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Election Denial Rhetoric from Sponsors of State Voter Suppression Legislation

Brennan Center research finds that the state legislators behind the recent wave of voter suppression and election subversion bills are also supporters of the conspiracy theory that President Biden did not win the 2020 election.

Published: April 13, 2022

For more than a decade, the Bren­nan Center has tracked and repor­ted on a trend of new laws restrict­ing access to voting popping up in state legis­latures. Since the begin­ning, much of this restrict­ive legis­la­tion was justi­fied by refer­ence to base­less claims of voter fraud. The volume, intens­ity, and absurdity of those claims grew to new, outsized propor­tions in 2020 as Pres­id­ent Trump and his support­ers conjured up claims that the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was rigged.

On the heels of these lies, our nation exper­i­enced a dramatic spike in the intro­duc­tion and passage of state bills restrict­ing access to voting, as well as bills that would make it easier for partis­ans to meddle in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion.

This is no coin­cid­ence. Our analysis of the public comments made by spon­sors of restrict­ive voting and elec­tion subver­sion bills suggest that the unpre­ced­en­ted legis­lat­ive push in 2021 was driven at least in part by conspir­acy theor­ies ques­tion­ing the legit­im­acy of the 2020 elec­tion.

To assess the connec­tion between claims about the 2020 elec­tion with voter suppres­sion and elec­tion sabot­age legis­la­tion enacted in 2021, the Bren­nan Center reviewed public state­ments from the chief spon­sors and co-spon­sors of the 13 most restrict­ive new voting laws enacted last year. foot­note1_syl0yla 1 AL H.B. 285; AR H.B. 1112; AZ S.B. 1485; FL S.B. 90; GA S.B. 202; IA SF 413; MT H.B. 176; MT S.B. 319; NH S.B. 31; TX H.B. 3920; TX S.B. 1; TX S.B. 1111; WY H.B. 75. We did not conduct a similar review with respect to legis­la­tion with more minor voting restric­tions or with respect to mixed legis­la­tion that included both provi­sions that restric­ted voting access and those that improved it.  We also reviewed public state­ments concern­ing all 25 bills that would make voting harder in Geor­gia foot­note2_pumls8q 2 GA S.B. 202; GA H.B. 227; GA H.B. 267; GA H.B. 270; GA H.B. 325; GA H.B. 365; GA H.B. 366; GA H.B. 537; GA H.B. 494; GA H.B. 507; GA H.B. 512; GA H.B. 531; GA S.B. 175; GA S.B. 177; GA S.B. 178; GA S.B. 29; GA S.B. 67; GA S.B. 68; GA S.B. 69; GA S.B. 70; GA S.B. 71; GA S.B. 73; GA S.B. 241; GA S.B. 232; GA S.B. 325.  and all 31 such bills in Pennsylvania, regard­less of whether those bills passed. foot­note3_212lchg 3 PA H.B. 143; PA H.B. 25; PA H.B. 470; PA HCR 8; PA HR 7; PA SCR 10; PA SR 8; PA SR 9; PA H.B. 195; PA S.B. 515; PA S.B. 322; PA H.B. 853; PA H.B. 1334; PA H.B. 1300; PA S.B. 402; PA S.B. 422; PA H.B. 1270; PA S.B. 914; PA H.B. 1499; PA H.B. 31; PA H.B. 30; PA SJR 735; PA S.B. 784; PA H.B. 1706; PA HJR 1717; PA H.B. 1703; PA H.B. 1800; PA SJR 884; PA S.B. 878; PA HJR 1596; PA H.B. 1971.  These states saw some of the most aggress­ive efforts to restrict access to voting and exper­i­enced extens­ive false alleg­a­tions relat­ing to the 2020 elec­tion.

In total, we reviewed state­ments relat­ing to 68 bills. foot­note4_i10umly 4 One of the bills, GA S.B. 202, is coun­ted both in the list of the most restrict­ive new laws and in the list of restrict­ive voting bills in Geor­gia.  The state­ments we reviewed include those made in legis­lat­ive proceed­ings, at campaign events, to report­ers, and on social media. We found relev­ant public state­ments from the spon­sors of all but 10 of the bills.

We found that most of the bills had legis­lat­ive spon­sors who publicly ques­tioned the valid­ity of the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. In many cases, the bill’s spon­sors expressly linked the intro­duc­tion of their bills to false claims about the 2020 elec­tion. In the minor­ity of cases where bill spon­sors did not ques­tion the legit­im­acy of the 2020 elec­tion results, many faced a public back­lash from members of their party, which may have pushed them to support restrict­ive voting legis­la­tion. And across all cases, the spon­sors and proponents consist­ently said the purpose of restrict­ive voting bills was to protect against voter fraud and promote elec­tion integ­rity.

