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By Joseph Tanfani and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican state lawmakers have begun to use President Donald Trump’s baseless charges of voter fraud to push for new restrictions on voting.
Although the claims have failed in court to overturn Democrat Joe Biden's Nov. 3 election win, Republican lawmakers, party officials and Trump’s allies in some of the hardest-fought states have begun discussing new rules that rights advocates say could suppress votes in future elections.
Pennsylvania Republicans are considering ending absentee voting rules they backed a year ago. Georgia’s Senate Republicans say they want to “fix” the state’s election system with new restrictions. Republicans in Wisconsin want to change early-voting procedures. And new rules have been floated in Texas.
“This appears to be laying the groundwork for what may be a more massive and coordinated voter suppression effort in the new year,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It is a brazen attempt to undermine and obstruct the progress that has been made in 2020 to make it easier for people to vote amid the pandemic.”
Steve Guest, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said claims that the party’s proposals amounted to voter suppression were “completely baseless.” “Election laws need to be properly followed so Americans can have confidence in the results,” said Guest. “The RNC will never stop fighting to ensure free and fair elections.”
State and federal judges -- some appointed by Trump -- have dismissed more than 50 lawsuits brought by Trump or his allies alleging election fraud and other irregularities. Independent experts, governors and state election officials from both parties say there has been no evidence of widespread fraud.
A record 158 million people voted in November’s elections, in part thanks to new rules that made voting easier during the worst public health crisis in a century. A survey by New York University’s nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found that 29 states and the District of Columbia passed laws and changed procedures to expand voting access during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some eased rules on voting by mail or extended early voting to reduce crowds.
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State-level Republican proposals to unwind such rules have gained traction with some of Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress.
“The election in many ways was stolen and the only way it will be fixed is by in the future reinforcing the (state) laws,” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky told a recent hearing without providing evidence of fraud. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Nov. 9 that oversight of mail-in voting needed tightening. “If we don’t do something about voting by mail, we’re going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country," he told Fox News.
The new proposals would expand on past Republican Party-led restrictions, including strict voter identification laws passed by nine states since 2005 and voter roll purges that voting-rights advocates say have disproportionately affected minority voters, who tend to back the Democratic Party.
Marc Elias, an attorney who has led legal efforts for the Democratic Party and Biden's campaign, said he believes the latest Republican moves are a preview of a coming voter suppression strategy across the country.
“I am very concerned that they will use these false claims of fraud, which have been rejected in every court that heard them, as an excuse to disenfranchise voters,” Elias said in an email to Reuters. “They’re trying to do what they have been doing for the last year — or more — to make voting harder in general and in particular for Black, brown and young voters.”
“WE WILL FIX THIS”
Republicans have long used unfounded theories of illegal voting to justify purges of registration rolls, strict voter identification requirements and restrictions on mail-in voting. A Reuters investigation published on Sept. 9 found that the once-fringe election-fraud theories have become a staple of Republican politics, due largely to the efforts of a small network of lawyers who have promoted it for two decades, funded by right-wing foundations.
In 23 states, Republicans now control both the legislature and the governor's office, compared to 15 for Democrats, giving the party strong influence over legislation at a time when Trump’s relentless voter fraud claims have convinced many Republican voters that existing safeguards are inadequate. Polls show that a majority of Republican voters believe those allegations. And a proliferation of right-wing media outlets have amplified them.
In Wisconsin, a battleground state that flipped to Biden after voting for Trump in 2016, the executive director of the state Republican Party, Mark Jefferson, told Reuters the state party would work to tighten rules around early voting.
Republicans controlled the state legislature and governorship for much of the last decade, and introduced rules like a strict voter ID law.
They now argue that state election officials and Democrat-run localities overstepped state law in their efforts to make voting easier during the pandemic and opened the voting process to fraud. Republicans, for instance, claimed that events in city parks to collect absentee ballots from voters were improper. Courts have rejected Republican lawsuits making such arguments and seeking to overturn Trump’s loss in the state.
But Jefferson argues that election integrity is at stake, and says Republican lawmakers are already discussing how to increase oversight on early voting, mail-in voting and drop boxes. In Wisconsin and other swing states, those methods heavily favored Biden over Trump.
In Georgia, a traditionally Republican-dominated state that Biden narrowly won, Senate Republicans said on Dec. 8 that they would seek to eliminate “no excuse” mail voting, which allows people to send ballots by mail without providing a reason, and to require a photo ID to request a mail ballot. Currently, any eligible voter can vote by mail without stating a reason, such as illness or travel, while no photo ID is required to receive an absentee ballot.
“Republicans have heard the calls of millions of Georgians who have raised deep and heartfelt concerns that state law has been violated and our elections process abused,” the state senators said in a statement. “We will fix this.”
Georgia’s House Republicans had not reviewed those proposals but will hold hearings on election integrity, said Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House speaker David Ralston. Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state have also endorsed new restrictions such as requiring absentee voters to provide identification to request their ballot.
More immediately, the Republican National Committee and Georgia Republican Party have filed lawsuits ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff election that will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate, seeking to change rules that were in effect in November. They want to curtail use of drop boxes for mail ballots in the election for two Senate seats and have asked for other limits on absentee voting.
A battle over voting access is also shaping up in Texas, another state long dominated by Republicans but where Democrats have made inroads.
Texas already has some of the country’s toughest voting laws. Since the election, Democrats have proposed expanding early voting to more counties and making election days state holidays. Republicans, who control the state government, have countered with proposed new restrictions, including a ban on officials’ from sending out mail ballot applications to voters who haven’t requested them and criminal penalties for officials who allow ineligible people to vote.
In Pennsylvania, the debate over mail voting is an example of how Trump's fraud rhetoric has left Republicans in a political bind.
In 2019, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature reached a compromise on an election bill with Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. The package, known as Act 77, eliminated straight-party voting that allowed voters to check a single box on a ballot to vote for all candidates from one party, a Republican priority.
It also permitted an expansion of mail voting for all Pennsylvania voters. Most of the opposition to the bill came from Democrats. All Republican members of the state Senate voted for the bill, and all but two Republicans in the state House.
But as many Trump supporters blame mail-in ballots for Trump's election defeat in Pennsylvania, the 2019 law has become a liability for the Republicans who voted for it, said Charlie Gerow, a Republican lawyer and consultant in the state. “Those folks sitting around the diner talking politics, they are talking about Act 77,” he said.
In the wake of the election, state House Representative Jim Gregory, who voted for the law in 2019, has announced he will sponsor a measure repealing the law, saying his office had “been flooded with calls and emails from constituents who had issues with mail in ballots.”
Bryan Cutler, the House majority leader, who also voted for the law, has promised to focus on election rules in the next session to “ensure the chaos and confusion of the 2020 election are not repeated.”
Both men have tried to shift blame to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Democratic Secretary of State for decisions on how it was implemented, including allowing ballots to be counted if they arrived by mail within three days after Election Day. Gregory declined requests for an interview, while Cutler did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
One main target of anger has been Al Schmidt, the Republican on the three-member election board in Philadelphia. Before and after the election, Schmidt defended the integrity of the Philadelphia vote count in media appearances – and became a lightning rod for the rage of Trump supporters. He says he has been called a “traitor,” and has police protection at his home because of threats.
“The myth is being built, and it’s being accepted,” he said. “That’s the lasting damage. Who’s going to clean up this mess at the end of the day?”
(Joseph Tanfani reported from New Jersey and Simon Lewis from Washington. Additional reporting by Tim Reid. Editing by Soyoung Kim and Jason Szep)