Republican legislators in several states are responding to the pandemic-prompted surge in vote-by-mail during the primaries by trying to make the process more difficult going forward.
Georgia is the latest state where Republican lawmakers are targeting a practice embraced by election officials from their own party as those officials sought to encourage voters to use mail-in voting.
More than half of Georgia’s primary voters cast ballots by mail, a major increase from the state’s past absentee voting rate of between 5 and 10 percent. Election experts have said that the move by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to mail all registered active voters an absentee ballot request form facilitated that expansion.
And though long in-person voting lines and technology challenges made Georgia’s primary a national disaster, those issues would have been much worse had the state not been so effective at increasing the use of vote by mail.
But now, Georgia Republicans are advancing legislation that would prohibit both state and local officials from proactively sending those applications to voters. The amendment, which was introduced on Wednesday to an already contentious bill, prompted both condemnation and confusion.
Raffensperger had already said that he was not planning on sending out absentee applications to all voters again in the fall, and that, instead, his office is creating an online portal for requesting mail ballots. His office says the shift in approach was due to budget and logistical challenges, and some election experts hope that he’ll reconsider sending out the ballot applications if more funding becomes available.
Critics of the new legislation point out that it would hamstring future secretaries of state who might want to proactively send out mail-in ballot applications, and that it would also block county officials who may otherwise choose to proactively send out applications.
Friday is the last day of Georgia’s legislative session, and it’s unclear whether Republicans will be able to push the elections bill out of the statehouse and onto the governor’s desk in time. But Georgia is at least the third state where legislators have tried to prohibit an approach that has largely been successful in expanding absentee voting amid the pandemic.
“Our government officials must have the ability to send everybody an absentee ballot application, if they should decide to do that, because that is what we need, especially during COVID-19,” said Aklima Khondoker, the Georgia state director of the voting group All Voting Is Local.
Efforts to ‘To Restrict The Ability of the Professionals’
The current actions by Georgia’s GOP legislators are part of a larger trend that’s emerged during the pandemic — and as President Trump has ramped up his false allegations about vote by mail.
In Ohio, where Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose has become a vocal supporter of vote by mail during the pandemic, GOP legislators tried to pass legislation stopping him from proactively mailing absentee voting applications — something the state had done for certain types of elections even before the pandemic.
The legislature ultimately backed down from the measure, but not without securing other concessions in the package, including a ban on LaRose sending prepaid postage for absentee voting.
A similar fight emerged in Iowa, where election officials were widely praised for how effectively they expanded absentee voting for that state’s June primary, which broke turnout records.
After Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate proactively sent registered voters absentee ballot applications for that primary, GOP lawmakers tried but failed to push through a bill banning him from doing so in the future.
Ultimately, the legislature instead inserted language into a budget bill that beefed up Iowa’s voter ID requirements and made the process more complicated for fixing discrepancies in a voter’s absentee ballot application.
David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research pointed to Iowa’s drama-free June election and said “we know what the path to success here is.”
“When it comes to legislators trying to restrict the ability of the professionals to do what needs to be done … that creates problems,” Becker said.
The Power Of ‘Active Engagement With Voters’
How these measures keep popping up in different states has voter advocates suspicious that it is being pushed by outside forces. Activists who were monitoring the Georgia bill say they were blindsided when the amendment was announced.
At that hearing, in front of the House Government Affairs Committee, Democratic members repeatedly asked who was sponsoring the amendment. Committee Chairman Shaw Blackmon (R) said it was being put forward by the “committee” but that he would “put” his “name on it,” even as he wouldn’t explicitly say it was his amendment.
Republicans’ comments at the hearing suggested that it was motivated by the fact that too many people sought to vote absentee, which they claimed caused too much of a logistical burden for election officials. They argued that campaigns and nonpartisan groups could send out the applications if they’d like to.
“All this says is that we’re not going to flood … this with unsolicited absentee ballots so that we actually create some problems for our counties,” Blackmon said at the hearing.
GOP lawmakers also attracted criticism from voter advocates for seeking to give Raffensperger until after this year’s elections to launch the online application portal.
An amendment the committee Republicans approved Wednesday pushed the implementation deadline to July 2021, though Raffensperger’s office says it’s still working toward launching the portal this fall, regardless of the deadline in the legislation.
Neither Blackmon nor any other GOP member of the committee responded to TPM’s inquiries. Raffensperger put out a statement that mostly bashed Democrats for other fights that have broken out around the primary, but said that “both the left and the right” were “weaponiz[ing]” election administration. He noted that his move to send out the applications had been broadly supported, while scoffing at those who “seem to be saying that our office should have ignored the wave of absentee voting that was clearly coming.”
Becker, who advised Georgia election officials in the primary, said there was “no question” that the move to send out the applications led to the high rate of absentee voting. He noted that that approach will be even more critical in November’s election, because that will attract more “infrequent voters” and it can be “really hard to find information on how to vote.”
“The active engagement with voters to tell them how to do something can be incredibly powerful,” he said.
Aunna Dennis, the director of Common Cause Georgia, called the amendment a “poison pill” that would have a disparate impact on “brown and black voters.”
She noted the “domino effect” of proposals like this popping up across the country and the lack of clarity around who was behind the Georgia measure.
“Someone is trying to remove the powers of our election administrators to be able to expand vote-by-mail and access to an equitable and fair ballot,” she said.