The vast major­ity of bills had legis­lat­ive spon­sors who ques­tioned 2020 elec­tion results.

For the vast major­ity of bills for which we found public state­ments, we found that one or more legis­lat­ive spon­sors — and typic­ally the chief spon­sors — publicly rejec­ted or ques­tioned the integ­rity and legit­im­acy of the 2020 elec­tion. While some bill spon­sors did not expressly link their legis­la­tion to their public oppos­i­tion to the 2020 elec­tion results, the broader context suggests that elec­tion deni­al­ism was a signi­fic­ant driv­ing force behind the legis­lat­ive push to restrict access to voting last year.

First, we found that the chief spon­sors of 10 of the 13 new state laws we reviewed publicly ques­tioned the 2020 elec­tion. foot­note5_32lsz3l 5 AL H.B. 285; AR H.B. 1112; GA S.B. 202; IA SF 413; MT H.B. 176; MT S.B. 319; TX H.B. 3920; TX S.B. 1; TX S.B. 1111; WY H.B. 75.  For example, Arkan­sas State Rep. Mark Lowery (R) — the chief spon­sor of AR H.B. 1112, which enhanced voter ID require­ments — said he “believe[s] Donald Trump was elec­ted pres­id­ent” in 2020. He signed a letter asking for audits of the 2020 elec­tion in every state and decer­ti­fic­a­tion of any results declared “prema­turely and inac­cur­ately.” He also said that “in light of what happened in 2020” Arkan­sas needed a “fighter” as secret­ary of state (for which he was running at the time; he has since decided to run for state secret­ary of treas­ury) and that many voter complaints, regard­less of whether they would change the outcome of an elec­tion, consti­tuted “elec­tion fraud or elec­tion impro­pri­ety.”

Simil­arly, Texas Attor­ney General Ken Paxton (R), a prom­in­ent supporter of the monster voter suppres­sion bill TX S.B. 1, has been an outspoken denier of the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion results. He unsuc­cess­fully sued several states in a bid to have the Supreme Court reject their pres­id­en­tial elect­ors on the concocted basis of consti­tu­tional irreg­u­lar­it­ies in their elec­tions. His office subsequently spent 22,000 hours look­ing for fraud in the 2020 elec­tion; the end result was a total of 16 instances of false addresses on regis­tra­tion forms. When TX S.B. 1 came up, Paxton trum­peted the legis­lature’s “efforts for stronger elec­tion integ­rity.”

Second, in Geor­gia, spon­sors of 20 of the 25 restrict­ive voting bills intro­duced last year directly or indir­ectly ques­tioned the outcome of the elec­tion, typic­ally by suggest­ing that the surge in absentee ballots in 2020 was rife with fraud. Of these, 16 were chief spon­sors. foot­note6_7jy9pix 6 GA S.B. 202; GA H.B. 227; GA H.B. 270; GA H.B. 325; GA H.B. 366; GA H.B. 531; GA S.B. 175; GA S.B. 177; GA S.B. 178; GA S.B. 68; GA S.B. 69; GA S.B. 70; GA S.B. 71; GA S.B. 73; GA S.B. 241; GA S.B. 232. Addi­tion­ally, co-spon­sors on GA H.B. 365, GA H.B. 537, GA S.B. 67, and GA S.B. 325 ques­tioned the integ­rity of the 2020 elec­tion.  State Rep. Max Burns (R), chief spon­sor of the omni­bus voter suppres­sion pack­age GA S.B. 202told attendees at a campaign event that in 2020 “a lot of people got multiple [absentee ballot] applic­a­tions. In Rich­mond County there [were] 26,000 absentee ballots cast and there were [an]other 9,000 duplic­ate applic­a­tions reques­ted.” State Rep. Martin Momta­han (R), chief spon­sor of GA H.B. 325, wrote a Face­book post after the 2020 elec­tion declar­ing: “I believe that fraud has occurred in the Novem­ber 2020 General Elec­tion in the State of Geor­gia.” He went on to say that “[d]elib­er­ate actions were taken through­out the last 2 years that made our elec­tions process vulner­able to fraud and abuse.”

