WASHINGTON — Travis County, home of Texas’ state capital, recently reported it had to reject half of the applications for mail ballots for the March 1 primary because of stricter requirements in a new election law enacted by Republican state legislators last year.
Supporters of the law, known as Senate Bill 1, argued that the added ID requirements would improve "the integrity of elections" and reduce the number of application rejections. But Travis County said many other Texas counties also had the same high rejection rate.
"A lot of the restrictive laws that were passed last year are really going to be tested. and we’re going to understand the full impact of what those restrictions have on voters this year," said Jasleen Singh, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
Senate Democrats last week tried to pass two sweeping voting rights and election bills to set national standards and to reverse many of the new state laws. But solid Senate Republican opposition and two Democrats refusing to revise the filibuster blocked the bills.
That leaves the battleground over voting and election laws in the states.
Last year, a surge of new voting and election laws passed in state legislatures, largely in response to former President Donald Trump’s allegation that the 2020 election was stolen from him — despite certification of the popular vote by states and of the Electoral College vote by Congress.
Texas is one of 19 states that passed 34 laws limiting access to voting in 2021 and one of 18 states that have more restrictive voting bills awaiting the 2022 legislative session, according to the Brennan Center, which supports expanding voter access.
Brennan found that 25 states enacted 62 laws to expand voting. "What we're finding is a widening gap of basically where you live is increasingly determinative of how easily you can cast a vote," Singh told Newsday.
Here are some of the most contentious issues in the state legislative battleground over voting and elections.
Mail ballots last year drew the most legislation, largely because of the historic expansion of absentee and vote-by-mail options to address voting during the pandemic in 2020, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Mail voting has become increasingly popular. Last year, California, Nevada and Vermont joined five other states by adopting all-mail elections.
Yet other states — including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Texas — went the other direction, passing laws to limit access to mail ballots, with shorter deadlines, an end to sending unrequested applications or ballots, a ban on assistance to mail voters and other methods.
"Voting by mail is more insecure than any other form of voting," according to Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky. The right-leaning foundation said mail ballots should be reserved for the disabled or those who cannot vote in person.
But several studies say that documented fraud is hard to find, and the states, including Colorado and Utah, that use only mail ballots said they have not detected widespread fraud.
In the name of protecting the integrity of elections, 15 states last year adopted changes in election procedures to the limit the time people can vote, to require picture IDs to register to vote and to cast ballots, to reduce polling places and to step up purges of voter rolls.
Georgia, Iowa and Texas limited early voting hours. Iowa closes polls an hour earlier. Alabama banned curbside voting, used by many disabled people unable to climb up steps to inside voting. Georgia banned groups from giving food or water to people waiting in line to vote.
And Florida, Georgia, Indiana and Iowa limited the number, location or availability of mail ballot drop boxes, another option that became widespread during the pandemic in 2020.
"Election reforms passed in states like Georgia and Texas have made it easier to vote and harder to cheat," Spakovsky said. "Reforms such as voter ID do not suppress anyone's vote."
The Iowa secretary of state’s press aide told reporters every household "has its own drop box: the mailbox. There are also 4,000 blue mailboxes" in the state to drop off applications or absentee ballots.
But Iowa ACLU executive director Mark Stringer said in a statement, "Early voting, absentee ballots, satellite voting, and keeping voting booths open longer all make it easier for people to vote. There is absolutely no evidence that these measures encourage any fraud."
Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine School of Law and other experts on election law have raised an alarm about Republican laws and bills that could result in the overturning of a state’s final vote or turn over election audits and duties to partisans.
In Arkansas, for example, a new law allows the majority-party-controlled state board and county boards of election commissioners to replace county election officials and elected county clerks. And a new Georgia law gives the state elections board and legislature greater power to intervene in county elections and to replace county election boards or an election supervisor.
At least six Republican state legislatures have allowed outside partisan groups to access and review ballots from the 2020 election — including the well-publicized audit of the election results in Arizona’s Maricopa County.
Arizona’s Senate President Karen Fann offered a justification for the audit: "A lot of our constituents have a lot of questions about how the voting, the electoral system works, the security of it, the validity of it."
The audit by the outside CyberNinja group found some irregularities, but not enough to have changed the outcome of the election. Trump and his supporters falsely claim it shows that the presidential election was stolen.
In the courts
Much of the battle over new voter and election laws — and redrawing the boundaries of state legislative and congressional districts — is already being fought by advocacy groups in the courts with dozens of lawsuits in states across the country.
The U.S. Justice Department also has weighed in. Last June, it filed a lawsuit against Georgia’s sweeping elections law, saying it effectively discriminates against Black voters and seeking to show that state lawmakers intended to violate their rights.
And it also filed two lawsuits against Texas, one in December against the redistricting map for allegedly discriminating against Latino and Black voters, and an earlier case in November against the Texas election law, arguing it violates the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act by imposing restrictions at polling locations and through absentee ballots.
Pointedly, the lawsuit takes aim at the Texas law’s new identification requirements to obtain an absentee ballot — the same one that county election officials complain have required them to reject hundreds of ballot applications.
Requiring rejection of mail ballots and mail ballot requests "because of certain paperwork errors or omission that not material to establishing a voter’s eligibility to cast a ballot" violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Justice Department said in a statement.
It added, "The complaint asks the court to prohibit Texas from enforcing these requirements."