thursday on a package of voting changes that include limiting ballot drop boxes, requiring identification for absentee ballots and making it a misdemeanor to give food or soft drinks to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots.
Officials with Heritage Action say roughly 20,000 of its activists are working on the ground in the state to encourage its passage.
Lawmakers in the Peach State are expected to take final action on the measures next week before adjourning. That puts Georgia on track to become the second Republican-controlled state this year to pass major legislation clamping down on ballot access. Earlier this month, Iowa passed its own restrictions, including cutting down the number of days available for early voting.
In all, more than 40 states were considering bills that include voting restrictions as of mid-February, according to the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Since then, more have joined in.
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers in Michigan — another presidential battleground — introduced a package of 39 election bills. They include new voter ID requirements and a ban on prepaid postage for absentee ballots.
The leaders of Republican groups say they have joined the fray because worries about election fraud have become an animating force for conservative activists in the wake of the 2020 elections. Last year saw a dramatic increase in the use of mail-in voting, ballot drop boxes and other tools to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
Turnout surged to record levels, helping Democrats take the White House and the US Senate majority.
Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly made false claims that widespread voter fraud contributed to his defeat last November, and Republican lawmakers have cited an erosion of public confidence as a key reason they are racing to tighten voting laws.
“If voters don’t have trust in our elections, then voting turnout will be suppressed,” Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action, said in an email to CNN. She said her group will “spend whatever it takes to reach our goals.”
Ken Cuccinelli, who helped run the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, now oversees the Election Transparency Initiative — a joint effort of The Susan B. Anthony List and another group focused on social issues, American Principles Project. His initiative has a roughly $5 million budget and its goals include stopping a sweeping elections and campaign finance bill Democrats hope to advance in the US Senate.
“Why is a pro-life and social conservative group engaging in this space?” Cuccinelli said in an interview this week. “The sort of simple answer is: Our members are effectively demanding it.”
“Other groups are seeing the same thing,” he said. “They are having members who are asking the question: ‘Why should I give you any money? Why should I knock on doors? Why should I write my congressman when these elections are moving in the direction of being a sham?’ “
Cuccinelli argues that congressional Democrats are trying to expand voting in ways that are unpopular with Americans, such as allowing voters to sign an affidavit, rather than presenting identification to vote.
Other Republican organizations that have launched new voting initiatives include the Republican National Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee. Honest Elections Project, a conservative group launched to work on voting issues, has issued its own list of “best practices” for elections that include more photo identification.
Honest Elections’ director, Jason Snead, a former Heritage policy analyst, said no evidence “has yet to be produced” showing widespread fraud that would have changed the 2020 election results. But he said that shouldn’t stop states from pursuing safeguards.
“We do not live in a country, thankfully, where we see a lot of bank robberies going on,” Snead said. “But every bank in the country still has security systems in place, and they are not going to get rid of them.”
Fighting voting rights package in Congress
The groups are fighting on a dual track.
Even as GOP lawmakers work to help advance bills at the state level, national Republican organizations are waging an aggressive campaign against the so-called For the People Act, a far-reaching congressional bill that would bring sweeping change to the ways in which elections are conducted and funded.
The bill, which has passed the Democratic-controlled House and is under consideration in the Senate, would effectively establish a federal floor on voting procedures — requiring, for instance, 15 days of early voting, prepaid postage on absentee ballots and voter registration on the same day as the election.
Progressive groups, which also plan to plow millions into the fight to support the Senate bill, describe the legislation as potentially their last chance to preserve voting rights as Republican lawmakers race to erect more barriers to the ballot at the state level.
Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, cast the Senate measure as federal overreach. “This legislation would forcibly rewrite the election laws of all 50 states,” McConnell said during a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Right now, Democrats lack the votes to change Senate rules to eliminate the 60-vote threshold required to overcome a filibuster on the legislation. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the only Democrat not to sign on to the voting bill in the Senate, and the conservative Democrat is a leading proponent of preserving the filibuster.
FreedomWorks plans a “multi-seven-figure” campaign on voting issues that will include keeping pressure on Democrats such as Manchin to retain the filibuster, according to FreedomWorks spokesman Peter Vicenzi.
Over the weekend, activists tied to two of the conservative groups at the forefront of voting battles — FreedomWorks and Heritage Action — staged a rally outside the West Virginia State Capitol, urging Manchin to stay the course.