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The Fight For Voting Rights In 2021

States have introduced a wave of bills that would restrict to the right to vote.

This originally appeared in Seattle Times.

The lies that drove the U.S. Capitol insurrection have new life in bills in 33 state legislatures so far this year. We found that more than 160 bills introduced at the state level would restrict voters’ access to the ballot — well over four times as many compared to roughly this time last year. The legislation springs from the same myth told over and over by former President Donald Trump: that our elections are rigged through widespread voter fraud perpetrated especially by Black and brown Americans. That story is false, it is dangerous, and laws inspired by it have no place in this country. All they do is place obstacles between Americans and their constitutional right to vote.

Many of the new bills interfering with the vote would roll back advances in access to the ballot that states put into place temporarily due to the pandemic. Particularly after an election that broke turnout records despite the coronavirus, it seems odd to then impose limits on the policies that made it possible. Moreover, the alleged rationale for attacking vote by mail — large-scale fakery — was thoroughly debunked in court after court.

But nearly half of restrictive bills introduced this year seek to cut back mail voting. Some bills would place limits on who can vote by mail. Others would make it harder to obtain, complete and cast mail ballots.

Two of those bills come from Washington state, despite having had all-mail voting since 2012. Republican lawmakers put forward two bills to curb or end all-mail voting and require voters to affirmatively request absentee ballots. Senate Bill 5143, sponsored by state Sens. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and HB 1377 would erect new barriers for voters seeking to cast their ballots by mail, all in the name of promoting “free and fair elections” and in response to purportedly “credible allegations of voter fraud, ballot tampering, and foreign interference.” But Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman has said the state has “seen a very low incidence of any kind of voter fraud.” And the 2020 general election was one of the most secure elections in American history.

Washington is also among states where lawmakers are proposing new voter ID measures, requiring voters provide photo identification to cast their ballots. Given the partisan breakdown in Washington’s state government, it’s unlikely that this or the mail voting proposals will become law.

But elsewhere, voting rights aren’t as safe. Voter ID laws — an all-too-common form of voter suppression — remain a popular tool for restricting access to the ballot box. Ten states that currently do not impose photo ID requirements have introduced bills to mandate voters present identification at the polls to cast a regular ballot.

Lawmakers in at least a dozen states are also pushing more aggressive purging of voter rolls. Voter purges, the often-flawed process of deleting names from the voter rolls, have increased substantially since 2013, according to a recent Brennan Center study. When they are conducted without adequate safeguards in place, purges frequently result in eligible voters being improperly thrown off the rolls. The increase has been greater in jurisdictions with a history of race discrimination at the polls. So far in 2021, 12 states have introduced 21 different bills that would expand voter roll purges.

The policies like those mentioned above fall most heavily on voters of color. False claims of voter fraud, and the measures that purport to counter it, are fundamentally intertwined with racist attempts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of voters of color. Recent calls to overturn results in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit — cities with large Black and brown populations — were less dog whistle than bull horn. And while the use of arbitrary Jim Crow-era “tests,” like demands that voters count jelly beans in a jar, are now illegal, policies like voter ID requirements and voting bans applied to people with past criminal convictions continue to disproportionately keep voters of color from the ballot box.

But even as restrictive voting bills advance in some states, elsewhere lawmakers are moving to increase voter participation. Taking a cue from policies that were implemented temporarily to facilitate safe voting during the pandemic, state legislators have proposed more than 540 laws to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots — that is nearly triple the number at about this time last year. These bills would expand eligibility to vote by mail, increase early voting opportunities and authorize ballot drop boxes, among other improvements to voting access.

To be sure, a good portion of these pro-voter reforms have been introduced in traditionally progressive states like New York, New Jersey — and yes, Washington. But a significant number are in states with histories of voter suppression, including Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. 

Momentum continues nationwide in support of restoring voting rights to individuals with past convictions. Last year, Iowa ended its categorical lifetime ban on voting for those with felony convictions (it was the last state in the nation with such a draconian policy) and California restored the right to vote to persons convicted of felonies who are on parole. This year, 19 states have introduced bills to restore voting rights or ease felony disenfranchisement policies. That includes Washington House Bill 1078 and Senate Bill 5086, a pair of companion bills to restore voting rights to individuals when they return to their communities.

What’s clear from the early weeks of state legislative sessions is that our lawmakers see voting as a high priority, many of them seeking change to help the people of their state participate in democracy but many others looking to suppress the vote based on racist lies. After an attempted insurrection that sought to overturn the will of tens of millions of voters and undermined the American example of peaceful transition of power, it’s high time to put the voter fraud lie to bed for good.