Seizing on former President Donald Trump‘s lies about widespread voter fraud, Republicans in statehouses across the country last year enacted a series of new laws limiting access to mail-in voting, imposing new identification requirements, narrowing early voting options and more. More legislation that would tack on additional restrictions is already under consideration in some states this year.
Democrats had long pinned their hopes of stopping that avalanche of restrictive voting laws on Capitol Hill, where the party hoped to use its House and Senate majorities to approve national voting rights legislation that would override those state laws. But Senate Democrats’ failure on Wednesday to change Senate rules to advance two major voting rights measures has all but erased Democrats’ hopes of federal intervention in time for this year’s elections.
Progressive and pro-voting rights groups vowed to continue fighting after the Senate’s vote failed Wednesday night.
“We are at a moment of reckoning in America. The Senate failed our democracy tonight,” said Eric Holder, the US attorney general during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
“Anything short of protecting the right to vote is a death sentence for democracy. This fight is far from over,” said Derrick Johnson, the NAACP president.
“This battle is not over,” said Voto Latino President Maria Teresa Kumar. “I remain hopeful that we will be able to enact legislation to preserve our democracy and restore faith in the electoral system — with or without Republican support.”
However, voting rights experts warned that the Senate’s failure to advance federal protections for voters would only lead to a continued push by Republican state lawmakers to restrict access to the ballot box.
“If Congress cannot act because of a broken Senate, and federal courts refuse to protect voting rights, then states will have an open invitation to abuse the rights of their own people. It is folly to think that these laws in the states are as bad as it can get,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
What is happening at the state level?
Republicans with full control of state government in several presidential battleground states — including Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona — imposed restrictive new elections laws in 2021. In the last year, 19 states passed 34 laws that restrict voting in some way, according to an analysis by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.
Whether the new voting restrictions will depress turnout — and if so, among what populations — will be tested in this year’s midterms.
Already, there are signs that the laws enacted in 2021 are affecting elections — including in Texas, which kicks off the 2022 election season with its March 1 Democratic and Republican primaries, with the early voting window opening on February 14.
Election officials in Harris County, Travis County and Bexar County say they are rejecting a high volume of mail-in ballot applications for the March 1 primary. The counties include Houston, Austin and San Antonio, respectively.
Under the new voting law, voters must include either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their applications. Those numbers are then matched against voters’ records. For a voter to be approved for a mail-in ballot, the numbers have to be the same.
However, not every voter remembers which number they gave when they initially registered to vote, leading to the application rejections.
Are there more new laws on the way?
The GOP’s effort to appease Trump by imposing new laws that make it harder to vote is continuing, and in some places accelerating, in 2022.
In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers are considering a proposal to dissolve the Wisconsin Elections Commission, an election agency overseen by a bipartisan board, and transfer its duties to the secretary of state.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos tapped a partisan former state Supreme Court justice, Michael Gableman, to conduct a review of the 2020 election, and has asked for Gableman’s recommendations this winter.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking GOP lawmakers to approve $6 million for a special police force to oversee elections — a proposal that elections experts say could lead to the intimidation of voters and organizers.
“This will facilitate the faithful enforcement of election laws and will provide Floridians with the confidence that their vote will count,” DeSantis said in his State of the State speech earlier this month.
The actions of DeSantis and Republicans in Florida have led Democrats there to plead for federal intervention.
“Florida has seen a disturbing rise in partisan efforts at voter suppression,” the state’s Democratic congressional delegation wrote to US Attorney General Merrick Garland in a letter last week.
In Virginia, days after Gov. Glenn Youngkin and a new GOP legislative majority were inaugurated, Republicans in the statehouse introduced at least 20 bills that would limit mail-in voting through measures such as removing drop boxes, limiting the time frame for mail-in voting, adding ID requirements, prohibiting people without a reason from voting by mail and more.
The proposals come after a 2021 election in which 1.2 million of the nearly 3.3 million ballots cast came by mail — and Republicans won up and down the ballot in a state that has in recent years increasingly favored Democrats.
Is there anything to be done in Washington?
The failure of congressional Democrats to advance the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has effectively ended hopes of implementing national standards around election procedures that could have blocked some of the most restrictive new GOP laws.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is working on another election-related overhaul.
They could rewrite an obscure 1887 law known as the Electoral Count Act that lays forth the process for certifying states’ Electoral College votes. That overhaul could include changing the vice president’s role after Trump attempted to convince former Vice President Mike Pence to reject the Electoral College votes of some states that Biden had won.
Biden’s Department of Justice has taken steps to fight the restrictive voting laws in Florida, Georgia and Texas in court.
However, after the Supreme Court undid much of the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 ruling — and with conservatives now dominating the court — it’s unclear whether there are legal avenues to block any new state laws.
In a speech earlier this month, Garland, the attorney general, vowed that “the Department of Justice will continue to do all it can to protect voting rights with the enforcement powers we have.”
But he urged Congress to pass legislation that would expand voting protections. That legislation now has no path forward.