In 2015, white members of the board of elections in Hancock County, Georgia—a majority-Black area 100 miles southeast of Atlanta—launched a plan to remove Black voters from the registration rolls in advance of elections for mayor and city council in the county seat of Sparta, which is nearly 90 percent Black. The board challenged the eligibility of nearly 20 percent of the city’s residents—almost all of them Black—and sent law enforcement officials to serve them a summons to appear at board hearings or else be purged from the rolls, an intimidating tactic straight out of the Jim Crow era. Voter participation fell by 40 percent in that year’s election and Sparta elected a white candidate for mayor for the first time in 32 years. “It was an effort, pretty clearly, to disqualify African American voters in Sparta so that white candidates, including the mayor, could gain a political advantage,” says Julie Houk, a lawyer for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who filed suit against the voter challenges.
The county attorney at the time, GOP state representative Barry Fleming, denied there was any voter suppression in Sparta. “The allegations that people were denied the right to vote are the opposite of the truth,” he told the New York Times. But in 2018 Hancock County agreed to a legal settlement with civil rights groups, restoring eligible voters to the rolls and agreeing to allow a third-party examiner to oversee voter registration procedures. Hancock County became the first jurisdiction since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 to be placed back under federal supervision.
While his efforts in Sparta may have hit a roadblock, Fleming has now taken on a prominent position where his test run to roll back voting rights could be expanded to the full state. In early January, he was named chair of a new Special Committee on Election Integrity created by the speaker of the Georgia House, tasked with enacting new laws to make it harder to vote—particularly for Democratic-leaning constituencies—after Georgia flipped blue and Donald Trump failed to overturn the results in the state.
Before he accepted the assignment, Fleming, who’s also chair of the House Judiciary Committee, took aim at mail-in voting—which was popular among Republicans for many years before Black voters and Democrats used it at a higher rate in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Democrats are relying on the always-suspect absentee balloting process to inch ahead in Georgia and other close states,” he wrote in December. “If elections were like coastal cities, absentee balloting would be the shady part of town down near the docks you do not want to wander into because the chance of being shanghaied is significant.”
A decade ago Republicans passed new voter ID laws and other efforts to curtail voting rights when they took power in the states following Barack Obama’s election. Now they’re taking that strategy to the next level—trying to accomplish through legislation what Trump couldn’t with litigation. All in all, these efforts amount to the most concerted attempts to roll back voting rights since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Georgia Republicans have already introduced an avalanche of new laws that would radically limit voting options in the state. On Monday—the first day of Black History Month—Republicans in the state Senate introduced nine bills to restrict access to the ballot, including eliminating automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and mail ballot drop boxes, as well as prohibiting third-party groups from sending mail ballot applications, and banning people who move to Georgia after the general election from voting in runoff elections. Many of the bills were sponsored by Republicans who backed Texas’ unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Supreme Court to throw out election results from Georgia and other states carried by Biden. These bills come on the heels of another bill that would require voters to submit physical copies of photo identification twice to vote by mail, once when they request a mail-in ballot and again when they return it.
The voting methods under attack were used by millions of voters—1.3 million people voted by mail in the 2020 general election and 5 million of the state’s 7.6 million voters were automatically registered at the Georgia Department of Driver Services—and were enacted and praised by Republicans. “[Georgia] was the first state in the country to implement the trifecta of automatic voter registration, at least 16 days of early voting (which has been called the ‘gold standard’), and no-excuse absentee voting,” a press release from Georgia’s GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger boasted last year.
Establishment Georgia Republicans like Raffensperger publicly rebuked Trump’s attempt to subvert the election results—holding three recounts of the presidential election that found zero evidence of fraud—but now the GOP seems determined to weaponize Trump’s lies about voter fraud to suit their own political ends after the state voted for Biden and sent two Democrats to the US Senate. Raffensperger, who became a liberal darling for standing up to Trump, has endorsed calls to end no-excuse absentee voting and add voter ID for mail-in ballots.
