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19 states enacted voting restrictions in 2021. What's next?

Republican legislators have prefiled or carried over over dozens of voting restrictions, according to new numbers from the Brennan Center. Also: more partisan ballot reviews.
Photo illustration: A shredded paper showing an image of a person at a voting booth.
Legislators in 49 states drafted more than 440 restrictive voting bills this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and public policy institute that tracks and analyzes election legislation. Thirty-four became law. Anjali Nair / NBC News; Getty Images

State Republicans spent 2021 hunting for the widespread voter fraud that former President Donald Trump told his supporters cost him the election.

They never found it. Still, the year was characterized by a wave of GOP-led voting restrictions fueled by Trump’s lie — and more election changes are on the horizon next year, according to newly released numbers from the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting bills and advocates for federal election legislation.

So far, Republican legislators in four states — Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire and South Carolina — have prefiled at least 13 bills that the organization says would make it harder to vote. Nine other states will carry over 88 restrictive bills from the last legislative session. Legislators in five states — Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee — have also filed six bills to initiate or allow partisan ballot reviews. Four would initiate such reviews for the 2020 election results, according to the Brennan Center.

“There is a continual drumbeat from the former president that the election was stolen — this is an issue that state legislators feel pressure from Trump from above and from the base from below that’s demanding that steps be taken,” said Rick Hasen, a professor and election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “So this is an issue that’s going to remain, unfortunately, front and center.” 

This year, 19 states, most of them controlled by Republicans, enacted 34 laws that made voting harder, while many blue states expanded access, particularly to mail voting, according to the Brennan Center’s latest tally. The changes touched off bitter legislative battles and brought major corporations off the sidelines under pressure to declare public support for the right to vote.

“What we’ve seen passed this year is more than a third of all the voting restrictions that have passed in the last decade happened this year,” said Wendy Weiser, the vice president of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, adding that the count doesn’t fully capture the sheer scale of the changes because of multiple provisions stuffed into large omnibus bills. 

The new laws will worsen the already significant partisan, geographic and racial divides over access to the ballot box, experts say. 

“The way a lot of these voting restrictions work, they work by making it harder just for a subset of the electorate to vote — and that tends to disproportionately be voters of color, sometimes students, but they’re very targeted,” Weiser said.

Experts say the recent wave of restrictions was made possible by the Supreme Court’s recent limits on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — particularly gutting the preclearance provision that once allowed the Justice Department to block discriminatory voting laws before they were implemented — a wave that could be stopped by federal voting legislation. 

But in the closely divided Senate, the path to passing voting legislation is elusive, alarming advocates.

“Federal voting rights legislation is absolutely essential,” said the Rev. Leah Daughtry, the campaign manager of Fighting for Our Vote, a coalition of civil rights and labor organizations launched by the NAACP that is pushing for federal legislation. “If legislation is not passed, states will take that as permission to continue to do what they are doing by restricting people’s access to the ballot, and it is absolutely going to be seen as permission and as sanction for them to continue to do what they’ve already begun.”

What happened this year 

Legislators in 49 states drafted more than 440 restrictive voting bills in the last year, according to the Brennan Center. Thirty-four became law. 

Four states, Georgia, Iowa, Florida and Texas, all passed sweeping, omnibus election bills with long lists of new and more stringent restrictions. Seven states imposed harsher voter ID requirements, while seven states shrunk the time frame for requesting mail ballots. Four states limited the use of mail ballot drop boxes, and seven states made it easier for citizens to be purged from the voter rolls. 

In Texas, Democrats used parliamentary and delay measures — including fleeing the state to deny the state House enough members to legally conduct business — to block the bill for months through multiple legislative sessions. The state’s Republican majorities won out, however, and the governor signed the bill into law in September.

Some of the new laws — and much of the proposed legislation that failed last year — sought to exert more partisan control over election administration and make it easier to cast doubt on future election results through partisan ballot reviews. 

There was a simultaneous rush to expand voting access, particularly in mail voting. Twenty-five states enacted 62 laws that expanded voting access in some way. Fifteen states made mail voting easier, while nine states made it easier to register to vote. Six states enacted automatic voter registration. Often, the expansions were made in blue states.

The expansions and restrictions typically happened in different states; 11 states exclusively enacted restrictive measures, while 17 states enacted expansive measures.

Eight states — Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma  — enacted both restrictive and expansive laws, or legislation the Brennan Center determined to have both expansive and restrictive provisions.

State Republicans have made it clear that they’re eager to continue to tighten the rules. Arizona’s extraordinary, conspiracy-theory-riddled partisan review of Maricopa County ballots was championed by Republican legislators who said they were trying to hunt down unproven irregularities to inform future legislation.

What it all means for 2022

The effect of new restrictions laws isn’t yet fully known, but there are some early signs that restrictions will hurt voters. In a recent Georgia election, half of the rejected absentee ballots missed the state’s new absentee ballot deadline for returning mail ballots, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

And there’s some indication that expansive measures boost the participation of certain groups: Rutgers University professors Lisa Schur and Doug Kruse analyzed voting patterns in 2020 and found that votes cast by Americans with disabilities surged in states that made it easier to vote. 

Still, experts warned that the most lasting change to American democracy is in how people think about elections — and who is running them.

“The election system itself has become a political issue,” Hasen said. “Even if it’s not appreciably harder to vote in a particular place, people have a sense that it’s harder. Supporters of President Trump have been told that the last election was stolen, so they’re going to be on the lookout for fraud.”

Weiser said election administrators are retiring and leaving their jobs in “droves” because of the politicization of their work, legislation designed to restrict how they do it and the harassment 2020 brought on them.

“This is a giant crisis,” she said. 

Some contests for secretary of state next year are increasingly centering on Trump’s stolen election lie, too, which Hasen said could create a crisis of confidence on the left if believers of the theory are elected.

“In Georgia, the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, stood up to Trump and refused to manipulate the outcome of the election,” Hasen said. “If he ends up being replaced by Jody Hice, who’s running against him — a congressman who has embraced Trump’s ‘big lie’ — it’s hard to believe the Democrats are going to think that he is going to fairly administer the election even if he does.”