State Rep. Barry Flem­ing (R), chair of the Geor­gia House Special Commit­tee on Elec­tion Integ­rity formed in the wake of the 2020 elec­tion, sugges­ted in an op-ed that unre­li­able mail ballots changed the outcome of certain races in 2020. He argued that “Demo­crats [were] rely­ing on the always-suspect absentee ballot­ing process to inch ahead in Geor­gia and other close states” before compar­ing mail ballots to “the shady part of town down near the docks you do not want to wander into because the chance of being shang­haied is signi­fic­ant.” He added: “Expect the Geor­gia Legis­lature to address that in our next session in Janu­ary [2021].” Flem­ing later shep­her­ded GA S.B. 202 through the house, and he was the lead spon­sor on two other bills that restric­ted voting access. foot­note7_35or2ex 7 GA H.B. 270; GA H.B. 531.

Third, in Pennsylvania, spon­sors on 25 of the 31 bills ques­tioned the elec­tion’s integ­rity; 23 were chief spon­sors. foot­note8_ny5qbfz 8 PA H.B. 143; PA H.B. 25; PA HCR 8; PA HR 7; PA SCR 10; PA SR 8; PA SR 9; PA H.B. 195; PA S.B. 515; PA S.B. 322; PA H.B. 853; PA H.B. 1334; PA H.B. 1300; PA S.B. 402; PA S.B. 422; PA H.B. 1499; PA H.B. 30; PA H.B. 31; PA SJR 735; PA S.B. 784; PA HJR 1717; PA H.B. 1800; PA SJR 884; PA S.B. 878; PA HJR 1596. All except PA H.B. 30 and PA H.B. 31 were chief spon­sors.  State Rep. Russ Diamond (R), for instance, wrote a Face­book post alleging that there were “troub­ling discrep­an­cies between the numbers of total votes coun­ted and total numbers of voters who voted in the 2020 General Elec­tion.” He wrote that he believed that 200,000 extra votes were coun­ted and considered “the certi­fic­a­tion of Pennsylvani­a’s elec­tion results [to have been] abso­lutely prema­ture, uncon­firmed, and in error.” Diamond sponsored five bills that would have restric­ted voting access and was the lead spon­sor on four. foot­note9_ypi6jh5 9 Chief spon­sor: PA H.B. 143; PA HCR 8; PA HR 7; PA HJR 1717. Co-spon­sor: PA H.B. 195.

Finally, there is evid­ence that many of the bills for which we did not find public state­ments by spon­sors ques­tion­ing the integ­rity of the 2020 elec­tion still derive from the false claims about the 2020 elec­tion. Five of those bills appear to have been intro­duced by Demo­crats as poten­tial comprom­ises with Repub­lic­ans who were push­ing more restrict­ive voting bills in Pennsylvania. State Sen. Mike Carroll (D), for instance, described his bill PA H.B. 470 as an “olive branch to Repub­lic­ans” that he hoped would “dial things back.”

The remain­ing four include bills that were intro­duced by Repub­lic­ans in Arizona, Flor­ida, and New Hamp­shire that were passed into law and one in Pennsylvania that was not. foot­note10_95b32ay 10 AZ S.B. 1485; FL S.B. 90; NH S.B. 31; PA S.B. 914.  While there were no relev­ant public state­ments from the bill spon­sors, the governor of Flor­ida, a key proponent of an omni­bus voter suppres­sion bill that passed in that state (FL S.B. 90), was outspoken in his denial of the 2020 elec­tion results. He claimed that there are “vote dumps. . . happen­ing a day or two or three days after Elec­tion Night, so you have one candid­ate that has a huge win, and then all of a sudden, fortunes change. . . . It causes people to have no confid­ence in [the] process.” A couple of months later he celeb­rated FL S.B. 90 for making his state “a leader in ballot integ­rity.”

The bill spon­sor who did not ques­tion the 2020 elec­tion in Arizona faced signi­fic­ant public criti­cism from her own party — includ­ing being booed at an elec­tion integ­rity rally head­lined by Trump — as a result. Simil­arly, the bill spon­sor in Pennsylvania who did not ques­tion the 2020 elec­tion now faces a primary chal­lenger reportedly backed by groups who support the claim that Trump won the 2020 elec­tion.

These claims remain base­less, no matter how many offi­cials parrot them. Stud­ies have consist­ently shown that voter fraud is a vanish­ingly rare phenomenon. Elec­tion offi­cials and secur­ity experts uniformly agree that the 2020 elec­tion was one of the most secure in modern history, and elec­tion offi­cials from both sides of the aisle have debunked voter fraud claims.

Many bills had a proponent expressly say their bills respon­ded to (false) claims about the 2020 elec­tion.

Of the bills passed into law and those intro­duced in Geor­gia and Pennsylvania, many had a legis­lat­ive spon­sor expressly say — whether in the legis­lature, in a campaign event or commu­nic­a­tion, or in tradi­tional or social media — they were plan­ning to intro­duce, intro­du­cing, or support­ing a bill because they wanted to address fraud in the 2020 elec­tion. For others, the spon­sors blatantly insinu­ated that their bill would address inven­ted claims of fraud in the 2020 elec­tion.

