This week, Issue One and its National Council on Election Integrity convened experts from across the political spectrum for an important discussion about how state voting proposals could impact how millions of Americans vote. Moderated by Issue One’s CEO and Founder Nick Penniman, panelists included Trey Grayson, a former Republican Secretary of State of Kentucky and member of the national council, Steven Greenhut, Resident Senior Fellow and Western Region Director at the R Street Institute, and Eliza Sweren-Becker, Counsel, Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
With more than 360 bills that include provisions to restrict voting already introduced by legislators across 47 states so far in 2021, the purpose of the panel was to cut through the partisan rhetoric that has characterized the debate about these measures, and present the facts about what these bills would do and not do.
Penniman opened the discussion noting that voters turned out in numbers the U.S. hasn’t seen in over a century. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security declared the 2020 election as the most secure in American history.
One key to achieving the safe and secure 2020 elections was flexibility, the panelists said. “A lot of states adopted practices to adapt their voting to make it easier to vote in a pandemic, and those changes in some cases were pretty radical,” Secretary Grayson summarized, adding that former President Trump’s “inability to accept the fact that he lost an election” has shaped the Republican reaction with regard to these proposals.
That unique set of circumstances has created an “unprecedented surge in the number of bills to address voting and elections,” Sweren-Becker observed, and state lawmakers as a result are using the distrust created by President Trump’s unsubstantiated fraud narrative as justification to restrict voting access.
In Georgia, a controversial new law would, among other provisions, remove the state’s Secretary of State from the state board of elections and make it a crime to hand out snacks or water to voters waiting in line. Secretary Grayson was critical of the heated rhetoric around the measure despite having his own concerns with the law. “I do feel like the Jim Crow 2.0 characterization is unfair,” he said. “Georgia still offers more voting options than a lot of states. Still has a long voting period for early voting. Still offers no excuse vote by mail.” But while the bill that passed was “nowhere near as bad as some of the earlier proposals,” it’s “just bad policy.”
In comparison, Kentucky recently passed bipartisan legislation making permanent some of the changes that were put in place last year during the pandemic, including the establishment of early voting days and an online portal where voters can request an absentee ballot. “Republican voters liked a lot of these changes,” Secretary Grayson said, noting that Republican candidates in the state benefited from these expanded voting options. “It’s a sea change, and the bill was done in a bipartisan manner.”
What’s driving this wave of legislation? The three panelists agreed that President Trump’s repeated and ongoing claims of fraud continue to be used as justification, even though such allegations have been repeatedly dismissed by the courts, legal experts, and President Trump’s own Attorney General William Barr. As far as the legislators who have introduced these bills, “I think they’re all competing to see who could be the Trumpiest,” Greenhut said. “Republicans have convinced their voters of something that’s demonstrably not true. And now they’re only responding to those voters’ concerns. So that’s pretty upsetting.”
It remains to be seen what Congress will do in response to these proposals, but their impact is likely to hurt all Americans, regardless of political party.
“These policies don’t just make it harder for Democrats to vote, they make it harder for everyone to vote, including Republicans. And again, Republicans have a long history of taking advantage of mail voting and early voting,” Sweren-Becker said. “There is a galvanized momentum to push back against these restrictions in the states now that folks realize that what happened in Georgia could be coming to a state near you. And those policies are not good for democracy regardless of what political party you belong to.”
While the Georgia bill included some restrictions that make it harder to vote, Greenhut pointed to other provisions in the law that could actually improve election administration in the state, such as expanded days and hours of early in person voting, as well as the requirement to add additional staff, another precinct, or an online option for ballot applications for polling sites with long waits. He concluded by calling on everyone to pay attention to and look at important distinctions within these bills. “I still think we have to distinguish between some things that are really nefarious and some things that aren’t, and some things that might even be okay.”
This week’s event launched the National Council on Election Integrity’s new 2021 speaker series, designed to offer an honest and productive bipartisan lens to some of the most contentious election related issues. The next conversation, which will focus on disinformation, will take place on Tuesday, April 20.