The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Trump tried to intervene in the 2020 vote, state Republicans are moving to take more control of elections

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), second from right, leaves the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta after signing a sweeping voting bill into law Thursday. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

State Republicans have taken steps this year that could give them more power to sway the certification of election results, efforts that voting advocates decried as a blatant attempt to circumvent the popular vote, as President Donald Trump tried to do after his defeat in November.

Amid an avalanche of voting legislation proposed in dozens of states, the moves go beyond highly scrutinized proposals to tighten rules around how ballots are cast in the name of election security. Critics say some of the initiatives attempt to clear the way for partisan actors to take control of election administration, as Trump unsuccessfully urged Republicans to do in the fall.

On Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) of Georgia signed the most far-reaching effort yet into law — a sweeping voting measure that undercuts the power of the secretary of state and local election boards. The new law removes the secretary of state from serving as chair of the State Board of Elections, giving the legislature the authority to appoint a majority of the members, and authorizes the state board to suspend local election officials.

If these measures had been in place in 2020, critics say, the state board could have tried to interfere when the secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, certified Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the state and rejected Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the election was stolen.

In a phone call on Jan. 2, President Trump insisted he won the state and threatened vague legal consequences. Here are excerpts from the call. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

Raffensperger emerged as a staunch defender of the integrity of Georgia’s vote, even as Trump repeatedly attacked him and cajoled him in an hour-long conversation in January, urging him to “find” the votes to reverse Biden’s win in the state.

‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’: In extraordinary hour-long call, Trump pressures Georgia secretary of state to recalculate the vote in his favor

Separately, the new power to suspend county election boards could give state officials unprecedented influence over all manner of election decisions, including the acceptance and rejection of mail ballots, early-voting hours, poll-worker hiring and the number of polling locations, critics say.

All told, the measures represent an unprecedented power grab and an attempt to usurp local control, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, executive director of Atlanta-based Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who ran for governor in 2018. They allow legislators to target heavily Democratic counties in the metro Atlanta region, home of the state’s highest concentration of Black and Brown voters, “if they don’t like how elections are being run,” she said.

“It will make what we all lived through in 2020 child’s play,” Groh-Wargo said in a call with reporters earlier this week, before the measure passed. “Donald Trump won’t have to strong-arm our election administrators. The most radical fringes of the Republican Party sitting in the state legislature will be able to wipe out boards of elections.”

Republican lawmakers argued Thursday during debate in the state Senate that the provisions were necessary to provide more accountability and oversight.

On Friday, Trump offered his “congratulations” to Georgia for changing its voting rules. “They learned from the travesty of the 2020 Presidential Election, which can never be allowed to happen again,” he wrote in a statement. “Too bad these changes could not have been done sooner!”

As president, Trump contested results in six states after the 2020 election, claiming falsely that lax security and new rules imposed by the courts caused his defeat. His campaign and allies filed dozens of lawsuits seeking to toss ballots and block the certification of results — but in no cases did they show evidence of significant fraud.

His efforts were blocked not only by dozens of judges but also by local and state election officials — including Republicans — who repeatedly refused to bow to pressure to halt the certification of the vote.

Day and night, under historic scrutiny, the nation’s vote counters carried on

After the Board of Supervisors in Maricopa County, Ariz., voted unanimously last fall to certify Biden’s win there, then-board chairman Clint Hickman (R) pushed back against the barrage of false claims of fraud the board had fielded.

“Let me be clear: There is no evidence of fraud or misconduct or malfunction in Maricopa County, and that is with a big zero,” he said, adding, “It’s time to dial back the rhetoric, conspiracies and false claims.”

This year, one Republican legislator in Arizona has directly sought to wrest away the power to certify election results from the secretary of state, proposing in unambiguous language to allow the legislature “by majority vote at any time before the presidential inauguration” to unseat the state’s presidential electors. The bill, promoted by Rep. Shawnna Bolick (R), has not progressed through the legislature, and numerous lawmakers said they do not expect it to move forward.

While Bolick described the bill in a statement as a “good, democratic check and balance,” Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) said in an interview with Phoenix’s KPNX-TV that “it absolutely, 100 percent, allows a legislature to undermine the will of the voters.”

In Michigan, the state GOP has taken aim directly at Aaron Van Langevelde, a Republican member of the Board of State Canvassers who broke with his party in November and voted to certify Biden’s win in the state.

Earlier this year, GOP legislators declined to renominate Van Langevelde.

“While some are critical of my decision to certify the election, I am convinced that I did the right thing regardless of personal or professional consequences and despite the pressures and dangers faced,” he said in a statement at the time of his replacement.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) appointed as his successor conservative activist Tony Daunt, one of three nominees put forward by the state GOP. Daunt had publicly criticized the challenges to the November election and praised Van Langevelde for his “integrity.”

Van Langevelde did not respond to requests for comment. The Michigan GOP chairman, Ron Weiser, said the decision not to renominate Van Langevelde occurred before his tenure. Weiser’s predecessor, Laura Cox, did not immediately respond to a call requesting comment.

In at least 43 states, Republicans and Democrats alike have proposed an unprecedented wave of legislation to alter the way elections are administered. While Democrats have primarily focused on expanding access to mail voting — or making expansions that were put in place in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic permanent — Republicans have for the most part sought to do the opposite. More than 250 GOP-backed bills would limit mail voting, early in-person voting and Election Day voting with stricter identification requirements, newly limited hours or narrower eligibility to vote absentee.

