The US battle over voting rights

©Agence France-Presse

Protestors for voting rights in front of the US Supreme Court

Washington (AFP) - Americans turned out in record numbers for the 2020 election, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, but Republicans in many states are marking that achievement with new laws to make it harder to vote.

Republicans claim that expanded hours for voting, wider access to mail-in ballots, and other accommodations made for the coronavirus pandemic led to extensive voter fraud.

Democrats say there is no evidence for that, and that Republicans, after losing the White House and Senate in the November vote, simply want to make it harder for many people, especially African-Americans, Native Americans and others who tend to support Democrats, to participate in elections.

But since January 17 Republican-controlled states have adopted new laws to restrict voting, and more are weighing such actions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The fight over the restrictions has drawn comparisons with decades ago when laws were drawn up across the south to prevent Blacks from voting.

The kinds of restrictions Republicans are pushing include:

  • Harder to register to vote:

Many states have permitted citizens, if not already registered to vote, to do so on election day with simple evidence of their residency in the state.

But the new legislation in some states demands they register early and do so with an official ID card like a driver's licence. The problem? Many -- according to the ACLU, 21 million people -- do not have drivers' licenses or any other form of official ID. The civil liberties group says ID requirements hit the poor more than others, and can result in a 2-3 percent fall in voter turnout.

Some Republican legislation is making it harder to register in other ways. Political parties have traditionally gone from door to door to help people register; new rules in Florida restrict this.

In North Dakota, one rule that Republicans proposed that was rejected was to require a street address from anyone who registers. That was targeted at native Americans who live on reservations without street designations and largely use Post Office boxes.

  • Limiting access to by-mail voting:

Many states expanded voting by mail in 2020 to address the challenge of the coronavirus. They also built on the experience of a handful of states like Colorado that have had universal by-mail voting for years. In the 2020 election the number of people who voted by mail more than doubled from four years earlier, resulting in many ballots being delivered late and not counted until days after election day.

Republicans in a number of states have proposed or passed new legislation limiting who can vote by mail. Georgia cut in half the time allowed to obtain a mail-in ballot.

Arizona proposed to require that every mailed ballot be post-marked five days before an election -- ignoring evidence from 2020 that many mailed ballots are not post-marked.

Colorado and other states send mail-in ballots to every registered voter. In June Wisconsin's Republican legislature voted to require anyone wanting a mail-in ballot to formally request it in writing, with a copy of their ID. That will discourage mail-in or absentee ballots.  

Georgia and other states have moved to limit the availability of drop-boxes for mail ballots, also making it more difficult to cast a ballot.

Early voting limits:

Also due to the Covid-19 pandemic, early voting in person was expanded by the number of days and hours per day in many states, helping to expand overall turnout. Now legislators in some states are shortening the  number of days and the hours for early voting. That can make it difficult for people who work long hours to be able to vote, which can affect poorer people disproportionately. It can also lead to longer lines to vote on election day, which also discourages people.

Help for voters:

On election day in Georgia last year -- as in several other states in many election cycles -- voters in largely Democrat, African-American districts had to wait in line for hours. To help them with the long wait volunteers handed out water and snacks. Now Georgia is banning people from providing snacks, while not taking action to make sure lines are shorter.

Republicans also want to prevent people from delivering ballots to election offices for those who cannot do so themselves. This tactic is being used against native Americans who live on sprawling reservations -- and who vote largely Democratic, in Arizona and Montana. A new law in Montana bans organized ballot collection on reservations.