Republicans in key states intensified their push to roll back access to the ballot this week – with the GOP-led Texas House passing new voting limits Friday, a day after Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law an array of new restrictions in his state.
Republicans in the Texas House pushed past objections from corporate giants such as American Airlines and Microsoft, and fierce protests from Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates.
The vote came after an often-heated debate on the floor of the Texas House with Democratic lawmakers pressing the bill’s author, GOP Rep. Briscoe Cain, to cite examples of the election fraud the bill sought to prevent.
“We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen” to take action, Cain responded at one point.
The vote moves Texas closer to joining a host of other states racing to change the ground rules for future elections, following former President Donald Trump’s repeated and unfounded claims that voter fraud contributed to his loss last November. Around the country, Republicans have cast their effort as needed to restore voter confidence in the integrity of elections. But critics say the nationwide push aims to retain GOP power in key battlegrounds by making it harder for people of color and younger voters to cast their ballots.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
“Most of these changes are unnecessary to make voting more efficient or to prevent fraud, which is quite rare in our elections,” said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “These measures are political and are being passed on a partisan basis for partisan reasons.”
The Texas measure, which now goes back to the state Senate, would empower partisan poll watchers, increase penalties for voting crimes and bar counties from sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail. It included Democratic amendments, including one that would allow election officials to call the police to remove disruptive partisan poll watchers.
“Under the cover of darkness, the Texas House just passed one of the worst anti-voting bills in the county,” Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director of the ACLU of Texas, said after lawmakers voted to advance the bill in the early morning hours Friday. “SB7 will target votes of color, voters with disabilities and the civil servants who run our elections.”
A separate measure approved previously by the Texas Senate is more expansive. It would allow poll watchers to videotape people receiving assistance to vote and would ban drive-thru voting and other measures employed in urban areas in 2020 that made it easier to vote in the pandemic.
Those provisions still could make into the final law.
In Florida, DeSantis said the new law would “increase transparency and strengthen the security of our elections.” Its critics, such as NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, called it a “horrifying reminder” of democracy’s “fragility.”
The law brings sweeping changes to Florida’s election rules, such as imposing new identification requirements to request vote-by-mail ballots or to change an address. It also limits the location and hours of ballot drop boxes and requires election workers to monitor boxes. Election supervisors face a $25,000 fine for the failure to do so.
Texas and Florida – both populous and diverse states – are just the latest Republican-led states to move forward with voting restrictions.
Georgia and Iowa already have passed far-reaching election restrictions. Montana has tightened voter ID requirements and ended same-day voter registration. Bills to tighten voting rules also are advancing in the battleground state of Michigan.
And this week, the Republican majority in the Kansas legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes of controversial election bills. As a result, it’s now a misdemeanor for someone in Kansas to collect and return more than 10 ballots – which opponents say will hamper efforts by churches and other organizations to help the elderly and disabled vote.
Meanwhile, legislation introduced Thursday by Republicans in the Ohio House would significantly revise election laws there. Among other things, the GOP package co-authored by Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz would tighten voter ID requirements, eliminate a day of early voting and limit drop box locations to local election offices.
Asked about the moves in Texas and Florida, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday said, “The President’s view – the fact of the matter is that these laws make it harder to vote. That’s not a good thing.”
She said Biden will leave it up to the Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland to make any decisions about whether to intervene in states implementing restrictive voting measures.
In Arizona – a state Biden narrowly won last November – a controversial election audit demanded by Republican state senators of the 2020 ballots cast in Maricopa County is underway. Two previous audits by county elections officials found no evidence of widespread voter fraud. The state’s results have long been certified.
This week, the head of the US Department of Justice’s civil rights division wrote to the president of the Arizona Senate, suggesting that the recount by a private contractor of some 2.1 million ballots could violate federal law that requires state and local officials to maintain ballots and election materials for 22 months.
Justice Department official Pamela Karlan also warned that the plan by the recount contractor, Florida-based Cyber Ninjas, to knock on voters’ doors to confirm their addresses could violate federal laws banning voter intimidation.
Senate Republicans in Arizona show no signs of retreat. In a letter released Friday, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann said the Justice Department’s concerns were “misplaced” and that a plan to visit voters has been put on hold.
Another state lawmaker, Republican Sen. Wendy Rogers, tweeted this week: ” ‘Justice’ Department - you need to stay in your lane. Do not touch Arizona ballots or machines unless you want to spend time in an Arizona prison.”
Trump has cheered on the recount effort.
On Thursday, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and vocal Trump ally, said she “fully” supported the privately conducted audit in Arizona. Stefanik is the leading contender to replace Rep. Liz Cheney in US House Republican leadership following Cheney’s public repudiation of Trump’s election lies.
“When you talk to any voter across this country, certainly at any Republican event, they are focused on election security and election integrity,” Stefanik said during an appearance on Steve Bannon’s show this week.
“It is important to stand up for these constitutional issues and these are questions that are going to have to be answered before we head into the 2022 midterms so that the American people have faith in our election system,” she added.
CNN’s Dianne Gallagher, Stephanie Becker, Maegan Vazquez and Wes Breur contributed to this story.