Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on voting by mail throughout the 2020 presidential-election cycle were clearly designed to set up a bogus election contest by creating a partisan gap in voting methods, an early Republican lead on Election Night, and a host of empty but redundant claims of voter fraud. But while his effort to reverse the election failed, his efforts to restrict the franchise live on wherever Republicans control the state legislature. According to the Brennan Center for Justice,
Thirty-three states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 bills to restrict voting access. These proposals primarily seek to: (1) limit mail voting access; (2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; (3) slash voter registration opportunities; and (4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges. These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election.
While voter-ID requirements, tougher voter-registration procedures, and aggressive voter-roll purges are hardy perennial Republican “ideas” in this era of adverse demographic trends for the GOP, the attack on voting by mail is actually rather new. The big bipartisan trend prior to 2020 was toward liberalized voting by mail, a convenience measure favored in some states by Republicans in particular (most notably in the all-mail-voting jurisdiction of Utah but also in states, such as Florida, with histories of heavy no-excuse absentee voting). All in all, 34 states entered 2020 allowing any registered voter to cast a mail ballot without an excuse, including the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Notably, Republicans controlled the legislatures in all of these states other than Maine.
While Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature approved no-excuse voting by mail in 2019, as Michigan voters had before them in a 2018 ballot initiative, some of the states now looking at mail-ballot restrictions haven’t had them in a long time. Florida’s GOP governor and legislature introduced no-excuse absentee ballots in 2002, as did Georgia’s in 2005. In Arizona, such ballots were first permitted in 1991. Thanks to Trump, there are now strong Republican efforts under way to restrict eligibility in all these states.
The most blatant of them may be in Georgia, where Trump-generated hostility toward voting by mail has been augmented by a flank-covering maneuver from Trump nemesis Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, who refused to “find” the 45th president enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s Georgia victory. Raffensperger, who had already annoyed the White House by proactively sending mail ballots to voters qualified for the 2020 primaries, now backs new excuse requirements and redundant voter-ID rules. Legislation is currently moving in both chambers of the Georgia legislature to accomplish these and other “reforms.” The chief state-senate bill would restrict voting by mail to people who (a) are over 75, (b) have a disability, or (c) are physically absent from the voting jurisdiction on Election Day.
Republicans are promoting a subtler effort to undermine access to mail ballots in Florida. Until now, Florida, like a number of other states, allowed people to register in advance to vote by mail for multiple elections (under current law, someone registering to vote by mail in 202a could continue to do so through 2024). Republican-sponsored legislation would require reregistration for every election cycle.
Particulars aside, these developments show a depressing retreat by Republicans from “convenience voting” measures that, before Trump started attacking them, were considered at least as friendly to Republican voters as to Democrats. The countertrend parallels and reinforces the more general GOP retreat from the very concept of voting as a right rather than a privilege, with the privileged having a thumb on the scales. And it underlines the urgency of federal voting-rights legislation to create a level playing field.