Steven Rosenfeld

Inside the vexed fight over online voting

National disability rights organizations are urging the Senate to revise the massive House-passed election reform bill to allow an internet-based voting option for their constituents, who represent one-sixth of the national electorate, and to recognize online voting as a federally sanctioned and regulated voting technology.

Their concerns and online voting remedy have come into focus in recent months as upwards of 20 organizations representing voters with hearing, visual, cognitive and mobility impairments and sometimes requiring assistive technologies have formed a national coalition to press for more flexible voting options as Congress considers the most sweeping reforms in years.

The push for congressional approval of online voting could pose one of the most significant challenges yet for passage of the Democrat-drafted package. It pits two core constituencies—disability rights groups and cybersecurity advocates—against each other. These two cadres have clashed in the past when disability advocates successfully pressed Congress to spend billions on paperless voting machines in the early 2000s, the very systems that most states replaced after Russian interference in 2016's election due to cybersecurity threats.

"This has been a vexing problem for a long time," said Ion Sancho, who served for 28 years as supervisor of elections of Leon County, Florida, and retired after the 2016 election. "It's been a touchy and difficult issue for elections administrators for as long as I can remember."

The Push for Accessible Voting

The National Coalition for Accessible Voting's concerns begin with the mandate in the For the People Act of 2021 requiring that voters use a paper ballot. For most voters, that means hand-marking a ballot or using a touch screen computer that prints a filled-out ballot. Every poll also has at least one additional console specially designed for people with disabilities, which the disability rights advocates say draws unwanted attention and does not assist all of these voters.

In recent months, as the Democrats' major election reform bill has moved through Congress, the disability rights advocates have supported the bill's broad goals while also sharpening their critique and specifying proposed solutions, including calling for the option to vote online. Initially, their critique focused on the legislation's paper-ballot mandate.

"Paper-based ballot voting options have become the preferred voting system to many who believe mandating the use of paper ballots is necessary to ensure the security of our elections," said a January 29 statement by the National Disability Rights Network and other groups. "However, it must be made abundantly clear, that the ability to privately and independently hand mark, verify, and cast a paper ballot is simply not, and will never be, an option for all voters."

As the Senate Rules Committee began its review of the legislation in March, Curtis L. Decker, the National Disability Rights Network's executive director, wrote to the panel and said that current federal law did not ensure sufficient voting options for Americans with disabilities,—a group that includes "up to 56.7 million people," or "one-sixth of the total American electorate, during the 2020 elections."

"No paper ballot voting system today, ready for widespread use, is fully accessible. Even BMDs [computerized ballot-marking devices] require voters with disabilities to verify and cast a paper-based ballot, which does not ensure a private and independent vote," Decker said. "A fully accessible voting system by Federal law must ensure the voter can receive, mark, verify, and cast the ballot without having to directly visually inspect or handle paper. Most, if not all, market-ready voting systems cannot do this."

The national coalition's remedy is to amend the reform bill to allow people with disabilities—as well as overseas civilians and military personnel (who are covered under a different federal law)—to vote remotely on an accessible device, which means a computer or smartphone. In addition, Congress should include online voting among the voting systems that are federally sanctioned, regulated, studied and funded.

"The option to vote remotely is necessary for some voters with disabilities and improves access for voters to cast their ballot because they do not have to travel to a polling place, which can be a barrier for some voters," the coalition said. "Unfortunately, remote voting is inaccessible when a voter-verified paper ballot is mandatory, even though accessibility is a legal right."

There have been news reports about the difficulties of Democrats potentially breaking rank and threatening the chance to pass the massive election reform bill. However, the emerging demands by disability rights advocates could add a new hurdle. It revives an old divide in election circles, pitting disability advocates against cybersecurity advocates.

Nearly two decades ago, these two factions deeply disagreed over what kind of technology should replace the paper punch cards that led to Florida's presidential election meltdown in 2000. Today, with technologists such as Apple CEO Tim Cook telling the New York Times that people should be able to use their smartphones to vote, the disability advocates are not just seeking an exception from the For the People Act's paper-ballot mandate; they are seeking to prevent Congress from stifling hoped-for innovation—developments that the election world's cybersecurity experts say are not possible with today's internet.

