GOP-controlled legislatures look to overhaul election laws ahead of 2022 midterms

Lawmakers are introducing bills that would give partisan figures more power.

February 10, 2022, 2:20 PM

After the 2021 legislative session brought a new wave of efforts to redistrict along partisan lines and restrict voting access, Republican legislators in some states are now looking to intervene further in the electoral process.

In battlegrounds like Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers are introducing bills that would give partisan figures more power when it comes to certifying election results or choosing electors.

At least 13 states have introduced legislation targeting the electoral process, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, an organization tracking election laws across the country. States are considering bills that would allow regular citizens to launch election audits, impose sanctions on election officials and give partisan actors the authority to remove election officials from office.

PHOTO: In this June 22, 2021, file photo, people vote during the primary election in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In this June 22, 2021, file photo, people vote during the primary election day in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images, FILE

Last week in Arizona, where a state Senate-ordered partisan review of the 2020 election kept alive the conspiracy that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers killed a bill that would increase the oversight statehouses have over elections. Bowers, who Trump supporters targeted in the aftermath of the 2020 election, did not assign the bill to a committee, which blocked it from moving forward.

The legislation would have ultimately allowed the currently GOP-controlled legislature to overturn results of legislative, congressional and statewide races by allowing the legislature to call itself into session to examine the ballot tabulation process. If the legislature accepted the results, the official canvass of the vote would proceed. But if the body denied the results, any elector would be able to request holding a new election.

"We need to get back to 1958-style voting," one of the bill's 15 sponsors said in a committee hearing before the bill was killed.

The now-stalled effort was introduced alongside at least 70 other pieces of election-related legislation in Arizona. Many of the bills would increase the power of state legislatures or partisan actors to call for an audit of results. A Republican majority in the legislature and a Republican governor give those bills an easier pathway to passage.

In a meeting with Democratic leaders, Arizona Democratic Party Chair Sen. Raquel Terán talked about the realities of the political landscape.

"Michigan and Wisconsin have been lucky to have a Democratic governor who will veto these dangerous voter suppression bills that come out of the state legislature," she said. "For us, having a Democrat in that seat will ensure the safety of our right to vote."

PHOTO: In this Nov. 6, 202, file photo, election workers validate ballots at the Gwinnete County Elections Office in Lawrenceville, Ga.
In this Nov. 6, 202, file photo, election workers validate ballots at the Gwinnete County Elections Office in Lawrenceville, Ga.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, FILE

In Wisconsin, where President Joe Biden beat Trump by only about 21,000 votes, Republican lawmakers have introduced more than a dozen election reform bills, mainly targeted at the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

One piece of legislation would require commissioners to submit all election guidance to the GOP-controlled legislature for approval, giving it control over election rules and advisories. Another bill gives the legislature the power to fire employees and reduce funding for the elections commissioners if lawmakers determine any of them violated election law.

This marks the second time Republicans have tried to overhaul election laws in the state following the 2020 election. In June, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a package of similar proposals.

"As long as I'm governor of this great state, anti-democracy efforts like this will never see the light of day," he promised.

Yet a new package of proposals is quickly circulating through Senate committees, highlighting the agenda Republicans are hoping to pursue should Evers lose reelection during the upcoming midterms. Both Rebecca Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson, leading GOP gubernatorial candidates, have voiced support for the legislative efforts.

The measures also come at a time when the state Supreme Court is taking on a case brought on by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, challenging the validity of absentee ballot drop boxes.

PHOTO: In this Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks in Lansing, Mich. | In this Jan. 22, 2019, file photo, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers speaks in Madison, Wis.
In this Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks in Lansing, Mich. | In this Jan. 22, 2019, file photo, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers speaks in Madison, Wis.
Pool via Reuters | Andy Manis/AP

In Michigan, there's a similar story brewing. Republicans passed legislation imposing regulations on funding for elections and preventing the secretary of state from mailing absentee ballot applications to people unless they specifically request them. However, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed the legislation. Now, a new initiative would empower GOP legislators to adopt the reforms without her approval.

Audit MI is a petition initiative that would force another audit of the 2020 election and create a bipartisan audit board, chosen by the legislature, to be in charge of investigating elections moving forward, stripping power from the secretary of state. If the petition obtains more than 340,000 signatures and approval from the state's GOP-controlled legislature, it will become law, circumventing any potential veto from Whitmer.

The renewed push from Republicans in battleground states to take over election laws ahead of the 2022 midterms has put a bigger spotlight on local elections.

"We've got to vote from the bottom of the ticket, which is where you will find the folks who actually administer those elections that are so important to us, all the way to the top where you'll find our governor, who we need to continue to veto these bills," Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said.

While these kinds of election laws were passed at an unprecedented rate last year, some legislators are fighting back. Last year, 62 voter expansion laws were enacted in 25 states and at least 32 states are considering legislation protecting electoral systems, analysis from the Brennan Center found.

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikle says Democrats hope voting issues will energize their base as the midterms quickly approach.

"Republican attempts to suppress the vote actually can infuriate people so that we organize and find ways around the hurdles that they put up to ensure we get out even more voters," he said.

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