With 2020 Looming, Parties Fight State by State Over Voting Access

PHOENIX — After a record turnout in November swept Democrats into several key federal and state offices in Arizona, the Republicans who have dominated the Statehouse for a decade did two things: They raised the specter of election fraud. And they proposed a sheaf of bills to tighten the rules for registering to vote and for casting ballots.

Story by Michael Wines, New York Times

With the presidential election 18 months away, a series of state-level struggles are underway this spring to control the rules for voting in 2020. But warnings of stolen votes and corrupted voter rolls that used to reliably muster support for restrictions are now being countered by citizen initiatives to restore voting rights and a wave of grass-roots activism. And suddenly, the fights are not so lopsided.

Since 2010, 25 states, mostly Republican-led, have significantly toughened ballot laws. But by the time Arizona’s legislature adjourned last week, only two comparatively minor new bills tightening ballot rules had made it to the governor’s desk.

The headline struggle is in Florida, where a citizen initiative in November restored ballot rights to as many as 1.5 million former felons, and the Republican-controlled legislature last month waged a pitched battle to blunt the initiative’s impact.

The Democratic-run legislature in New Hampshire sent the state’s Republican governor legislation last month to undo stiff barriers to voting by college students from out of state. In North Carolina this week, the Republican legislature abandoned an effort to impose rules that would render many student IDs useless at polling places.

Voting rights advocates have sued to overturn a new law enacted in Tennessee last month that saddled voter registration drives with fresh requirements. The Texas legislature adjourned in May without passing a bill that would have imposed criminal penalties for voter registration errors, a proposal that earlier had substantial momentum. And a lawsuit by voting rights advocates forced Texas officials in April to abandon a false claim that nearly 100,000 people on the voter rolls were probably not citizens — and forced the Republican acting secretary of state to resign.

Elsewhere, the movement to expand ballot access has enjoyed a string of once-unlikely victories. Nevada’s legislature voted last month to restore former felons’ voting rights, following Louisiana’s restoration of rights in February. The New York legislature has lowered a host of barriers to voting, Delaware authorized early voting, and a nationwide movement to automatically register eligible people when they visit some government offices appears to be gaining momentum.

“There really is a significant rise in activity around restricting access to the ballot,” said Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. But “in terms of sheer volume and momentum, measures to increase access are outpacing the ones that restrict access.”

And Arizona’s legislature set aside $530,000 in the final hours of its session for an “election integrity unit” in the office of the Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich. He has said he will principally use the money not to hunt down illegal ballots, but to shoot down unfounded rumors of election theft.

Yet the battles over voting rules that have played out in recent months have followed a pattern: Restrictions are generally being loosened in Democratic states, but tightened in Republican-held states where voters’ loyalties seem increasingly up for grabs, like Texas, Florida and Arizona.

Arizona Republicans are hardly an endangered species; the party controls the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature. But the state and its political preferences are shifting.

From 2000 to 2018, as the state’s overall population grew 40 percent, its Hispanic population nearly doubled, to nearly one in three Arizonans. And in the midterm elections in November, Democrats made inroads into Republicans’ political dominance. Besides taking one of Arizona’s seats in the United States Senate, they reclaimed a majority of the state’s nine congressional seats, elected the party’s first secretary of state since 1991, and came within two seats of winning control of the 60-member state House.

Voting rights advocates say they believe those results were the signal factor behind the bills to tighten voting rules this year. “Arizona is turning purple for sure — and in some cases, we may be turning blue,” Martín Quezada, a Democratic state senator from western Phoenix, said in an interview. “Those bills are all evidence of their intent to maintain the electorate as it is now.”

Republicans say their goal is to keep elections honest, and public faith in the results high. “If you’re going to manipulate the system, you’ve injected a sense of doubt into what happened with these ballots,” said Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Republican state senator from the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale who was a prime sponsor of many of the party’s election bills. “And that kind of doubt is dangerous,” she said.

Ms. Ugenti-Rita acknowledged that fraud in Arizona elections is negligible. Even so, she said, legislators should prevent election manipulation before it happens, just as highway officials do not wait for fatal accidents before posting speed limit signs.