"Understandably, confusion still exists as to why any paper-ballot mandate is harmful to some voters," said Erika Hudson, a National Disability Rights Network policy analyst. "We share with folks all the time that we simply do not know what technology will look like in five, 10 years… If in a couple of years, when experts develop new, more secure, and accessible voting technology, we should not be bound by a paper ballot mandate."

An Old Debate Resurfaces

The disability rights organizations' push for paperless voting is not new. After Florida's 2000 election, where paper punch-card ballots failed to clearly register voter intent and threw the results into disarray—leading the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene—some disability advocates teamed up with a major voting system manufacturer to lobby for paperless voting machines.

Back then, as today, the advocates' priority was using machinery with minimal-to-no assistance, which preserves their voters' privacy, dignity and equality with other voters. The organizations were persuasive in the congressional response to Florida's meltdown. When the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed in 2002, it included several billion dollars to help states to acquire all-electronic voting systems, called DREs or direct-recording electronic machines. HAVA also required that all polls had at least one station to assist voters with disabilities, with specialized features to help visually impaired people. For years after HAVA's passage, top-ranking House Democrats like Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer lauded HAVA's benefits for this community.

Typically, voting systems are replaced once a generation. During the HAVA debate and since, computer scientists criticized paperless voting systems as problematic. They largely have been proven right. The DREs offered no way to recover lost votes when memory cards failed. They offered no meaningful way to conduct recounts. Their off-the-shelf parts offered little security protection. This cadre of academic critics, which created the advocacy group Verified Voting, initially called for returning to paper-based voting systems. But neither Congress nor states were willing to spend the billions to do so. That status quo changed in 2016 with Russia's hacking of the Democratic National Committee, penetration into Illinois' state voter registration database and a Florida contractor who programmed voting machines. Suddenly, an insider debate was transformed into a national security threat demanding action.

Even though federal officials have since repeatedly said that no votes were altered in 2016's election, Russia's actions had consequences. They led the federal government to designate voting systems as critical infrastructure. They expanded cybersecurity assistance to help states. And most states installed a new generation of paper ballot-based systems before 2020's elections.

The academics who opposed all-electronic voting systems also turned their attention to online voting, which was drawing venture capitalists' interest. The critics worked with government panels assessing voting system technology and helped draft reports saying that online voting would not be secure for the foreseeable future and should be avoided.

At the same time, however, a handful of state and county governments began working with startups and testing using a smartphone as a ballot-marking device. The first pilots were with military voters and then people with disabilities. Those pilots—in West Virginia, Utah, and elsewhere—involved dozens, then hundreds of voters, not millions. They were well-received by voters and were not hacked.

Still, the opposition to online voting is as fervent as the push for remote voting by the disability rights community. Knowing this history and the emotional stakes of this debate, several longtime members of the cybersecurity cadre did not want to be directly quoted. But one cybersecurity expert said, attesting to how deep-seated this divide is, that online voting can never be secured.

"It's not going to happen in a couple of years. And it's not going to happen in 10 years," the expert said. "We have been saying this for 20 years now, and it's been true all along: if anything, the situation [with online threats] is getting worse, and we have to get that message across. The internet is a more toxic place than it has ever been before."

Republican Support for Online Voting?

Whether online voting can ever be sanctioned by federal law is one question. At the Senate Rules Committee's March 24 hearing, the first Republican witness to testify, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, began his remarks by touting his state's smartphone pilot for overseas troops, which he later expanded to voters with disabilities.

"My most vehement objection to this [S. 1] is that by prohibiting the electronic transmission of ballots, it strips the most efficient and secure form of voting for our military, the people who put their very lives on the line for our democracy and way of life," Warner said. "When I was deployed, as were my two sons, my two daughters, my two sons-in-law, all of whom served in the U.S. Army… they have had difficulty voting. Therefore, when I became secretary of state, I was determined to fix this, and we did it through electronic transmission of ballots, using mobile devices. We proved the technology with our military, and then we extended it to voters with disabilities, giving them not just the right to vote but the opportunity to vote."

When Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, asked questions about an hour later, she returned to how the state "pioneered" efforts to offer mobile voting.

