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Analysis

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.