How GOP-backed measures could create hurdles for tens of millions of voters

Republicans have acted primarily in the name of shoring up election security or, as some have acknowledged, to appease the concerns of constituents who believe the election was stolen, as Trump has falsely claimed.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R), who chairs an association representing Republican secretaries of states, said such efforts are laudable, particularly if they emphasize what he called the “gold standard” of in-person, Election Day voting.

“You can never sacrifice security, transparency or accountability for accessibility or availability of the ballot,” Merrill said.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have accused Republicans of seeking to make it harder for certain voters to cast ballots, noting that there was no evidence of significant fraud in 2020 that would have altered the outcome of state or federal elections. They say the reason so many GOP voters did not trust the 2020 outcome is that Trump and other elected Republicans told them not to.

“They’re legislating based on conspiracy theories,” said Rep. Athena Salman, a Democratic member of the Arizona House who is deep in battle with Republican legislators over a raft of proposed restrictions. “What you’re witnessing is a continuation of the January 6th coup attempt. That day should have been a wake-up call for everyone to step back and say, ‘This isn’t what we tolerate in our democracy.’ Instead, they got straight into their legislative sessions and the first bills they’re introducing make it harder for Americans to vote.”

President Biden on Thursday blasted efforts by Republican-led state legislatures to restrict voting, saying he was worried about “how un-American this whole initiative is.”

“This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” Biden said, emphasizing he would do “everything in my power” to pass legislation to protect voting rights.

In most cases, Republicans are proposing solutions in states where elections ran smoothly, including many where Trump and his allies did not contest the results at all. And where Trump did allege fraud, he lost narrowly to Biden in an election cycle with the largest voter turnout in more than a century. Changes to voting methods to accommodate the pandemic reshaped who turned out and how they voted, with a 116 million people — 73 percent of the electorate — casting their ballots before Election Day, according to a Washington Post analysis.

That makes the proposals to restrict voting in those battleground states all the more alarming to Democrats, voting rights advocates and even nonpartisan election officials, who fear that 2022’s elections will be even harder to administer without causing long lines or triggering sanctions under new rules that in some cases could be difficult to adhere to.

In Georgia, voting rights advocates said the bill signed into law Thursday could lead to a partisan takeover of election administration by giving the legislature three seats on the five-member State Election Board, which is currently dominated by Republicans. That restructuring could give the board more power to prescribe the actions of the secretary of state, who becomes a nonvoting member rather than the chair under the new law.

The secretary of state retains the power to certify election results. But critics said a partisan board could try to delay that process or intervene.

In a statement Friday, Raffensperger defended the new law, saying that it provides reasonable security measures and that the claims by critics of voter suppression “ring hollow.” He did not address the provisions that undercut the powers of the secretary of state.

The new law also gives the state elections board the power to suspend local election officials for violations of election rules or mismanagement and appoint a temporary superintendent. Performance reviews of local officials can now be triggered by state legislators.

State Sen. Max Burns (R), a leading advocate of the measure, said on the Senate floor Thursday that the law is designed to create more transparency and give the public opportunities to report their concerns about election administration.

“It is designed to provide more citizen oversight of our election process,” he said.

Democrats argued that giving the legislature the power to control the state board — which has oversight over the elections of the legislators themselves — creates a clear conflict of interest. Republicans, with majorities in both chambers, were giving themselves the power to intervene when election results do not suit them, as Trump tried to do in the fall, they said.

“It is that simple,” said state Sen. Elena Parent (D). “The election was not stolen, but what is happening before our eyes right now is an effort to steal elections.”

The law is already the subject of a federal lawsuit filed late Thursday by three civil rights groups, arguing that several of the law’s provisions, including a ban on third parties from giving food or drink to voters in line, new ID requirements for mail voting, a restriction on out-of-precinct voting and drop-box restrictions violate the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment by restricting access to the polls.

Republicans rejected claims that the law is an attempt to stymie voters, noting that the measure extends the state’s early-voting period.

“Contrary to the hyperpartisan rhetoric you may have heard inside and outside this gold dome, the facts are that this new law will expand voting access,” Kemp said Thursday after signing it into law.

Earlier in the day, in the Georgia House chamber, state Rep. Barry Fleming (R) said the 95-page bill “greatly expands accessibility of voters in Georgia and greatly improves the process of administration of elections, while at the same time providing more accountability to ensure the integrity of that vote.”

Several local election officials disagree. Before the vote, Cobb County elections director Janine Eveler sent legislators a detailed letter urging them to reconsider some of the bill’s numerous provisions, including the potential appearance of “stacking” the state board with legislative appointments and the provision that would allow legislators to replace a local election board with a single person.

“I think that the State Election Board is not the same as a transportation board and its composition needs to have a broad range of appointing entities,” Eveler said in her letter, which recommended giving the judiciary some appointment power.

Eveler also lamented that a requirement to report the total number of votes cast on election night would delay the reporting of results, and she said that a prohibition on the use of drop boxes except inside early-voting centers would “disrupt” in-person voting.

Rick Barron, the elections director in Fulton County, home of Atlanta, said he has no doubt that many of the provisions will lead to longer lines and longer processing times. The new law prohibits Fulton County from using Atlanta’s State Farm Arena as a counting facility, as it did in 2020; prohibits the county from using two mobile voting vans purchased last year for upward of $700,000; and prohibits the county from directly accepting private grants that last year helped with the purchase of election equipment.

Barron added that there were no complaints about security surrounding the drop boxes or the mobile voting vans. And no legislators contacted him to ask him about their use, he said.

“Putting drop boxes inside early-voting centers almost renders them useless,” he said. “I don’t understand why a mailbox that has no surveillance camera on it is more secure than a drop box that has a camera on it 24 hours a day.”