"The specific thing I would like to talk about is your mobile voting app," Capito said, turning to Warner. "You've talked about your overseas service members with electronic voting. But I think it's also important to know that you've expanded the use of—with the help of the legislature, I believe—online voting for disabled individuals. And I've heard from our deaf and blind community in West Virginia, about what S. 1 would do to prevent them from using this tremendous increased accessibility voting option that you've pioneered."

When considering the politics surrounding the Senate passage of S. 1, West Virginia's other senator, Democrat Joe Manchin, will have outsized influence. Not only has he opposed any change in the Senate rules to pass the bill—namely modifying the filibuster—but he also has called on fellow Democrats to work with Republicans to pass bipartisan election reform in an April 7 commentary in the Washington Post. "I have always said, 'If I can't go home and explain it, I can't vote for it,'" he wrote, underscoring his fealty to his state's election officials.

The disability rights community's proposals to fix the For the People Act include creating a "carve out," which is a legal exception, to allow their constituents—and overseas civilian and military voters—to use remote devices to receive, mark and cast ballots, which is internet voting. How many voters would actually seek this option, at least initially, has been the subject of research that was recently published by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC).

In the February report, "Disability and Voting Accessibility in the 2020 Elections," from Rutgers University professors Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, "1,782 citizens with disabilities and 787 citizens without disabilities" were asked about voting last year and about their preferred methods of voting in 2020 and for the future.

About three-fourths of voters with disabilities either voted early in person or by mail in 2020, a slightly higher percentage than other voters. Overall, turnout for voters with disabilities was about 7 percent lower than other voters, with the largest gap among visually impaired (11.6 percent) and cognitively impaired (10.3 percent) voters.

"About one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting in 2020," the EAC's key findings said. "This is double the rate of people without disabilities, but a sizeable drop from 2012… During a general election that experienced a shift to mail and absentee voting, 5 percent of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot, compared to 2 percent of voters without disabilities."

Deep in the report, on Table 24, voters were asked how they wanted to vote in the next election. Among voters with disabilities, 7.8 percent wanted to "vote fully online, using personal computer or smartphone," and 4.1 percent wanted to "fill out [a] ballot online, print it and mail." Among voters with no disability, 12.2 percent wanted to vote fully online and 3 percent wanted to fill out the ballot online and return it.

How the disability rights' community's push for an online voting option plays out is an open question, as is the fate of the Democrats' massive election reform bill. But these advocates have signaled they will be standing up for their constituents and pressing lawmakers who oppose expanded accessibility, including an online voting option.

"It is vital that voters with disabilities, who require technology to exercise their right to vote, must be afforded that opportunity," said the National Disability Rights Network's Erika Hudson. "If not, we must all be prepared to explain to some voters with disabilities why a paper-ballot mandate outweighs their right to a private and independent vote."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How the Supreme Court and the right wing found loopholes to erode the decades-old voting rights victories

On March 25, the day President Joe Biden held his first press conference and called bids by Republican state legislators to complicate voting "un-American," Georgia's legislature passed, and its Republican governor signed, 2021's most aggressive rewrite of voting rules. That same day in Texas' state legislature, a hearing was abruptly halted on a bill with arguably even more obstructive and punitive provisions before the chairs of its Black and Mexican American legislative caucuses were allowed to participate.

The Texas bill's author and Texas House Elections Committee chair, Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Houston-area Republican, apparently made a procedural mistake—the kind of technicality contained in his bill that would criminalize election officials, poll workers or neighbors who did not precisely follow the bill's new restrictions for absentee voting and its expanded rights for political party observers. The bill barred election officials from removing intentionally unruly partisans.

"This package of bills, along with many others being considered in the Texas House, could have the greatest impact on voting rights since the Jim Crow era," said Charlie Bonner, spokesman for MOVE Texas, a nonprofit championing voting rights for young adults, at a Zoom briefing after the hearing's halt. "Unlike Chair Cain, we don't seek to criminalize those simple mistakes that often happen and will put many people, particularly Black and Brown voters, in jail."

The interruption didn't stop the Texas bill. Another public hearing took place on April 1. As in Georgia and other battleground states—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—bills to curtail voting options and add unnecessary bureaucracy for election officials are moving through statehouses. But their momentum is having an opposite effect in the nation's capital; it is underscoring a moral imperative and political will among almost all Democrats to pass history-making election and voting reform.

