Voting rights legislation across country looks to both restrict, expand access

A new report looked at proposed state bills and how they would affect elections.

January 27, 2021, 8:00 PM

It's been less than three months since the U.S. saw a record-breaking election turnout, and state leaders across the country are introducing legislation that changes how their localities would operate future elections.

But one watchdog group is already raising flags over some of these bills, particularly ones in key swing states.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan, independent organization that analyzes election rules, released a study Tuesday that found 28 states have introduced 106 bills that would restrict voting access by various means, including mandating voter ID and adding more conditions for requesting mail-in ballots.

At the same time, 35 states have introduced over 400 bills to expand voter access, including ones that would increase access to mail-in ballots and increase early voting, the report said.

By comparison, there were 35 similarly restrictive voting bills in 15 states and 188 similarly expansive voting bills introduced in 28 states in February 2020, according to the study.

PHOTO: A woman casts her ballot at Philadelphia City Hall, Oct. 27, 2020, in Philadelphia.
A woman casts her ballot at Philadelphia City Hall, Oct. 27, 2020, in Philadelphia.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel for the Brennan Center, told ABC News state legislators are reacting to the overwhelming turnout during last year's election, where over 155 million Americans cast a ballot. Sweren-Becker warned that any of these bills would have a major effect on turnout.

"I think the big overall takeaway is: Democracy reform as an issue is not going away just because we’re not in a presidential year," she said.

Here are some of the biggest bills and proposals that have been introduced in statehouses.

Restrictive bills and proposals

Swing state Pennsylvania, which has a Republican majority in the state legislature, has 14 election-related bills that the Brennan Center called restrictive, the most of any state so far.

President Joe Biden won the state with just 81,660 votes in November, with a large number of votes coming from mail-in ballots, according to election results.

The state adopted "no-excuse" absentee ballot voting in 2019, which means people do not need a reason to request an absentee mail-in ballot. However, there are three different proposals announced by leaders in the Pennsylvania state legislature that look to remove that provision, according to the Brennan Center report. Another Pennsylvania bill would allow election offices to reject absentee ballots solely based on mismatched signatures.

Sweren-Becker noted that the Pennsylvania state courts ruled last year that absentee ballots couldn't be rejected just on mismatched signatures alone.

"It is concerning that elected officials are trying to take away a tool that their voters used, and frankly preferred to use, in voting," she said.

PHOTO: Voters enter Southeast Regional Library to cast their ballots, Nov. 3, 2020 in Gilbert, Ariz.
Voters enter Southeast Regional Library to cast their ballots, Nov. 3, 2020 in Gilbert, Ariz.
Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

Bills have also been introduced in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Washington, Virginia, Nebraska, Wyoming and Nebraska that would require voter ID at poll sites.

Sweren-Becker said such laws have been created because of unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Voter ID laws have directly resulted in fewer Americans, particularly minorities and low-income citizens who don't have access to driver's licenses or passports, from registering to vote, she said.

"People are latching onto the lies of voter fraud, which was disproven time and again in the courts last year," Sweren-Becker said. "Legislators are using that lie to restrict access to the ballot box."

The Brennan Center report also highlighted a bill in Arizona that would purge the permanent early voter list if a voter didn't participate in two consecutive election cycles. During last year's election, over 2.4 million Arizona voters voted early, marking a trend across the country that saw a rise in early votes, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

Over 101 million Americans voted early in the 2020 election, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

Expansive bills and proposals

Sweren-Becker also noted that state elected officials, even in states that have previously restricted voter access, are looking at the historic turnout and working on ways to keep civic engagement strong during future election days.

The report noted that in Texas, Missouri and Alabama, three states which require voter ID, bills have been introduced that would establish no-excuse mail-in voting.

"There are legislators that are picking up on things that their voters have been asking," Sweren-Becker said.

Eight states, including New York, Kentucky and New Jersey, have proposed legislation that would allow for localities to set up mail ballot drop boxes, according to the report. Seven states -- Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and South Carolina -- have bills that would introduce early in-person voting, the Brennan Center said.

One major piece of legislation seen across several states affects the disenfranchisement of felons, the Brennan Center report said. Fifteen states, including Texas, Oregon, New York and Mississippi, have introduced policies that would restore voting rights or ease current restrictions for people with past convictions, according to the report.

"That follows not only the trend of addressing voting access, but also the inequities of our criminal justice system," Sweren-Becker said.

The future

It's unknown how many of the election-related bills will be passed or if the governors in those states will ultimately sign off on them, Sweren-Becker said.

She noted that legislators will have to wrestle with the fact that expanded voter access is popular among a majority of voters on both sides of the aisle.

PHOTO: Residents wait in line to cast ballots for the Senate runoff elections at a polling location in Atlanta, Jan. 5, 2021.
Residents wait in line to cast ballots for the Senate runoff elections at a polling location in Atlanta, Jan. 5, 2021.
Aboubacar Kante/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There will likely be more voting rights bills and proposals on the state level as the year continues, according to Sweren-Becker. Voters, she said, still have some power to influence the future of those proposals.

"Voters should reach out to their state elected officials and voice their opinions on voting rights," she said.