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Senators warn of threats to ’24 election, but disagree on what they are

Election security takes center stage in a pair of hearings

A pair of Senate panels this week held hearings on voting rights and election security. Above, a voter prepares to cast a ballot at a polling place in Arlington, Va., on March 5.
A pair of Senate panels this week held hearings on voting rights and election security. Above, a voter prepares to cast a ballot at a polling place in Arlington, Va., on March 5. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

American elections are less secure today than they were four years ago, thanks to foreign threats, the rise of artificial intelligence and Americans’ flagging confidence in institutions, according to Sen. Mark Warner. 

“In many ways, we are potentially less protected as we go into 2024, in terms of the security of our elections, than we were in 2020,” the Virginia Democrat said Tuesday at a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing on the administration of elections. 

The Rules Committee was the second Senate panel to tackle election challenges on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on protecting voting rights.

At both, senators warned of continued threats to American elections in the lead-up to this November, though they disagreed along partisan lines about the nature of those threats. Against a backdrop of the presumptive Republican nominee for president continuing to lie about election results in 2020 even as he faces criminal charges related to his attempt to overturn them, lawmakers in each party argued the other was trying to game voting laws to boost their campaign chances.

In the morning, Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin touted the latest version of one of Democrats’ signature proposals, named the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act after the late civil rights leader and congressman. It aims in part to address the effects of the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had required some states to get the Justice Department’s preclearance of proposed changes to voting laws.

Democrats have said voting rights are their top legislative priority this Congress, boosting Durbin’s bill and a separate measure introduced by Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar. The Minnesota Democrat’s bill, known as the Freedom to Vote Act, would improve ballot access, create federal election standards and overhaul campaign finance laws, according to proponents.

Every Democratic and independent senator has backed Klobuchar’s bill, while all of those aside from West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III have backed Durbin’s. No Republicans have co-sponsored either measure. The House versions of both bills similarly have been joined by nearly every Democrat and no Republicans.

“I will not give up until these laws become the law of the land, because I think we truly need to have voting rights protections for the citizens of this country,” Klobuchar said at the Rules hearing.

Harder to vote

Since the 2013 Supreme Court decision, Durbin said, GOP-led state legislatures have passed laws making it harder to vote. “States have passed 94 restrictive voting laws, including discriminatory laws that the Department of Justice previously rejected,” Durbin said. “Voters in 27 states will face new restrictions on their right to vote in the presidential nomination.”

A recent study from the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive nonprofit, found the racial turnout gap — the difference in turnout between white and nonwhite voters — has grown steadily in the last decade.

Republicans responded by making two basic claims: One, that those state laws are aimed at preventing voter fraud and thus ensuring election integrity; and two, that Democrats are pursuing these changes only to goose turnout among their voters.

“The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is not about protecting voting rights. It’s about protecting Democratic power nationally. It’s about federal control over state and local elections, which, by the way, is unconstitutional,” said Rep. Wesley Hunt, a Texas Republican who spoke from the witness table at the morning Judiciary hearing. “Voter integrity laws aren’t discriminatory. They are required for a functioning constitutional republic.”

Hunt argued that voter ID laws, which Democrats say are designed to suppress turnout among urban voters of color who are less likely to have an up-to-date driver’s license, impose a mere shadow of a burden on voters. “Having a government-issued ID isn’t racist, it’s American,” Hunt said. “You need an ID for basically everything if you’re a responsible adult in this country — except for voting, apparently.”

The morning Judiciary hearing featured two panels — one with Hunt and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., followed by a panel of voting law experts. Lydia Camarillo, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, argued that recent voting changes in Texas have effectively made it harder for Latinos in particular to vote. “Voter suppression efforts often target Latino communities based on the assumption that if a community includes Spanish speakers, they consist primarily of undocumented immigrants,” she said.

The Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky argued that increased turnout in recent elections disproved claims about voter suppression. “Census surveys show that there was higher turnout among all races in 2020 when compared to 2016. And the Census Bureau also says that voter registration in 2020 was higher than the 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 elections, when supposedly all this suppression is going on and keeping people from registering,” he said.

To that, Democrats said voting increased despite the GOP-led state laws, and would have increased further without them, particularly among minority populations.

‘Losing a wealth of knowledge’

Some of that tension resurfaced at the afternoon Rules hearing in the afternoon, which assembled a handful of state election officials and experts to weigh in on the challenges they are facing ahead of this year’s presidential contest. 

Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said states previously beholden to the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance rules have “aggressively and systematically trampled on voting rights, especially those of Black citizens.” 

House Republicans, meanwhile, have used those state laws as a guidepost for a series of proposals dubbed the American Confidence in Elections, or ACE, Act. The package would encourage states to adopt voter ID laws and limit mail voting, while also overriding some local processes in Washington, D.C. It advanced out of the House Administration Committee in July but has not gotten a vote in the House and lacks support in the Democrat-controlled Senate. 

One provision in that package, which would allow states to require proof of citizenship for voters registering by mail, was introduced in the Senate by Alabama Republican Katie Britt.

Britt, who sits on Senate Rules, asked Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen what resources were available to verify the citizenship of people trying to register to vote.

“The simple answer is we don’t have really anything at our disposal to verify citizenship,” Allen replied.

Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty took aim at the Biden administration’s recent stance that federal funds can be used to pay college students to register voters ahead of this year’s election, as well as a 2021 executive order that directs federal agencies to promote voter registration and allows nonpartisan, third-party organizations to do so on agency premises. Hagerty and other Republicans have complained that agencies could partner with organizations such as the ACLU on those voter registration projects.

“If Biden agencies are using openly left-wing groups to conduct get-out-the-vote activity, it sounds like the federal government is being used as an arm of the Biden campaign, doesn’t it?” Hagerty asked.

Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, meanwhile, argued Republicans were wasting time attempting to solve non-issues while ignoring more pressing problems, like the intimidation of election workers. 

Merkley referred to an incident following the 2020 election in which someone painted “Vote don’t work, next time bullets,” in a parking lot across the street from a county clerk’s office in his state.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said increased threats to poll workers had made it more difficult to hire and retain election administrators. And Isaac Cramer, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, recalled a local group that had bought into “baseless conspiracies about election fraud” harassing a group of poll workers, calling for their arrest and threatening them on social media during South Carolina’s 2022 primaries. 

“In South Carolina we’re losing a wealth of knowledge — hard-working, professional men and women who serve this country,” said Cramer. “And they’re leaving. And that wealth of knowledge leaving is a bad thing for the United States.

“I’ve been asked, what keeps me up at night? It’s the protection of these workers. And when they wake up in the morning and get a threat to their safety, that concerns me.”

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