"It is an apocryphal moment, one of those like [before] the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one of those moments where you just feel the change gathering in Washington, in addition to analyzing it," said Norman Eisen, a longtime anti-corruption policy analyst who led a Brookings Institution briefing on Senate Bill 1 — the Democrats' reform package — on the day of its first hearing in late March.

Revising election laws after presidential cycles is not new. And it's not the first time each party has tried to do so where it holds legislative majorities. But the GOP push in state legislatures since January is outsized in volume and intensity. Very few of these proposals have been endorsed by the officials who administer elections, whether Democrat or Republican, said David Becker, executive director for the Center for Election Innovation and Research. (In 2020, the center disbursed $64 million in grants to these state officials from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.)

Most unwanted and meddlesome bills are coming from Republican state legislators who, along with some of their constituents, did not like the 2020 presidential election's result, Becker said. Meanwhile, the response from voting rights advocates and Democrats has been as strident.

Georgia's Democratic Party, like the Texas advocates, compared the pernicious aspects of its newest voting law, Senate Bill 202, to the Jim Crow era — which began in the 1890s and lasted through the 1960s across the South. Under Jim Crow, the governing class, including that era's Democratic Party, unapologetically opposed empowering Black people, especially at the starting line for political representation — voter registration.

"This is a sad day for Georgia," said Congresswoman Nikema Williams, Georgia Democratic Party chair. "Senate Bill 202—the most flagrantly racist, partisan power grab of elections in modern Georgia history—is a slap in the face to Georgia's civil rights legacy. After losing elections because more voters of color made their voices heard, [Gov.] Brian Kemp and the GOP are now trying to outright silence Georgia voters by making it harder to cast a ballot and letting partisan actors take over local elections."

The same point was made about the early Republican opposition to Senate Bill 1. The massive bill is a compendium of two dozen separate voting rights, election administration, campaign finance and ethics reform proposals dating to 2007. (Democrats would have to revise the Senate's filibuster rule—ending debate—to pass it. Not all Democrats are on board with that strategy.) In the bill's opening hearing in the Senate Rules Committee, several Republicans recited ex-President Trump's lies about widespread Democratic voter fraud and said S. 1 would sully the purity of the ballot.

"If we actually compare what some people [like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz] are saying in the Senate to what we heard six or seven decades ago, where we would see people aiming to block civil rights legislation, it is very reminiscent," said Rashawn Ray, a Brookings fellow and University of Maryland professor who has studied racial and social inequities, including police brutality. "When we really think about how it relates to the Jim Crow South, we can go back to the 1950s."

"This is how much people actually don't want to see people being able to vote," Ray said. "We have to be very honest. Oftentimes, they don't want to see people of color vote. They oftentimes don't want to see immigrants vote—even people who are legal citizens. We really have to get down to the crux of what is going on. Through all of the noise, that was what I heard in the Senate. That unfortunately, some people, some of our elected officials, don't actually want to see some people really be able to express and embrace what it means to be American."

"What it means to be American" was at the heart of the Jim Crow era. For the ruling class, it meant white supremacy. As historian V.O. Key Jr. explained in his 1949 book based on hundreds of interviews, Southern Politics in State and Nation, these Southerners—politicians, judges, police, businessmen, editorial writers—did not want Black people to have power to make decisions affecting white people. Key called this effort a "disenfranchisement movement."

But is it apt to compare the Republicans' latest state-based moves to the Jim Crow era? Or is a more accurate parallel the GOP's more recent efforts to overly regulate voting with "surgical precision," as a federal appeals court put it in 2016 when describing suppressive laws that were quickly enacted in North Carolina after the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the main enforcement tool of the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Morally, there may not be much difference. But politically and legally, it may matter quite a bit when considering the congressional and executive branch responses in 2021.

"Broadly considered, H.R. 1/S. 1 is a very sweeping election reform bill… They set out a floor, a set of rules that apply to all states for federal elections," said Becker. "Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act] is a very targeted tool. It is a scalpel. I say this as someone who has enforced Section 5 for many years as a Justice Department lawyer. It is one of the most effective tools in the toolbox of voting rights enforcement that this nation has ever seen."

