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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Voting rights: Is this now Joe Biden’s biggest headache?


Both Democrats and Republicans are concerned about the state of US democracy and the nation’s electoral systems, although the two parties have very different ideas about what those problems are – let alone what the solutions should be.

After Republican-controlled states imposed more stringent voting requirements last year, Democrats in Washington have been attempting to enact a slew of new voting reforms.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will promote these legislative efforts in Georgia on Tuesday, a state that is both an electoral battleground and the site of some of the most far-reaching recent Republican-backed voting-law changes.

What Democrats want

Given that Democrats currently control the White House and both chambers of the United States Congress, much of the party’s voting reform efforts have concentrated on federal legislation.

One of the party’s top priorities is to restore some of the most powerful enforcement mechanisms in the Voting Rights Act, a civil rights law from the 1960s that has been weakened in two major Supreme Court decisions, the first in 2013 and the second in 2021.

Some Democrats argue that election day should be a national holiday to increase access

One of the provisions that was struck down – and that Democrats hope to reinstate – required the federal government to pre-approve changes to voting procedures in states with a history of discrimination. The Obama administration had used this authority to postpone actions as minor as the relocation of voting locations to as major as state-wide voter identification laws.

Another Democratic goal has been to ensure that the changes to voting procedures implemented during the pandemic, such as increased early voting, increased use of ballot drop boxes, and easier access to absentee and mail-in voting, are maintained in future elections.

Some Democratic-controlled legislatures, such as those in Virginia, Nevada, and Maine, have already taken action. Democrats in Congress, on the other hand, are pushing for federal standards that would apply to all states.

What Republicans want

Republicans are currently locked out of national power, so their voting efforts have been focused on state legislatures controlled by their party. They’ve restricted mail-in absentee voting and the use of ballot drop boxes, among other things.

Texas, for example, passed legislation prohibiting drive-through voting, 24-hour voting locations, and the distribution of unsolicited mail-in ballot applications by public officials, all of which will be used by Democratic-controlled cities during the 2020 presidential election.

In Georgia, the Republican legislature passed legislation limiting the use of drop boxes, which the state’s election board approved for widespread use in 2020 to address pandemic concerns, to one per 100,000 voters.

It also limits their use to early voting periods and restricts their location to election offices or early voting sites, as well as the number of days a voter can request an absentee ballot to 67 days before the election (down from six months).

Republican legislators have also advocated for increased use of photo identification when voting and improved identity verification during the voter registration process.

Two parties, two different national threats

Behind these two very different ideas about what constitutes voting reform are two very different ideas about the threats that the United States is currently facing.

According to a CBS poll, 60% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans believe democracy and the rule of law in the United States are “somewhat” or “very” threatened.

However, 79 percent of Republicans believed that “people voting or casting ballots illegally” was a major reason for this, while only 18 percent of Democrats agreed. Meanwhile, 89 percent of Democrats believed that “people attempting to overturn or change elections” were a major reason, while only half of Republicans agreed.

The Republican belief that the 2020 election was marred by fraud, despite the lack of concrete evidence, fuels their desire to enact new voting restrictions at the state level.

Democratic concerns about those efforts, even if many of them are attempts to return to pre-pandemic systems that were heavily reliant on in-person voting in most states, have driven their national efforts.

Two parties, two different solutions

Democrats have opposed Republican-backed changes to polling places and procedures that previously required federal approval. They contend that such changes make voting more difficult for traditionally marginalised communities, which frequently vote Democratic.

Shortening early voting periods and hours may make voting more difficult for blue-collar and service-industry workers. They believe that early and mail voting will help avoid long lines at polling places, which were a problem in traditionally Democratic precincts even before the pandemic.

In Georgia, for example, the state’s population has increased by about 2 million people since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to end pre-approval of voting changes, but the number of polling places has decreased by 10% – a trend that is mirrored in many other southern states previously covered by the Voting Rights Act.

Many Republicans, for their part, believe that under the guise of the pandemic, judges and obscure election boards changed the rules of the game in 2020, increasing the potential for fraud (and made it easier for Democratic constituencies to vote).

They cite the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which allowed absentee ballots to be counted until three days after election day, and the state board of elections in North Carolina, which extended the deadline for receiving ballots to nine days after election day.

Republicans are concerned that Democrats, including those in liberal cities in conservative states, are now attempting to make those changes permanent in order to gain a voting advantage. Much of the Texas legislation, for example, can be seen as a direct response to efforts to increase voting access in the Houston area, which has become a Democratic stronghold.

Outlook uncertain

At the state level, the voting-reform die has already been cast.

According to a study conducted by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states passed laws restricting voting access in 2021, which is more than any other year since the Brennan Center for Justice began monitoring in 2011.

Meanwhile, 25 states have taken steps to expand voting rights, with 15 making mail-in voting easier.

Democratic efforts in Congress face the same legislative roadblocks that have plagued the rest of Mr Biden’s domestic agenda: unified Republican opposition combined with a handful of centrist Senate Democrats unwilling to change legislative rules to allow for more sweeping reforms.

Mr. Biden’s renewed interest in the legislation will likely please his party’s liberal wing, which sees voting reform as critical to preserving American democracy (and protecting Democratic electoral prospects), but there is little evidence that even the most enthusiastic effort on the president’s and his administration’s part will produce tangible results.


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