The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP’s biggest response to Trump’s baseless voter fraud push could still be coming

Trump supporters on the day the U.S. Capitol was attacked. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)
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The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol came as lawmakers were set to debate whether to accept the 2020 electoral college results in key states. After it happened, though, most lawmakers instead focused on the unrest.

But then, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) attempted to refocus things on the task at hand: He pressed forward with trying to invalidate the results, pointing to changes to Pennsylvania’s election laws that he argued violated the state’s constitution.

Left unsaid in the objections to those changes by Hawley and many other Republicans: The law at issue, Act 77, was passed by the GOP-controlled majorities in both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature.

While Republican officials in many states spearheaded changes to mail-in voting, former president Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat has led to building pressure on them to head in the opposite direction. Such measures were often undertaken due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they could just as soon be rolled back. And that’s a particularly acute possibility in many key states in which Republicans are in control — and the kind of extraordinarily high turnout we saw in 2020 could imperil the GOP.

Following Democratic victories in the 2020 election, state Republican lawmakers across the country are proposing new laws that would restrict access to voting. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law has been keeping tabs on efforts to restrict voting rights or curtail mail-in voting in state legislatures. It counts more than 100 bills that have been introduced in 28 states — many of them in states that are under complete GOP control. More than one-third of them are meant to limit mail voting, which was a focus of the baseless fraud claims by Trump and his team.

Bills being introduced, of course, doesn’t mean that they’ll actually be enacted. Any member of a legislature can introduce a bill that may or may not have support in the broader chamber or be signed by the governor.

But in many of the states that decided the 2020 election, Republicans have the power to enact such laws. Thirteen states were decided by eight percentage points or fewer, and six of those have complete Republican control — i.e. both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas. Only one of the 13 is completely controlled by Democrats: Nevada.

The inclusion of Arizona, Georgia and Texas on that list is particularly relevant. All three have been trending blue, with Arizona and Georgia going narrowly for President Biden in the 2020 election. But Republicans continue to have the power to increase voting restrictions in them — restrictions that could affect future elections for years to come. There will undoubtedly be significant pushes in each of them, especially in Arizona and Georgia, given how much many Republicans in those states have argued the 2020 results were invalid.

“It’s absolutely an important effort," Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Monday on Fox News in comments she later promoted on Twitter. “It’s going to be done at the state level. I think a lot of these states are already looking at their laws. Many of them were not codified because of covid, so they weren’t changed legally, and so these states are going to look at that.

"But not just that: How do we make sure that the laws on the books are actually enforced? And the other thing is, how do we clean up our voting rolls, and that’s something the RNC will be taking a very heavy role in going forward.”

One bill in Georgia seeks to require voter identification for absentee ballots twice — when applying for a ballot and when returning one. Another in Arizona attempts to do three things: restrict assistance for voters delivering absentee ballots, require such ballots to be notarized, and require identification for returning the ballots in person.

Top GOP officials in Arizona and Georgia have been made public enemies by Trump and his allies, given their decisions to accept and certify their election results — particularly Govs. Doug Ducey in Arizona and Brian Kemp in Georgia. But they were in many ways pushed into a corner. They could either accept the results from their own election officials or reject them and question the decisions and judgments of their fellow partisans.

Passing laws that could restrict access would be a different matter, in which such decisions wouldn’t be as immediately problematic for them and their allies and wouldn’t generate as much news. Kemp and even Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), who was also a target of Trump’s ire, have in the past established their political brands by elevating concerns about significant voter fraud.

It’s not difficult to see such officials signing on to voting restrictions away from the glare of a contested election. Some of them might also feel this is a way to reach out to disaffected Trump voters who feel the election was marred, without actually subscribing to the idea that it was stolen. McDaniel, for instance, has distanced herself in recent days from many of the wild claims made about a stolen election.

The GOP made a successful voter ID push in many of these states a decade ago, after Republicans gained hugely in key state legislatures and won crucial gubernatorial races. Voting rights groups have long argued that such legislation requiring photo identification to vote was meant to disenfranchise minority voters who were less likely to have those IDs. But polls regularly showed that Americans favored such measures to combat voter fraud. Voters who might not subscribe to Trump’s allegations of fraud might nonetheless see value in increasing restrictions, which could provide GOP-controlled states with the political cover they need to press forward.

Given the historic turnout we saw in 2020, it’s a hugely important story line moving forward. Many casual voters and nonvoters were drawn into the process, but it’s not a sure thing they will be moving forward — or that it will be as easy for them to do so.

Along with the decennial redistricting process, this will be one of the most significant developments to watch at the state level over the next two years.