"That's because it is targeted only at those states that have a history of voter discrimination, and it requires those states to affirmatively request approval for any change [in voting laws or rules] before it can be implemented," he explained. "This means that the law enforcers don't have to go looking for violations. The state, or whatever smaller jurisdiction or county, has to send those [changes] directly to the Department of Justice, and they cannot implement them until they have been pre-cleared… It is not something that necessarily applies to everybody."

Already, some constitutional scholars are arguing that restoring the Voting Rights Act could counter the most regressive laws coming from state legislatures. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act could do this, they suggest, but that 2019 bill has not yet been introduced in the current Congress. Democrats, for now, are focusing on S. 1, the more sweeping bill.

The Early 1960s Versus Today

When President Lyndon Johnson, the first Southern president in decades, finally saw the need for voting rights legislation, he told his attorney general designee, "I want you to write me the goddamnest toughest voting rights act that you can devise."

The heart of that bill, which became the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was the act's Section 5 and enforcement formula in Section 4(b). In 2013, the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts, threw out the VRA's pre-clearance formula. "There is no denying," the decision said, "that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions."

Many books detail, in excruciating fashion, the violence surrounding that era's voting rights struggle. Local police, long before they dressed in leftover military gear as today, brandished cruder weapons against unarmed men, women and children. Protesters were chased, beaten, fire-hosed and tear-gassed. Bystanders were targeted. People were shot and killed. When charges were pressed, the victims were accused of assaulting the police. Because juries were drawn from rolls of registered voters, cases ended up before all-white juries.

The 1960s voting rights protests focused on the starting line of the democratic political process, voter registration. Since the 1890s, when Jim Crow began with the imposition of poll taxes and literacy tests (and exceptions for white people) blocking Black voter registration was seen, correctly, as the glue holding the South's political system together. The half-dozen years before and after the turn of the century saw the Supreme Court uphold segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson) and Mississippi and Alabama laws that disenfranchised Black voters. Over a decade, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans were cut from voter rolls, a status quo that lasted until the mid-1960s.

The federal government, led by presidents who did not want to interfere, was largely hands off until the mid-1950s. Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II commanding general whose military was integrated and who was president from 1953 to 1961, pushed for a civil rights bill. Early in his presidency, the Supreme Court ordered the integration of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. But desegregating schools did not lead to Black citizens gaining political power, as the New Yorker's Louis Menand noted in an article that profiled the voting rights legacy that was undermined by the Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013. Eisenhower's legislation, which was a watered-down bill, passed in as the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Still, it was the first civil rights law passed since the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, which temporarily enfranchised Black Americans.

But the 1957 Act could not break Jim Crow's hold. While it allowed the Justice Department "to pursue litigation against local registrars who discriminated on the basis of race," Menand noted that the case law precedents at that time required prosecutors to prove intent—what was in the mind of those local officials accused of discrimination. That task was nearly impossible. It was not until after President John F. Kennedy's assassination in late 1963, when President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the dead president's civil rights bill, that the need for a voting rights bill emerged. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in public—hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and government offices. It passed after the longest filibuster in Senate history. But it, too, did not prevent Jim Crow tools like literacy tests for voters.

When Johnson told Nicholas Katzenbach to draft the "goddamnest toughest voting rights act," his attorney general designee came up with the pre-clearance regime. The covered states, counties and cities, meaning those with histories of racial discrimination in voting, had to gain Justice Department approval before implementing new voting laws or rules. Federal prosecutors no longer had to prove that it was the intent of officials and laws to intentionally disenfranchise. The government could look at the effect of any law, and, as Becker noted from his days as a DOJ Voting Section attorney a dozen years ago, covered jurisdictions had to proactively get approval from the Justice Department.

"The 1965 Voting Rights Act was the most successful piece of civil rights legislation our country has ever seen," said Mimi Marziani, the Texas Civil Rights Project president. "It completely changed who has a seat at the table."