Bill spon­sors expressly linked their bills to false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 elec­tion in connec­tion with 6 of the 13 bills we reviewed that were enacted into law; in 5 cases, it was the chief spon­sor who made that asser­tion. foot­note11_h5p4734 11 GA S.B. 202; IA SF 413; MT H.B. 176; MT S.B. 319; TX S.B. 1; TX S.B. 1111. All but IA SF 413 involved the chief spon­sor.  In Texas, State Sen. Paul Betten­court (R) cham­pioned TX S.B. 1111. Discuss­ing the bill, he claimed that the “Novem­ber 2020 elec­tion demon­strated the lack of trans­par­ency and lack of integ­rity within the elec­tion process.” Along with six other “elec­tion integ­rity” bills he filed simul­tan­eously, he posited that S.B. 1111 would help “to make sure the prob­lems we faced in 2020 will not happen again.”

Iowa passed an omni­bus voter restric­tion bill in 2021, IA S.F. 413. One spon­sor, State Sen. Jason Schultz (R), turned to innu­endo about the 2020 elec­tion as a justi­fic­a­tion for his spon­sor­ship, reportedly support­ing the bill because it “addresse[d] the contro­versy that the coun­try is going through right now,” such as “shady deal­ings” and people “gam[ing] elec­tions the way they did in cities like Phil­adelphia.”

In Geor­gia, spon­sors said their legis­la­tion was address­ing fraud in the 2020 elec­tion in 9 of 25 cases; all 9 were chief spon­sors. foot­note12_387hbyc 12 GA S.B. 202; GA H.B. 227; GA H.B. 270; GA H.B. 531; GA S.B. 68; GA S.B. 69; GA S.B. 70; GA S.B. 71; GA S.B. 73.  State Sen. Jeff Mullis (R), who sponsored numer­ous restrict­ive voting bills, claimed outright that there was “an egre­gious attemp­ted elec­tion theft by radical social­ists” in 2020 against which he would “continue to lead the fight.” Mullis signed onto Texas Attor­ney General Ken Paxton’s failed lawsuit to inval­id­ate Geor­gi­a’s elect­oral votes. Later, he intro­duced seven bills at once and stated he did so because the “recent General Elec­tion this past Novem­ber [2020] high­lighted a few areas of our state’s elec­tion system that require urgent atten­tion.” Five of these bills would restrict access to voting, accord­ing to the Bren­nan Center’s analysis. foot­note13_bfbxmc6 13 GA S.B. 68; GA S.B. 69; GA S.B. 70; GA S.B. 71; and GA S.B. 73. The Bren­nan Center clas­si­fies GA S.B. 72 and S.B. GA 74 as neut­ral. Mullis separ­ately intro­duced several other restrict­ive bills, includ­ing GA S.B. 175; GA S.B. 177; GA S.B. 178; GA S.B. 241. He also co-sponsored GA S.B. 202; GA S.B. 67; GA S.B. 232; GA S.B. 325.

In Pennsylvania, there were several instances where bill spon­sors insinu­ated a connec­tion between their restrict­ive voting bills and fraud in the 2020 elec­tion. State Sen. Doug Mastri­ano (R) posted a senate memor­andum along­side chief spon­sor State Sen. Patrick Stefano (R) in Janu­ary 2021 in support of PA S.B. 515, which would repeal no-excuse mail voting. In the memo, they asser­ted that the “2020 elec­tion cycle was fraught with public confu­sion and misin­form­a­tion, much of which was centered around mail-in ballots.” The bill, they claimed, would “once again restore confid­ence in our demo­cracy and shine a light into the shadow of doubt that has been cast over Amer­ic­ans’ most demo­cratic process.” Mastri­ano also atten­ded the Janu­ary 6 insur­rec­tion, held hear­ings where Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani spread false claims of voter fraud, attemp­ted to lead a partisan audit of the 2020 elec­tion, and reportedly claimed that he had “seen better elec­tions in Afgh­anistan.”

Pennsylvania State Rep. Seth Grove (R), chair of the House State Govern­ment Commit­tee, authored a letter — signed by 64 state legis­lat­ors, includ­ing Mastri­ano — in Decem­ber 2020 call­ing on the state’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion to reject the state’s elect­oral votes due to purpor­ted wrong­do­ing surround­ing mail-in ballots, count­ing dead­lines, and poll watch­ers. Grove later held 10 hear­ings about the elec­tion and told a reporter that there were “confirmed cases of elec­tion fraud” in 2020. foot­note14_0lfo7e4 14 Grove conceded it was not “this mass amount of fraud. . . . But there was elec­tion fraud.”  It is likely no coin­cid­ence that Grove sponsored five bills that would make voting harder and was the chief spon­sor of a bill that would have added limit­a­tions to mail voting (the governor vetoed it). foot­note15_1hxxu88 15 PA H.B. 1800; PA H.B. 143; PA H.B. 25; PA H.B. 853; PA H.B. 1300 (chief spon­sor).

