The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

State GOP lawmakers propose flurry of voting restrictions to placate Trump supporters, spurring fears of a backlash

Supporters of President Donald Trump hold a “Stop the Steal” rally outside the Georgia Capitol in downtown Atlanta on Nov. 21. (Kevin D. Liles/For the Washington Post)

GOP state lawmakers across the country have proposed a flurry of voting restrictions that they say are needed to restore confidence in U.S. elections, an effort intended to placate supporters of former president Donald Trump who believe his false claims that the 2020 outcome was rigged.

But the effort is dividing Republicans, some of whom are warning that it will tar the GOP as the party of voter suppression and give Democrats ammunition to mobilize their supporters ahead of the 2022 midterms.

The proposals include measures that would curtail eligibility to vote by mail and prohibit the use of ballot drop boxes. One bill in Georgia would block early voting on Sundays, which critics quickly labeled a flagrant attempt to thwart Souls to the Polls, the Democratic turnout effort that targets Black churchgoers on the final Sunday before an election.

States where such legislation is under consideration also include Arizona, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Proponents say the actions are necessary because large numbers of voters believe Trump’s false assertions that President Biden won the 2020 election through widespread fraud.

“The goal of our process here should be an attempt to restore the confidence of our public in our elections system,” said Barry Fleming, a state lawmaker from Evans, Ga., and the chairman of the newly formed House Special Committee on Election Integrity.

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)

Other Republicans in Georgia say making it harder to vote, without evidence of the problem they claim to be fixing, will prompt a dangerous backlash from Democrats and voting advocates. They say the effort is mostly for show, to appease the party’s most ardent Trump supporters, and they are pressing Republican legislative leaders to thwart passage of all but a few of the measures.

Their concern has grown sharply after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob echoing Trump’s rhetoric — which some Republicans say threatens to dominate the 2022 midterm cycle if they don’t find a way to move past it. Investigators for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the Justice Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found no evidence of widespread fraud, and the Fulton County district attorney is now investigating Trump’s efforts to subvert the state’s result.

Georgia prosecutors open criminal investigation into Trump’s efforts to subvert election results

“There’s still an appetite from a lot of Republicans to do stuff like this, but it’s not bright,” said a Republican strategist in Georgia who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal party debates. “It just gives Democrats a baseball bat with which to beat us.”

That pummeling has already begun. After Fleming unveiled a sweeping proposal Thursday with provisions such as tough new identification requirements when requesting an absentee ballot and a prohibition on “line-warming” by nonpartisan groups — including such activities as distributing water in warm weather or blankets in the cold — Democrats and voting rights advocates pounced.

“Barry Fleming knows that Black voters in Georgia are the most likely to use weekend or holiday in-person early voting hours, and he knows that Black voters are why Georgia Democrats won two U.S. Senate seats last month,” said Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Fair Fight Action, the voting rights organization founded by Democratic former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “His intent could not be more transparent.”

According to an analysis by Fair Fight Action, Black voters made up 36 percent of those who cast ballots early and in-person last fall on the days Fleming wants to eliminate, compared with about 30 percent of voters overall.

Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said she found one provision in the Fleming bill particularly loathsome: the ban on early voting on Sundays. Republicans said the measure is intended to level the playing field between wealthier counties that can afford to provide weekend voting hours and poorer rural counties that can’t.

But Dennis, who is Black, said she sees a more nefarious purpose to the proposal, which would upend Souls to the Polls, a long-standing tradition in Black communities to vote right after church on the Sunday before election.

“There is such pride in being able to dress up in your Sunday best and cast your ballot with your family and your community,” Dennis said. As a working single mother, Dennis said, she also believes that the proposal would eliminate options for voters juggling complicated schedules.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a civil rights think tank, lawmakers in 33 states have crafted more than 165 bills to restrict voting so far this year — more than four times the number in last year’s legislative sessions. The group attributed the surge to “a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud” and accused lawmakers of a “backlash to historic voter turnout” last year.

Arizona leads the nation in restrictive proposals, followed by Pennsylvania and Georgia, the group said. Those proposals include eliminating no-excuses absentee voting, which Americans across the country embraced during the pandemic, as well as requiring voters to request mail ballots every year and blocking election administrators from sending a ballot application without a request from the voter.

