In 2020, when Angela Lang and her team at Black Leaders Organizing for Communities encountered Milwaukee residents who were nervous about voting in person during the pandemic, they pointed to a widely available alternative: ballot drop boxes.
Two years later, drop boxes are no longer an option for voters in the state – after the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in July barred their use. So, on Wednesday night, Lang’s team blasted out a text message to voters urging them to return their absentee ballots by mail, no later than November 1.
“People got used to a new way of voting in 2020,” said Lang, whose group focuses on voter turnout in Milwaukee’s predominantly Black North Side, along with parts of Racine and Kenosha. “But you can’t have a voting routine” because of the changed ground rules.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said.
A slew of new laws and recent court rulings like the one in Wisconsin have altered the voting landscape ahead of this year’s midterm elections. And those changes – along with a slower fundraising pace by some third-party groups – could make it harder to replicate the record turnout that led to Democrats seizing the White House and the US Senate majority last cycle.
“There was a lot of work done to help people overcome hurdles in 2020, and rather than celebrate the fact that turnout was really high and being happy about that, new hurdles have been placed in their way,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, who oversees the voting rights program at the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.
Since the 2020 election, at least 20 states have passed laws, imposing voting restrictions that are in place as voters cast ballots this fall, according to a recent Brennan Center analysis that covered legislative activity through September 12. Late-breaking court rulings in places such as Montana and Delaware have further scrambled voting procedures in recent weeks.
The political stakes are high: The US Senate majority could hinge on close races in states such as Wisconsin and Georgia, where high turnout helped propel Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to victory in Senate runoffs in the 2020 election cycle and flipped control of the chamber to their party.
Early, in-person voting began Monday in Georgia.
In Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is trying to fend off a challenge from Democrat Mandela Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor. The state’s closely watched governor’s race pits the Democratic incumbent, Tony Evers, against Republican businessman Tim Michels.
‘We want to prepare people’
Some Democratic groups say donors are investing less money into mobilizing voters this year than they did in 2020 – even as voters face bigger obstacles and candidates in high-profile races, such as Warnock, pull in record sums for their campaigns. (Warnock, who has consistently led fundraising among all Senate candidates this cycle, recently reported raising more than $26 million in the three-month period from July to September, his biggest haul yet of the cycle.)
In Georgia, the Republican-controlled General Assembly made extensive changes to the state’s voting laws in 2021 – following Democrats’ gains there. In 2020, now-President Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee in nearly 30 years to win the state.
The legislative changes range from making it a crime to provide food and water to voters waiting in line to limiting the hours and locations of ballot drop boxes. In addition, voters now have to submit identification when requesting absentee ballots. Previously, election officials were only required to match voters’ signatures on absentee ballots with those on file.
The law also made clear that any Georgia voter can challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of their fellow voters – which has helped unleash tens of thousands of voter challenges by conservative activists in recent months
Aklima Khondoker, the chief legal officer at the New Georgia Project voting rights group, said her organization has had to revise the information it provides to voters and hire more staff to communicate the changes. The group is also urging Georgians to check their voter registration status now to ensure they do not become ensnared by frivolous challenges when they show up at the polls.
“We don’t want to scare people,” she said. “We want to prepare people.”
But New Georgia Project officials say the funding for voter information campaigns and mobilization hasn’t kept pace with the demands created by the new law. The group currently has a seven-figure budget gap in its voter education arm, according to chief development officer Candice Drummond.
During a recent phone banking operation to contact major 2020 donors who had not yet contributed for the 2022 cycle, New Georgia Project officials repeatedly heard from people who said that they had already given money, said spokesman Paul Glaze. But, he said, many were referring to a leadership PAC associated with Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor, not the New Georgia Project.
(Abrams, a powerhouse fundraiser with a national profile, raised more than $36 million for her campaign and PAC in the three months ending September 30, her campaign recently announced. That’s roughly $7.6 million more than the haul of her Republican rival Gov. Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated her in 2018.)
Black Voters Matter Fund – another group credited with helping drive the record turnout in Georgia in 2020 – is likely to run half the number of radio ads in the state as it did two years ago because of budget constraints, said Cliff Albright, the group’s co-founder.
He attributes some of the funding issues to the normal drop-off in donor interest in a midterm election, along with the lower profile of the racial justice issues that peaked in 2020 with nationwide protests over George Floyd’s killing.
But, Albright said, “part of this is folks not understanding that doing the same amount of work that we did in 2020, which was herculean in and of itself, requires more funding support.”
“In a perfect world, we’d be able to build on what we did in 2020,” Albright said. But now, he added, “we have so much more to communicate about what’s changed.”
Supporters of the Georgia law, known as SB202 or the Election Integrity Act, point to high participation in this year’s primaries in Georgia to rebut Democratic arguments that lawmakers made it harder to vote.
Early voting turnout in the May primaries increased by 168% over 2018, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who backed the new law, said in a news release. “The incredible turnout we have seen demonstrates once and for all that Georgia’s Election Integrity Act struck a good balance between the guardrails of access and security,” he said.
Albright said stronger turnout “just means we had to work harder to overcome your suppression.”
He said his team remains committed to turning out the vote in Georgia and other key battlegrounds, despite setbacks. Activists can “be frustrated, be mad and maybe even punch the pillow,” he said, “but we have to keep it moving.”
Last-minute rule changes
It’s not just new laws that have scrambled get-out-the-vote plans.
In Montana, for instance, a state court ruling late last month overturned three restrictive voting provisions adopted by the state legislature. Those laws had banned paying anyone for ballot collection, eliminated same-day voter registration and made it harder to use a student ID to cast a ballot.
Lawmakers had argued the measures were needed to prevent fraud.
In his ruling, Judge Michael Moses, an appointee of former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, said voter fraud was “vanishingly rare” in Montana and found that those laws violated the rights of young and Native American voters.
Keaton Sunchild – political director of the nonpartisan Western Native Voice, one of the groups that had challenged the laws – said the third-party ballot collection will help guarantee that Native Americans, some of whom live on sprawling reservations, can participate. On one reservation, he said, some residents live more than 120 miles away from the closest election office.
Sunchild said his organization had to develop alternative plans as the legal challenges have played out “It’s been kind of a checkerboard, patchwork – ‘When we can collect, when we can’t.’ Always trying to figure out: ‘Is it going to change?’”
Sunchild said the group will now proceed with its ballot collection work on all seven reservations in the state, following Moses’ ruling.
But the legal fights might not be over. An aide to Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen recently told The New York Times that the Republican plans to appeal the ruling. Jacobsen spokesman Richie Melby did not respond to a CNN inquiry.