Voting Rights Crossroads

There are important differences between the political and cultural landscape of today and the landscape of the early 1960s through the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965. The violence surrounding integration, which predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, became a national disgrace. In 1960, the country saw Black students in Greensboro, South Carolina—students from the state's largest all-Black university—mocked and attacked as they sat at a "whites-only" downtown lunch counter. As the disobedience deepened, the violence worsened.

Activists who went south to help with voter registration drives were brutalized and killed. Reporters, photographers and TV crews brought stories and images of the violence to the front pages and TV screens across America and internationally. By the end of the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, 35 churches and 30 other buildings had been firebombed. In that November's presidential election, five deep South states flipped from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. But Johnson won in a national landslide.

Johnson's first elected term as president was a time of deepening upheaval. He escalated troop deployments to Vietnam. Civil rights leaders were told it was not time for voting rights reform. Like all protest movements, there were competing factions. On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march from a chapel in Selma, Alabama, toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge—named for a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader—on the outskirts of the city. They planned to march to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, but they were met by a sheriff-led posse on horseback whose leader had been told by Alabama Gov. George Wallace to take "whatever steps necessary" to stop them. Like a 1920s lynching, many white people came out to watch.

ABC television crews were there. That night, the network broke into a movie on Nazi war crimes and broadcast 15 minutes of raw footage of police attack, tear gassing, beatings, yelling and screaming to 48 million viewers. Historians say that President Johnson knew that he could not win a Cold War abroad if he could not defeat anti-democratic institutions at home. By the time Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that August, he surely knew that most of the South was lost to Republicans. But political machinations aside, Johnson put country before party, which no Republican in Congress seems willing to do in 2021 for voting rights and fairer elections.

There are other differences between the early 1960s voting rights struggles and today. In 2021, images of institutional racism—such as the video of George Floyd's killing by a police officer in Minneapolis—rocket around the nation and world in minutes. The protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement are not timid. They seek a deeper reckoning than merely cracking open the door that blocked Black Americans' path to political power in the 1960s: voter registration. Less than one week after Georgia's Gov. Kemp signed Senate Bill 202 into law, protesters pushed two of the state's largest corporations—Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola—to speak out in opposition to the law. Georgia-based voting rights advocates had called for boycotts, a tactic echoing the early 1960s, when businesses across the South learned that losing Black customers was not a good business strategy.

In the early 1960s and early 2020s, the moral case for voting rights and more representative government has similar echoes. But the fine print of each era's obstacles is different, as are the potential solutions. "It's actually hard to compare today to 1965," said Richard Pildes, a New York University election and constitutional law scholar. "Because people too easily forget what that world looked like when something like only 6 percent of Black voters in Mississippi were even registered to vote, when there was economic retaliation against Black voters who sought to register, when the national government had largely been absent from the field since 1890. And now we are in a world in which Black turnout rates are higher than white ones in some states."

What is the best response to the Republican Party's recent efforts to narrow the options to get a ballot into a voter's hands in swing states and to add unneeded complexities for election workers before counting ballots? Is it passing major federal legislation comprised of democracy reforms that have been called for by Democrats for years? Is it reviving and updating the most successful civil rights tool ever passed, the VRA's pre-clearance, for this century? Is it some combination of the two?

Those on the front lines of battles for more representative government, like Texas' Marziani, quickly said today's demons are the technocratic rules that have ushered forth following the Supreme Court's gutting of the VRA in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling. Yesteryear's club-wielding sheriffs have been replaced by partisans who boast of upholding the purity of elections while pushing provisions targeting voting blocs. They are, as V.O. Key put it 1949, the "disenfranchisement movement."

"What we have been battling in the past 10 years, facilitated… by the Supreme Court and its chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, has been a new effort to pass what at times are called 'second-generation' restrictions on voting," Marziani said. "They are more subtle, I would say, than what we saw in the '50s and the '60s. They tend to be—one of the legal words is facially neutral—so they are not actually saying that they are discriminating, although I have to say that parts of these [2021] bills are probably not facially neutral."

But Marziani also said that there was an emotional and moral charge to today's voting rights battles that have been with the county since its founding—the slow arc of the progress over how inclusionary or exclusionary voting and government would be.

"I think there is an apt analogy; that kind of fundamental struggle against a changing electorate, using the election rules to try to keep yourself in power, is a very similar thing to what we've seen, honestly, several times in America's history."