The Brennan Center noted that many states are also contemplating a record number of new voter protections.

In wake of 2020 election, Democratic senators urge Biden to expand voting rights protections

Some Republicans have made clear that they don’t think enacting voting restrictions is smart politics. In Georgia, House Speaker David Ralston and the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, have both announced that they will not support legislation that curtails eligibility to vote by mail, as some lawmakers there and in other states have proposed.

Duncan also stripped committee chairmanships from two Republican senators who had signaled plans to propose steep restrictions — an effort, several GOP officials said, to prevent such legislation from making it to the Senate floor.

Those actions reflect the growing realization among Republicans that catering to a narrow core of party activists who remain fiercely loyal to Trump is an increasingly perilous path.

Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992, and Republicans lost both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats in Jan. 5 runoffs. The mayhem that unfolded the following day at the U.S. Capitol probably alienated even more Georgians in the prized suburbs of Atlanta, several strategists said, which used to be home to plenty of reliable Republican voters but have changed dramatically with population growth in recent years.

“The number of people who are demanding blind loyalty is a shrinking market ever since Jan. 6,” said Gabriel Sterling, a Republican official who serves as Georgia’s voting systems manager in the office of Raffensperger, the secretary of state, and who spoke out during the campaign about the disinformation promoted by Trump. “We will see more people realize that the Republican voters are a larger set of votes than the blindly devoted Trump loyalists.”

One major tension that is driving the introduction of the new voting bills: The GOP still needs those devoted Trump supporters to build an election-winning coalition, in addition to more moderate and independent voters turned off by the false claims of fraud.

The Republican National Committee, which backed Trump’s claims last fall, has continued to promote the idea that voting systems are vulnerable. This week, the national party launched a new Committee on Election Integrity to appeal to GOP voters who don’t trust the 2020 outcome, saying it plans to work with state parties to pass voter ID laws and make sure poll watchers can observe vote-counting.

In a statement, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel called the changes to voting rules last year in response to the pandemic “deeply troubling,” saying that they “brought chaos and uncertainty to our sacred democratic processes. As RNC Chair, I will not sit idly by and the Party will respond.”

Even some Republican proponents of the measures have acknowledged that there is no evidence that widespread fraud or irregularities tainted the 2020 elections. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a state Trump won by more than three points, said as much Friday as he announced a broad new proposal to curtail ballot drop boxes and limit so-called ballot harvesting, when third parties are permitted to collect and turn in absentee ballots.

“Rather than resting on our laurels and congratulating one another on a successful 2020 election, our time is best spent preparing for 2022 and beyond,” DeSantis said. “We don’t want to backslide. We are here to keep Florida a model for the rest of America.”

And in Georgia, state Rep. Alan Powell of Hartwell suggested that it didn’t matter whether fraud actually occurred on a grand scale last year.

“I’m not getting into the part about, you know, widespread voter fraud,” Powell said during a televised committee hearing about the proposed bill. “It wasn’t found. It’s just in a lot of people’s minds that there was.”

Sterling said there are some proposals making their way through the legislature that are necessary — and should be welcomed by all voters.

One provision would set a deadline for applications for absentee ballots 11 days before an election, a rule that he said would protect voters because applications received after that date carry a higher risk of not being processed quickly enough for voters to return their ballots in time.

Other measures are well-intentioned but less feasible, Sterling said, such as one to require all counties to declare how many ballots they have received before starting to tabulate and publish results.

While such a law could help combat public perceptions that new votes were suddenly “found” — something Trump falsely claimed in the days after Nov. 3 when states were still processing absentee ballots — it would be impractical to implement because of the amount of time it would take to count the ballots.

Fleming, the Georgia lawmaker who proposed the new bill Thursday, said his hope is that some of the measures will gain support from both Republicans and Democrats, noting that activists on the left were the ones who cried foul in 2018, when Republican Gov. Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Abrams.

“We’re going to try to remedy some of these problems,” he said during a committee hearing Friday, “and try to bring the left and the right back to a position where they have confidence overall in our election system.”