Poli­cy­makers who did not ques­tion the 2020 elec­tion faced public pres­sure, which may have inspired them to intro­duce or support anti-voter legis­la­tion.

Even for bills where the spon­sors did not ques­tion the 2020 elec­tion, there is still evid­ence to suggest that elec­tion deni­al­ism by others impacted their decisions to intro­duce legis­la­tion to make voting harder. Offi­cials who did not go along with efforts to subvert the elec­tion or criti­cize the results faced aggress­ive criti­cism and campaigns to make them change their posi­tions. Some of them then intro­duced or lent their back­ing to legis­la­tion valid­at­ing false claims about voter fraud. While it is impossible to know for certain whether this public pres­sure motiv­ated partic­u­lar indi­vidu­als to support voter suppres­sion meas­ures, there is strong circum­stan­tial evid­ence that this pres­sure was a contrib­ut­ing factor in the spike in support for those meas­ures even among those who did not promote false claims about the 2020 elec­tion.

Geor­gia Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger (R) refused to “find” enough votes for Trump to win the elec­tion despite public pres­sure from Trump and then-senat­ors Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Soon after, a Trump-backed primary chal­lenger announced he would take on Raffen­sper­ger. Raffen­sper­ger then suppor­ted GA S.B. 202, prais­ing the law in May 2021 for, among other provi­sions, allow­ing the State Elec­tion Board to replace local elec­tion boards. He did so even though the law limits his power as Secret­ary of State. The bill contained multiple so-called integ­rity provi­sions favored by those who denied the legit­im­acy of the 2020 elec­tion.

Geor­gia Senate Pres­id­ent Pro Tempore Butch Miller (R), who is a candid­ate for lieu­ten­ant governor as well, also accep­ted the 2020 elec­tion results. In July 2021, Trump declined to endorse Miller in the lieu­ten­ant governor’s race because of Miller’s “refusal to work with other Repub­lican senat­ors on voter fraud and irreg­u­lar­it­ies in the state.” In Decem­ber 2021, Miller intro­duced legis­la­tion to ban the use of absentee ballot drop boxes through­out the state, a reversal from earlier in the year when he was the second spon­sor on S.B. 202, which requires at least one drop box per county. foot­note16_o26er7q 16 § 26, codi­fied at Ga. Elec. Code § 21–2–382(c)(1). S.B. 202 also sets upper limits on the number of drop boxes counties can have, which is harm­ful to voters in counties that would other­wise have more drop boxes.

In Arizona, State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), the chief spon­sor of restrict­ive AZ S.B. 1485, has repeatedly rejec­ted claims of fraud in the 2020 elec­tion. This led to criti­cism and obstruc­tion from her Senate colleagues and (after the bill’s passage) booing from support­ers at a Trump rally on elec­tion integ­rity at which she spoke. Her bill will remove voters from the active early voting rolls.

Bill spon­sors and proponents consist­ently said the purpose of restrict­ive voting bills was to protect against voter fraud and promote elec­tion integ­rity.

Across all the bills for which we found relev­ant state­ments, spon­sors and proponents repeatedly claimed that they were support­ing the legis­la­tion to stop voter fraud and increase elec­tion integ­rity. Common language across the legis­la­tion was that the proponents were allegedly trying to “restore or confirm confid­ence in the elec­tion process” or creat­ing “an elec­tion where legal votes count, and illegal votes do not.”

Regard­less of the specific word choices they used, the subtext of the vari­ous state­ments made by proponents of restrict­ive voting bills shines through: these offi­cials insinu­ated that the 2020 elec­tion was blighted by illegal actions, that these actions changed or might have changed the outcome, and that new laws that make voting harder are neces­sary to prevent a repeat.

•  •  

In sum, many state legis­lat­ors have incor­por­ated false claims about the 2020 elec­tion into their public discourse. Our analysis shows that disin­form­a­tion about the legit­im­acy of the 2020 elec­tion has been a signi­fic­ant driver of restrict­ive voting bills across the coun­try.

Bela Trin­gali, Stuart Baum, Derek Paul­hus, and Cherie Vu contrib­uted research and edit­ing support.

End Notes