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States push to change voting laws ahead of 2024 election

State lawmakers around the U.S. concerned about the integrity of elections ahead of the 2024 presidential vote have proposed and enacted an unprecedented number of laws to restrict — and, in some cases, expand — voting rights and ballot access.

Capital News Service

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By Emmaline Luetkemeyer and Emily Richardson
With contributions from Allie Haggar, Claire Grunewald, Brody Foster, Morgan Severson, and Amelia Kimball

State lawmakers around the U.S. concerned about the integrity of elections ahead of the 2024 presidential vote have proposed and enacted an unprecedented number of laws to restrict — and, in some cases, expand — voting rights and ballot access.

In Virginia, lawmakers recently voted to rejoin a national membership organization that helps maintain voter rolls.

The nonpartisan Election Registration Information Center, or ERIC, ensures up-to-date voter rolls and helps voters register when they move, according to Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico. Virginia was a founding member of ERIC in 2012 under the direction of former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Virginia withdrew from ERIC in May 2023, citing other states departing and “increasing concerns regarding stewardship, maintenance, privacy and confidentiality of voter information,” among other reasons, according to a letter from the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections. Nine states had left ERIC by October 2023, according to VanValkenburg.

VanValkenburg introduced Senate Bill 606 to require state membership in ERIC and a budget amendment to cover membership fees. Democrats narrowly pushed the proposal past both chambers, where they hold a slim majority. The problem could be the governor’s pen, because Virginia Democrats do not have the two-thirds majority to overturn a veto. The bill has a governor’s action deadline of March 8.

At present, 24 states and the District of Columbia are ERIC members. There was a recent exodus of Republican-led member states fueled by “right-wing misinformation,” according to VanValkenburg.

Virginia attempted to reform the organization’s bylaws before leaving, according to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s spokesperson Christian Martinez. Virginia signed agreements with six nearby states last September to share data and “securely compare voter lists and identify potential voter fraud.”

“Virginia decided to diversify its list maintenance efforts, successfully sought direct access to state and federal data sources and increased the number of states from where we receive data,” Martinez stated.

Virginia Democrats see rejoining ERIC as the superior option, despite data-sharing agreements with the nearby states. Virginia should not have left ERIC in the first place, because it was an agreement that worked, VanValkenburg said.

“You can look at a number of comments from election officials across the country, including election officials in states that left ERIC, that show that there’s really no replacement,” VanValkenburg said.

The governor will review any legislation that comes to his desk, his spokesperson responded when asked about a potential veto.

Election law became a partisan issue as a result of misinformation former President Donald Trump and other election deniers spread about ERIC and election administration, VanValkenburg said.

“I think ERIC got caught up in the big lie of the 2020 election, and unfortunately that’s filtered its way down to the votes on rejoining,” VanValkenburg said.

It is important for the legislature to prioritize voter access and secure elections, VanValkenburg said.

Under a Democratic governor and legislature in 2020, Virginia lawmakers reformed election laws to expand voting access. Measures included a 45-day early voting period, permanent absentee voter list, recognition of Election Day as a state holiday and same-day voter registration.

Republican efforts to overturn some of these bills have been thwarted.

Voters could face new requirements in 2024

In the shadow of the 2020 presidential election, states enacted more “restrictive” and “expansive” laws related to voting in 2021 and 2023 individually than in any other years in the last decade, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Because of this, voters in 27 states will face new requirements that weren’t in place when they voted in 2020.

From outlawing guns in polling places to proposing “mugshot bills,” states across the country continue to consider new legislation that modifies the voting process, and imposes new regulations on ballot counting, absentee and early voting, polling places and election workers.

“Generally among legislators at the state and national level, concerns about voter fraud have become more pronounced,” said David Kimball, a political science professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Kimball said this sort of legislation has increased since the 2020 election, after Trump made unfounded accusations that electronic voting equipment was making mistakes.

For example, at least 13 bills to regulate or ban electronic ballot tabulators were introduced in eight states this year, including Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire and West Virginia, according to Voting Rights Lab data.

Pending legislation in Missouri proposes that all ballots should be cast on paper and hand counted. The bill outlaws the use of automatic tabulating equipment and voting machines, except those needed for accessibility purposes. More than 90% of U.S. election jurisdictions use ballot tabulators, according to the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center.

Ballot-counting scanners are widely used in states like Missouri even though people still vote on paper ballots, Kimball said. Counties will hand-count a random sample of ballots to ensure it matches up with the machines.

“It’s not like they’re relying entirely on the scanners,” Kimball said. “In big, big counties with hundreds of thousands of voters and ballots counted by hand, it’s going to take time and can be very frustrating and prone to errors.”

No excuses and ballot drop-off

How advanced voting and absentee ballots are handled is a hot-button topic.

