ABOVE PHOTO: Gerald Welty sits the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol as he waits to hear debate on voter legislation in Austin, Texas, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
By Christina A. Cassidy and Ryan J. Foley
As Republicans march ahead with their campaign to tighten voting laws in political battlegrounds, some in their party are worried the restrictions will backfire by making it harder for GOP voters to cast ballots.
The restrictions backed by Republicans in Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Texas and Arizona often take aim at mail voting, a method embraced by voters from both parties but particularly popular with older voters. The new rules, concerned Republicans note, may be billed as adding security or trust in elections but ultimately could add hurdles for key parts of the GOP coalition.
“The suppression tactics included in this bill would hurt the Republican Party as much or more than its opposition,” Texas state Rep. Lyle Larson, a Republican, said in an opinion column this week. “One can only wonder — are the bill authors trying to make it harder for Republican voters to vote?”
Last Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a wide-ranging voting bill. And early Friday, the GOP-controlled Texas House of Representatives advanced sweeping election bills after debate that started Thursday stretched well into the night. The push for new restrictions comes even though former President Donald Trump won both states last year and Republican officials touted their elections as fair and efficient. Critics charge the effort is meant to make it harder for Democrats to vote.
But some of the impact is likely to be bipartisan. The Texas proposals add new restrictions on early voting and prohibit county officials from sending ballot request forms to all registered voters. Until last year, it was Republicans who were more likely to cast mail ballots than Democrats were. In 2016, 40% of mail ballots were cast by people who had voted in a GOP primary, compared to 27% cast by Democratic primary voters. In Arizona, thousands of GOP voters could find themselves no longer automatically receiving ballots in the mail under a proposal that would remove infrequent voters from a permanent voting list.
Florida’s new law requires voters to request their mail ballots every two years, rather than every four. Critics of the idea argue that could lower voter turnout in off-year elections, when already far fewer voters cast ballots.
Any changes to mail voting in Florida is certain to affect older voters.
“Anything that makes it harder for people to cast their vote will have an oversized impact on seniors,” said Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican who voted against the bill.
He noted that many older adults live in his Pinellas County district: “I don’t think many of them understand the broader implications of this legislation yet. I don’t think many legislators understood it as it was going through the process.”
Republicans in other states are pressing ahead. In Ohio, another Republican-dominated state, a bill introduced Thursday would restrict placement of drop boxes, eliminate a day of early voting and tighten voter ID requirements.
In general, Republican supporters argue the changes will have minimal impact on voters and are aimed at boosting public confidence.
“It’s going to remain really easy to vote after this legislation is signed into law,” Iowa state Rep. Bobby Kauffman told colleagues in urging them to support his proposal that was signed into law in March. “This bill protects Iowans’ right to vote, and it adds certainty and security to it.”
Republican lawmakers have zeroed in on mail voting rules this year after a notable shift in voting patterns in the November election resulted in more Democrats casting mail ballots in a few key states.
That followed a year in which Republican voters heard repeatedly from Trump that mail voting was insecure and rife with fraud despite any evidence. The pandemic also drove core Democratic constituencies to mail voting to avoid crowded polling places.
It remains to be seen whether this trend will hold as pandemic restrictions ease and people return to pre-pandemic voting behaviors. In the past, especially in places like Florida, that’s meant more Republicans voting by mail.
“When you restrict access by reducing opportunities for voters, you are suppressing the vote for all voters,” said Adrian Fontes, a Democratic former chief elections official in Maricopa County, Arizona. “Many of the restrictions being proposed by Republicans are effectively a product of their ignorance of the voting habits of their own constituents.”
In Iowa, 76% of eligible voters cast ballots last November, among the highest rates in the nation, as Republicans swept races up and down the ballot. Trump easily won the state in what had been expected to be a close race, Republican Joni Ernst won reelection to the U.S. Senate, and Republicans flipped two U.S. House seats with no major problems or fraud reported.
And yet state lawmakers approved several changes to election laws, including a new statewide deadline for mail ballots that could mean an increase in the number of ballots rejected for arriving late. Previously, mail ballots were counted in Iowa as long as they were postmarked the day before the election and received by noon the following Monday.
If the new Election Day deadline had been in effect last November, it would have meant more ballots from registered Republicans tossed out: at least 689 compared to 649 Democratic ballots and 616 unaffiliated ones, according to a review of state data.
That combined with a new shortened period of just 20 days for when clerks can send out ballots means rural residents who prefer to vote by mail will have a narrow window to receive their ballots, fill them out and send them back. In 2020, this period spanned 29 days — a reduction from 40 days in 2016.
All this will undoubtedly affect rural parts of the state, where mail service is typically slower.
“Smaller rural counties have a large elderly population who typically choose to vote absentee because of weather or health concerns. Why are we making it harder for them to vote?” Rebecca Bissell, a Republican and the county elections commissioner in Adams County, asked lawmakers in February.
In Florida, Republicans have long held an advantage in mail voting. In 2016, about 940,000 more Republicans voted by mail. But last November, Florida Democrats outvoted Republicans by about 680,000 mail ballots amid a record 4.8 million total mail ballots cast. Trump still ended up carrying the state by about 3 percentage points.
Voting rights groups say Republicans are counting on the motivation and privilege of their own voters to overcome any hurdles they may face, leaving poor and minority voters to bear the brunt of these restrictions.
Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican operative who has since left the party, said there’s a risk that new elections rules in Florida could end up having other, unintended consequences.
“There’s also the possibility that by appearing to intentionally try to keep poor people of color from voting, you will incense them, and you’ll get exactly the reaction you didn’t want,” Stipanovich said.
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