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Voter turnout was a 2020 bright spot, but it might not continue

It’s not surprising that Democrats in Congress want to make voting easier nationally and Republicans want new barriers

Voters stand in line on the last day of early voting at Lenora Park Gym in Snellville, Ga., on Oct. 30, 2020.
Voters stand in line on the last day of early voting at Lenora Park Gym in Snellville, Ga., on Oct. 30, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — More than two-thirds of all eligible Americans, almost 160 million people, voted in the November elections. It was the highest turnout rate in 120 years, according to the United States Elections Project.

Seeing that kind of turnout again, though, is far from likely, and not just because 2020 was fueled by intense public feelings for and against Donald Trump.

The turnout spike also came as a global pandemic made voting easier than ever for many voters. Red and blue states alike recognized they could not run elections as many of them always had, with voting happening mostly for a fixed number of hours on one day in November in polling sites at schools, churches and community centers overseen by a workforce of retiree-dominated temps.

Some states removed requirements that people needed specific excuses to vote by mail, or made fear of catching the coronavirus a valid excuse to get an absentee ballot. Some mailed unsolicited ballot applications, or ballots themselves, to every registered voter. Many set up drop boxes where ballots could be delivered around the clock without the use of a suddenly unreliable U.S. Postal Service. Some opened early voting sites in locations with lots of parking and space for socially distanced crowds, such as Nationals Park.

So instead of having to set the alarm earlier to vote before work, or get someone to watch the kids, people could vote in person when it fit their schedule or fill out a ballot in the living room and then drop it off on the way to CVS or Safeway.

Now, with the virus killing more than 4,000 people a day, the question is what happens next. And, like a lot of questions, there’s a Grand Canyon between Republicans and Democrats. 

Some 75 percent of Americans say it is extremely or very important that the federal government address election laws and voting access, according to a poll by Monmouth University released Wednesday. The poll did not ask what those laws should do, but responses to another question in the same survey, released Tuesday, indicate answers would probably be widely divergent. When asked if “the 2020 election was conducted fairly and accurately,” the poll found 66 percent of the overall public was very or somewhat confident it was. But that figure dropped to 27 percent for Republicans and shot up to 97 percent for Democrats. 

It’s not surprising, then, that Democrats in Congress want to make voting easier nationally, and Republicans want new barriers.

Democrats introduced a 791-page bill, co-sponsored by Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself, that has the number HR 1 to symbolize its priority. It won’t come up in the House until late February or early March, however, and no one knows what the 50-50 Senate will do. A similar bill with the same number passed the House in 2019, then died in the GOP-controlled Senate.

While the sweeping bill would also change campaign finance and ethics laws and even make the District of Columbia a state, the first 407 pages focus on elections. It would mandate automatic, same-day and internet voter registration; no-excuse, postage-free absentee voting; one drop box for every 20,000 voters; and 10 hours a day of early voting for two weeks before Election Day at sites with access to public transportation. The bill also would restrict local election officials from purging registration lists or closing polling sites without notice, and it would make it a federal crime to intimidate voters or deceive them about polling times or places. 

Members of the Republican Study Committee, meanwhile, have introduced a bill that would prohibit drop boxes, automatic voter registration and mailing unsolicited ballots. No one other than voters themselves, election officials or the post office could deliver ballots to polling sites. “Citizenship verification” would be required for prospective voters, who would have to give their Social Security numbers to register and vote absentee. IDs would be required to vote in person. Once ballot counting starts, it cannot stop until completed.

Ironically, both sides talk about the need for “guardrails.” Democrats want them to protect voters from election officials trying to put hurdles in their way, and Republicans want them to keep undocumented immigrants from voting and crooked campaigns from stuffing ballot boxes full of purloined mail-in ballots.

“Before we make widespread absentee voting the norm, we need to be comfortable we’re addressing security,” said Jason Snead of the conservative group Honest Elections Project. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to take voting out of the public polling place and put it in people’s private homes and also allow for organized vote harvesting, do away with signature verification and witness requests. That’s a lot of where the front line in this contest is.”

Both bills say they apply only to federal elections, but the reality is states are not likely to create separate systems for federal and local elections. So the bills effectively federalize a process that for the republic’s first two centuries-plus has largely been left to states and localities.

It’s more likely both bills will be used for campaign messaging than become law. Already, supporters of D.C. statehood have broken that part out as a separate bill. 

So that means changes that do happen to voting are going to take place at the state level. Overall, states have been making voting easier since the debacle of the 2000 presidential election, according to Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Absentee or mail-in voting and early voting went from the single digits to maybe one-third of all votes,” Underhill said. “So even if 2020 is an aberration, we often see when voters experience early in-person voting or no-excuse absentee voting, they like having those options. We are a convenience society.”

But the false outcry from Trump about rampant fraud in 2020 is causing a backlash in states where his supporters dominate politics.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University released a study Tuesday showing that state legislators have introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access when compared to the same point last year.

“They’re misdiagnosing the problem. They think the reason Trump lost is because of Democrats voting by mail,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Brennan Center fellow and law professor at Stetson University. “It’s entirely possible that Trump so badmouthed voting by mail that it probably depressed the vote-by-mail by Republicans in enough key states that he lost his own presidency.”

Marc Elias, the Democratic attorney who battled efforts by Trump and his supporters to overturn election results, said in an email Thursday that Republicans are using Trump’s false fraud complaints to achieve a long-standing goal.

“While Republican legislators have been pushing voter suppression laws for decades, it’s clear that the GOP’s historic losses in November have only fueled their appetite to disenfranchise young and minority voters,” Elias wrote. “The states with the harshest laws will likely be the same places where Trump’s most wild accusations of fraud were disseminated and rejected.”

Herb Jackson is CQ Roll Call’s politics editor.

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