Mail-in, advanced and absentee voting are under scrutiny in many states, including Florida, Kansas, and Missouri and Virginia.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states offer “no-excuse” absentee voting, where voters can request and cast an absentee or mail ballot with no excuse or reason necessary.

Florida allows “no excuse” absentee voting, but Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, tried to change that. Ingoglia proposed SB 1752, which would allow voters to cast mail ballots only if they couldn’t vote in person because they were out of town during an election, hospitalized or in jail. A similar measure was introduced in Virginia, but also failed to advance.

Ballot drop-off in several states is subject to change, too.

One Kansas bill, nicknamed the “mugshot bill,” sparked controversy during its February hearing. HB 2572 mandates personal delivery of a ballot and requires individuals to have their pictures taken and their information recorded when delivering advance voting ballots on behalf of others.

In Florida, the Republican-led State Affairs Committee proposed a bill that would limit the number of ballot drop-off locations during early voting periods across the state.

Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis previously banned official ballot drop-off boxes that aren’t physically guarded at all times when they’re available, which made it more expensive for county election administrators and reduced the number of drop-off locations.

Separately, Florida Republicans required voters to request a new ballot before every election. Before the change, a voter could receive a mail ballot by making a single request every four years. Far more Democrats in Florida cast ballots by mail and during early voting periods, while Republicans tend to show up on Election Day.

A new polling place atmosphere

Polling places and election workers around the country are facing new rules, too.

New Mexico’s Senate recently passed a bill, SB 5, that makes bringing a loaded or unloaded gun within 100 feet of a polling place’s door while voting takes place a misdemeanor.

SB 5 specifies that law enforcement and concealed carry permit holders are two exceptions. Some conservatives and rural Democrats opposed the bill, and it passed the state House by a single vote.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until March 6 to sign the bill, which she is expected to do.

The Virginia General Assembly recently passed a similar measure proposed by Del. Irene Shin, D-Fairfax. The bill passed both chambers on party-line votes, but still faces a Republican governor.

In Missouri, SB 926 would expand the regulation of exit polling, sampling and electioneering to apply not only to polling places on Election Day, but during the absentee voting period as well.

The bill would also create the offense of “tampering with an election official,” which includes harassing, intimidating or deceiving an election official or their family members. Committing the offense could result in imprisonment and a $2,500 to $10,000 fine.

“On the safety side, this is something I think has become an increasing concern since 2020: threats to election workers,” Kimball said, adding, “that’s spurred, I think, some legislators to propose measures to increase safety.”

Following false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, counties across the U.S. experienced a surge in threats directed towards election workers, according to multiple reports and studies. This increase in threats led to an exodus of election personnel.

To alleviate staffing gaps at polling stations, Kansas considered a bill to broaden the pool of eligible poll workers. Kansas HB 2616 would expand eligibility to include active military members, their spouses or dependents and full-time college students regardless of residency or registered voter status.

“The best way to improve voter confidence is to have them be a poll worker,” Kansas Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Fort Leavenworth, told the committee. “When you actually see how the process works and all the safeguards that are in place, it really does make you think there is no way to corrupt this. The more people we can get to participate the better.”

Changing access to the polls

At least 240 bills that would change early voting availability in 41 states were introduced, and some enacted, since January 2023, according to Voting Rights Lab data.

For example, as a response to the poll worker staffing shortage, Kansas HB 2512 would mandate at least four hours of early voting on the Saturday before the election starting this year and then take away the Monday in-person early voting period starting in 2025.

Texas HB 1217, which went into effect Sept. 1, aims to standardize voting hours for rural and urban communities by requiring all counties to offer extended early voting hours.

According to an analysis of the bill, inconsistent voting times between counties meant residents in rural counties had “less time to vote than if they lived in a metropolitan area.” Polling locations in most metropolitan areas already operated under extended early voting hours.

Additionally, Texans from rural parts of the state can expect to see more polling locations with longer hours this election cycle.

Nearly 90 counties, most of them rural, are a part of the state’s Countywide Polling Place Program, which allows residents from any precinct in the county to vote at any location. The program, which counties voluntarily opted into, allows counties to combine smaller precincts and consolidate voting locations since residents could vote throughout the county.

But under Texas SB 924, which also went into effect Sept. 1, combined precincts in counties participating in the program cannot contain more than 10,000 voters, making them need more polling locations to comply with the law.

Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization, reported that some smaller Texas counties will have to double their polling locations to comply with the new law, while bigger counties that already offer a large number of voting locations may not need to add any.

Kimball, the political science professor, said that while the overall increase in the volume of proposed legislation is a reaction to fears related to the voting process, needed improvements can still result.

“In general, there are very miniscule rates of voter fraud in the United States … So at least in terms of combating fraud, there aren’t any major problems there that need to be corrected…” Kimball said. “But there are always ideas for making registration procedures more efficient and maybe a little more accessible to people who face challenges.”

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