CHICAGO - Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress after record-high US voter turnout in the 2020 election cycle. Now, Republicans are attempting to reshape election laws in state legislatures across the nation.
In state after state, Republicans seek to limit opportunities for early and absentee balloting that Americans flocked to last year.
In America’s heartland, Iowa is among the first examples of the trend.
More than 2 million Iowans were registered to vote in the 2020 general election, a record in a state with a population of just over 3.1 million.
Of 1.7 million ballots ultimately cast in Iowa last November, more than 1 million were submitted through the mail as absentee ballots — also a record — as many voters shunned the polls during a pandemic.
Former President Donald Trump, a Republican, won Iowa but lost the national election to Democrat Joe Biden.
Now Republicans, who control Iowa’s state legislature, have passed a bill limiting early, in-person voting and shortening the time allotted for absentee ballot submissions. Republicans argue that expanded use of both could invite fraudulent balloting even if no evidence of widespread fraud emerged from the 2020 elections.
'You make improvements'
“The question I get most often is, ‘Why?’” Iowa State Representative Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican, told fellow lawmakers during debate over the legislation in late February. “Why are we doing an election bill? ‘Do you not think that we had a successful 2020 election?’ I do. ‘Do you think that Iowa is rife with election fraud this last election?’ I do not. But the job of the state government committee is to ensure election integrity. You make improvements, and that’s exactly what we are doing here today.”
What Republicans promote as preventing potential voter fraud, Democrats see as voter suppression that would disproportionately impact minorities and other Democratic-leaning groups that sometimes struggle to get to the polls on Election Day.
“Iowans oppose this legislation and want us to make sure that it is easy to vote and hard to cheat,” State Rep. Eric Gjerde, a Democrat, explained to his colleagues during the legislative session ahead of voting on the measures. “We want to make the freedom to vote as easy as possible for every single Iowa voter. I have many constituents who work multiple jobs and are parents and need the flexibility to vote when they have the time.”
Democrats failed to defeat the Republican effort in Iowa, and the bill passed both houses of the state legislature with unified majority Republican backing.
Iowa is not alone, and Democrats are sounding the alarm.
At a recent hearing in Washington, newly elected Georgia Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff said legislation advancing in his state would disproportionately deter voting by minorities.
Ossoff said the legislation “would make it harder for Georgians to vote, for example, to end Sunday early voting, which is used heavily by Black and working-class voters.”
'No rationale for it'
Election observers say Georgia and Iowa are among dozens of states where Republicans seek to rewrite voting laws. They add that the timing, immediately after Democratic electoral victories, is no coincidence.
“It’s pretty widespread,” said Michelle Kanter Cohen, senior counsel at the Fair Election Center, who spoke to VOA during a recent Skype interview. “It’s not surprising to me having worked in this area of voting rights for some time to see a backlash against a high turnout election.”
The Fair Election Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization addressing voting rights and election registration reform. Kanter Cohen said she has a hard time understanding many of the current changes under consideration in state legislatures.
“There’s no rationale for it being given that makes any sense,” she told VOA. “It’s not as if there was, for example, a problem with the polls being open until 9 instead of 8. In fact, voters who work a long day may only be able to vote at that time.”
Others say the end result of Republicans’ efforts is hard to predict.
“A lot of things that are meant to objectively suppress the vote have instead angered people who then showed up in record numbers,” said Jessica Huseman, editorial director at Votebeat, an independent, nonpartisan news organization covering election integrity.
Huseman said some of the proposed reforms are practical, not problematic.
“There are a lot of states, for example, whose deadlines for requesting absentee ballots were unrealistically close to the election. So, election administrators just didn’t have time to get those ballots out the door and have voters return them,” she told VOA during a recent Skype interview. “But there is certainly no need to change broad swaths of the election system that we have now. You see states that are overcorrecting from perceived but not real problems from the 2020 election in order to satisfy the most extreme part of their base.”
Voting reforms in Iowa await the signature of that state’s Republican governor, the first in what Huseman said could be a wave of voting changes in multiple states ahead of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections that could determine how much of Biden’s agenda in the second half of his term in office becomes law.