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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_6gbc7e0 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_shroxiw 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_y4m5tf2 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_dddmq80 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_u2whrzb 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_tkeg742 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_xzd75cw 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_rtxruk1 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_4y7t1a3 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_4fg6b97 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_nnkjy5z 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_kzq8xd8 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_zaptaa1 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_gqhsq0o 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_lmabhp2 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_0wbqf3n 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