In Kansas, the secretary of state now needs the approval of a legislative committee to settle election-related lawsuits. In Arkansas, a new law empowers the state’s elections commission to investigate every aspect of an election “without limitation.”
And in the key battleground state of Arizona, Republican legislators this week moved to weaken the authority of Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, by limiting her ability to defend election lawsuits.
With efforts to pass federal election legislation stalled in the US Senate, voting rights advocates are issuing fresh warnings about an array of provisions that allow legislators and others in Republican-led states to seize power from the officials who oversee elections day-to-day. The Republican moves come after election officials in both parties resisted efforts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election results – and as Trump continues to gripe about a “stolen” election and urge more “audits” of ballots cast last year in states President Joe Biden won.
Democrats and progressive activists argue that the measures could allow the conduct of future elections – including counting ballots and certifying results – to fall prey to partisan meddling, not unlike the controversial review of ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona, authorized by Republicans in the state Senate.
“If the worst of these laws had been in place in 2020, they might well have interfered with the clearly expressed will of voters in state after state,” said Norm Eisen, a CNN legal analyst and the executive chairman of the bipartisan States United Democracy Center.
The group and its research partners have tracked at least 216 bills in 41 states that would criminalize the actions of election officials, give legislators more power over the running of elections or otherwise interfere. In all, two dozen have become law so far, the organization found. More measures await action.
“This should be terrifying to anyone who cares about democracy,” Eisen added.
More on Voting Rights
Biden on Thursday said Republicans are trying to throw out votes if they don’t like the results.
“Who is God’s name, as my mother would say, died and left them boss?” he said. “Your vote has to count when you cast it.”
Republicans at the forefront of the new laws say their actions will help ensure election integrity and guard against local election officials overstepping their authority.
“They are not takeovers as much as strengthening the already statutorily mandated duty” of the state’s election commission, Arkansas state Rep. Mark Lowery said of provisions he helped enact that give the state panel broader investigative powers.
The action follows a dispute over ballot counting last year in Arkansas’ most populous county.
More measures are on the horizon.
On July 8, Republicans in the Texas legislature are likely to revive their efforts to pass voting restrictions during a special session called this week by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Last month, Democrats in the Texas state House temporarily thwarted the sweeping Republican proposal when they staged a late-night walkout, denying the GOP majority the quorum to advance the bill on the final day of the legislative session.
But the Texas legislature could resurface new criminal penalties on election workers. Under the bill that Republican lawmakers advanced in May, election officials in Texas would face potential criminal charges if they fail to count “valid votes” or send a vote-by-mail ballot to someone who didn’t request it.
The laws that threaten election workers with criminal penalties or expand legislative influence over election administration span the country.
A bill that passed the Republican-led legislature in Wisconsin this week would make it a crime for municipal election clerks to fill out missing information a voter’s absentee ballot paperwork.
Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is likely to veto the measure.
And in Arizona, the Republican legislature has made it a felony for a public official to modify any deadline or election filing date unless ordered to do so by a court. Another measure, tucked into a budget provision approved Wednesday by the state Senate, establishes the Arizona’s attorney general as the “sole authority” to defend state election laws and bars the secretary of state from using any public funds for hire outside lawyers. It also limits Hobbs to hiring the equivalent of one full-time lawyer to represent her office.
That bill also creates a special committee to recommend legislative changes based on the results of the problem-plagued “audit” of Maricopa County’s 2020 ballots. The Republican-led Senate authorized the partisan Maricopa audit, which has drawn rebukes from Hobbs and Republican officials in the county.
The moves in Arizona follow other Republican-led efforts to exert influence on elections.
In Georgia, the state’s new law gives the Republican-controlled legislature the power to select three out of five members of the state elections board. At the same time, the state board now has the power to determine whether a county’s elections officials are performing poorly and empowers the state board to replace them temporarily with a hand-picked election administrator.
Additionally, lawmakers removed the secretary of state as a voting member of the state elections board. The current Secretary of State, Republican Brad Raffensperger, resisted Trump’s false claims of election fraud in 2020 and now faces a primary challenge from a strong ally of the former president, GOP Rep. Jody Hice.
An Iowa law now makes it a crime for local election officials to buck the guidance of state’s election chief. And in Kansas, the Republican-controlled legislature last month overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes of election bills. One of the new laws requires a legislative council to approve the secretary of state entering into a consent decree.
In deep-red Arkansas, a new law grants broad investigative powers to the state elections board to probe complaints about a wide range of election functions, from the delivery of absentee ballots to vote tabulation. State election commissioners also can use the state police to seize public records as part of their investigations.
Lowery, the Republican who was one of the law’s lead sponsors, said the change was warranted after election officials Pulaski County, Arkansas, home to Little Rock, acknowledged erroneously counting a batch of ballots in a razor-thin contest for a state House seat.
The Democrat won by some two dozen votes.
Lowery said the local prosecutors’ office, led by a Democrat, should have investigated. “When you have partisan, elected prosecutors, you may not get cooperation in terms of investigating and prosecuting election impropriety,” he said.
Federal legislation falters
Companion bills introduced this week in Congress by a cluster of Democratic senators and House members seek to insulate local election officials from what its sponsors called “election subversion” at the state level. Among its provisions, the proposal would allow local election officials to fight removal proceedings in federal court if their duties include overseeing congressional and presidential contests.
But that proposal – along with other voting measures – faces long odds on Capitol Hill after Republicans in the Senate this week blocked debate on another election bill – a sweeping voting and ethics bill, known as the For the People Act.
Democrats cast the bill as a counterweight to state-level efforts to restrict voting. Republicans argue it amounts to federal overreach in state matters.
No voting bill can gain traction in a 50-50 Senate, unless moderate Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema agree to reduce the 60-vote supermajority needed to overcome a filibuster and advance most legislation in the chamber.
They have given no signs that they intend to do so – with Sinema this week, writing an op-ed, defending the filibuster.
Activists say they plan to mount pressure campaigns on moderate Democrats to abandon, or at least relax, the filibuster rule for election-related legislation. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Democrat who oversees the Senate Rules Committee, is planning a field hearing on the For the People Act in Georgia. Biden said he plans to travel the country to make the case for voting rights.
And Democratic-aligned groups have pledged to step up efforts to encourage their likely supporters register to vote and better navigate new state laws. Priorities USA Action, a major Democratic super PAC, this week announced it would spend an initial $20 million on legal action and voting initiatives to combat Republican laws in the states.
But voting rights activists worry the raft of laws giving state legislators more sway over elections could undermine all their organizing efforts.
“Even if we do everything right,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, “even if we outwork them and we get turnout up, it’s the fail-safe that allows them to say no matter what the count is, ‘We don’t think this was legal. We think this was fraudulent. We think this county’s ballots should be thrown out.’ ”