Arizona has a history of election law scrapes. Until the Supreme Court voided the heart of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, it was one of nine states that was required to get Justice Department approval for all changes in its election procedures, a result of a history of voting discrimination against Native Americans.

But the state has sought to make voting easier, too. Voters can register online; roughly four out of five voters now cast their ballots by mail, and the state offers no-excuse early voting for 26 days before elections. Even after the early voting period ends on the Friday before Election Day, residents who will be unable to get to the polls on Election Day because of unforeseen events can cast what are called emergency ballots on the weekend before the election.

Given all those opportunities to cast ballots, Republicans say, the outrage among Democrats over legislation that the Republicans say merely fine-tunes the rules is no principled stand, but an effort to demonize their opponents. When Senator Ugenti-Rita pressed last month to require early voters to display photo identifications — a mandate the state’s voters approved in 2005 for Election Day balloting — “you would have thought I told people to get rid of their firstborn child,” she said.

She added: “Why would you have a different ID requirement for someone who votes a week before the election, versus someone who votes on the day of?”

Her critics have their own question: Why expand an ID requirement that studies have already shown discourages voting among the poor, minorities and the young?

“Her argument is that Democrats are making a big deal out of something that is purely incremental,” said state Representative Athena Salman, a Democrat from Tempe. “That’s right. This is their strategy — act incrementally. This year, we’re going to chip away at this part of your right. Next year ….”

Senator Ugenti-Rita’s bill was passed in April on a party-line vote. But other bills faltered in the face of unexpectedly strong opposition.

“We learned some lessons from the past,” said Morgan Dick, an administrator at the Arizona Advocacy Network, which works on voting rights and other democracy-related issues. “We had a really strong lobbying effort, and we were able to leverage the growing political power we saw in the state.”

The controversy over Trump administration policies that figured in November’s increased turnout undoubtedly helped fuel support for advocacy groups that oppose election restrictions. But Ms. Dick said that other factors were also at work, notably a statewide protest over school spending last year that turned teachers into lobbyists this spring.

The most contentious of the election bills sought to purge voters from a mailing list of recipients of mail-in ballots if they failed to vote in two election cycles. That would have halted the distribution of mail-in ballots to nearly 240,000 infrequent voters this year. It unexpectedly died in the state House after passing the Senate.

Opponents argued that removing infrequent voters from the rolls was not only a harsh policy, but a counterproductive one. “Instead of punishing people by taking them off the list, it’s instead our responsibility to engage them and get them excited about voting,” said Josselyn Berry of the watchdog group Progress Arizona. “Why are we trying to make it more difficult?”

A second failed bill would have barred voter registration drives from paying workers based on the number of new voters they sign up, and make it a misdemeanor punishable by a jail sentence to “knowingly” miss the deadline for submitting new voter registrations. Voting rights advocates called the bill a response to a 2018 registration drive that signed up some 190,000 new voters.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed another bill that requires so-called emergency voters to sign an oath — under penalty of perjury — that they are experiencing a genuine emergency and are not casting an early ballot simply out of convenience. It also takes away county election officials’ power to designate the location of emergency voting centers, giving that authority to elected county supervisors instead.

Senator Ugenti-Rita, who sponsored the bill, called it an effort to bring uniformity and transparency to a haphazard, little-publicized service. But it is universally seen as a Republican swipe at the Democrat who was elected in 2016 to run elections in Maricopa County, the third-largest voting jurisdiction in the nation and home to about 60 percent of the Arizonans who voted in the November election.

That official, Adrian Fontes, was falsely accused by prominent Republicans of abetting fraud, after he set up five emergency voting locations in the county last fall and allowed some 2,500 people to cast ballots without certifying that they had genuine emergencies.

Ms. Ugenti-Rita said Mr. Fontes placed the centers in predominantly Democratic areas, a charge others say is dubious; one center was in Scottsdale, an affluent, deeply Republican part of the county that Ms. Ugenti-Rita represents.

Under the new law, the location of future emergency centers in the Phoenix area will be chosen by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, an overwhelmingly Republican body. That is no small irony: When the bill was before the legislature, supervisors in the state’s 15 counties opposed it.

“County supervisors have no expertise in the area of elections,” said Jen Marson, the executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties. “It seems like an odd choice to us.”