Today, Georgia Senate Republicans dropped nine – NINE! – anti-voting bills. This unhinged set of voter suppression legislation from a radical Senate Republican leadership appears intended to appease conspiracy theorists like those who stormed the Capitol last month. #gapol
— Fair Fight (@fairfightaction) February 2, 2021
Georgia is a microcosm of how state-level Republicans are dramatically escalating a decade-long strategy to make it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote following record turnout in 2020. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 106 bills have already been introduced in 28 states to restrict access to the ballot, three times the number at the same point this year. “These proposals primarily seek to: (1) limit mail voting access; (2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; (3) limit successful pro-voter registration policies; and (4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges,” the report says. “These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election.” Seventeen of these states are under full GOP control, increasing the likelihood that restrictive legislation will pass there.
106 bills introduced in 28 states already this year to restrict voting access, finds @BrennanCenter
That's 3x as high as last year
GOP weaponizing Trump's lies to make it harder to votehttps://t.co/0WwCkuDEmy pic.twitter.com/tpr9fZeOhP
— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) January 27, 2021
Republican state legislators in Arizona, which Biden carried by 10,500 votes, have introduced at least 34 bills to reduce voter access, in a state where 80 percent of voters cast ballots by mail. These include eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, getting rid of the state’s list of 3.2 million voters that are automatically sent mail-in ballots or removing hundreds of thousands of voters from it, and requiring that signatures on absentee ballots be notarized. Other proposals would dramatically shrink the number of polling locations even while curtailing mail-in voting, so that Maricopa County, the largest in the state, would have only 15 vote centers instead of the 100 it had in November.
The most extreme bill would allow the GOP-controlled legislature to override the secretary of state’s certification of election results and appoint its own electors to nullify the popular vote choice of the voters—which Trump tried and failed to persuade them to do in 2020. Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts called it “the most arrogant power grab I have ever witnessed.” Some of these bills, like overturning the will of the voters or scrapping no-excuse absentee voting altogether, may be too extreme even for some Republicans, but with the GOP in control of state government, other changes, like purging voters from the list of who automatically receives a mail-in ballot, are more likely to pass.
In Pennsylvania, another state where Republicans spread baseless claims of fraud in an attempt to overturn Biden’s victory, legislative Republicans have introduced 14 bills to make it harder to vote, among the most in the country. Like in Georgia, they want to repeal no-excuse absentee voting, which all but two Republicans voted for in 2018. The main sponsor is GOP Senator Doug Mastriano, who attended the Capitol Hill rally on January 6 that incited the violent mob at the US Capitol. Republicans also want to reject mail-in ballots that don’t arrive by Election Day, throw out ballots for minor signature errors, and eliminate a list of voters who automatically receive mail-in ballots.
They are also fast-tracking a constitutional amendment that would gerrymander the state courts—so that judges are elected from districts drawn by the legislature instead of through statewide races, giving Republicans far more control over them—after the state supreme court overturned gerrymandered congressional maps drawn by the legislature and blocked Republican attempts to undermine ballot access before the November election. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, who cannot run for reelection in 2022 because of term limits, can block restrictive voting laws but the attempt to gerrymander the courts will likely go before voters during May primary elections.
A third of restrictions on voting this year target mail-in voting, according to the Brennan Center, but many go well beyond that. Republicans in New Hampshire and Montana have introduced legislation to repeal Election Day registration, which increases voter turnout by as much as 10 percent. Republicans in Alaska, like in Georgia, want to eliminate automatic voter registration, which was approved by 65 percent of voters in 2016. Republicans in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Mississippi have introduced bills to allocate electoral votes based on congressional districts instead of the popular vote winner of the state, which would’ve reduced Biden’s Electoral College margin by 11 votes.
Democrats will be largely powerless to block many of these laws through the legislative process in states like Georgia, Arizona, and New Hampshire that Republicans control. But with Democrats in charge of Congress and the White House, the party can pass federal measures like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and sweeping pro-democracy reforms that could stop GOP voter suppression efforts.
This is shameful. We need to swiftly pass the For The People Act to strengthen access to the ballot and prevent voter suppression from silencing our voices. https://t.co/qqgt6Kt2az
— Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (@ReverendWarnock) February 2, 2021
That will only happen, however, if they eliminate the filibuster, which Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have said they will not do. Senate Democrats now face a critical choice—they can preserve what Obama has called a “Jim Crow relic” relic and allow Republicans to undermine democracy for the next decade, which could cost them key state races, the House in 2022, and the presidency in 2024. Or they could eliminate one anti-democratic feature of the political system to put a stop to many more.