The country faced a reckoning with electoral representation in the early 1960s. It did not end white supremacy. Nor did it fully empower Black people across the South, although the political and economic gains of recent decades are undeniable. Today, in the early 2020s, another voting rights reckoning is in the air in Washington.

This past March 7, 56 years after the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, President Biden signed an executive order to "increase access to voter registration services and information about voting" at federal agencies. The White House press office called the order "an initial step." It said, "The President is committed to working with Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act and pass H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which includes bold reforms to make it more equitable and accessible for all Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote." As was the case in 1965, the open question is how forceful Democrats, including the president, will be.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Why Virginia and Georgia are taking opposite courses on voting rights

As a mass shooting, possible tornadoes and school closures drew Georgians' attention on St. Patrick's Day, Republicans in its GOP-majority legislature in Atlanta raced to push a massive rewrite of an election bill to "drastically change" the state's voting laws toward passage.

"HAPPENING NOW: Georgia House Republicans led by Rep. Barry Fleming are rushing out a 93-page substitute to SB 202 right before a key committee meeting to try and ram through their anti-voting agenda as part of their unconstitutional attacks on Georgians' voting rights," tweeted Fair Fight, an Atlanta-based voting rights group, on March 17.

"There are nearly 80 voting-related bills about voting+elections in Georgia. Most won't go anywhere. Others keep changing faster than you can read them," tweeted Stephen Fowler, Georgia Public Broadcasting's reporter, echoing the alert.

Such hardball tactics are not unique to Georgia's legislature. Following 2020's election loss, ex-President Trump's supporters are using their power as lawmakers to try to change the rules of voting to their perceived benefit. In Georgia, currently the nation's foremost swing state, the legislative melee also reflects fierce responses from voting rights advocates.

"They got more pushback than they expected," said Andrea Miller, who runs the Center for Common Ground, which advocates for Black voters in the South and coordinated 3,700 phone calls from their districts to the Republican legislators sponsoring the rollbacks, and helped to shepherd 40,000 emails opposing the legislation.

Other groups have also pressed Georgia's biggest employers to oppose the bills—and gained some traction. Some of the most draconian proposals, such as ending no-excuse absentee balloting, automatic voter registration and restricting early voting on Sunday—favored by Black clergy and congregations—are being withdrawn. Rep. Fleming was fired as Randolph County attorney for sponsoring suppressive legislation. But bills regulating voting keep hurtling forward.

"It's such a moving target," Miller said, speaking of the GOP's tactics. "We are seeing every legislative trick in the book. A bill comes over from the Senate. You totally rewrite it in the morning and then have the hearing, the committee vote, that afternoon."

Georgia's voting war is one front line in the national battle over the options to get and cast a ballot. While many Georgia Republicans are reviving old fears about empowering their critics to vote, hold office and possibly make decisions affecting their lives, another key Southern state, Virginia, has taken the opposite course. Since 2020, Virginia Democrats have vastly expanded voting options and rights, embracing the state's growing diversity and setting a different example.

"Virginia's work in 2021 is a model of voting rights expansion for states," said Jorge Vasquez, power and democracy director for Advancement Project, a civil rights group. "Governor Ralph Northam's [March 16] announcement [restoring voting rights to 69,000 ex-felons] is the capstone of a successful legislative session in which advocates successfully passed the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, the most expansive piece of voting rights legislation in the South."

There may be no wider contrast between the politics and polarities surrounding voting rights at the start of the post-Trump era than between Georgia Republicans' efforts to restrict voting and Virginia Democrats' recent efforts to expand the franchise. Since the November 2019 statewide elections in Virginia—which returned a Democratic state legislative majority for the first time in 20 years—the state had adopted several waves of inclusionary reforms.

"Virginia is the gateway," said Miller. "Virginia is the former capital of the Confederacy. So which direction does the South go? Does it follow Virginia? Or does it follow Georgia?"

Virginia's 2020 legislative session, which ended in February before the pandemic struck, passed a catalog of reforms. A longer no-excuse absentee voting period beginning 45 days before Election Day was instituted. The list of documents that would be accepted as voter ID was expanded. Election Day became a holiday. Automatic voter registration would be done at state motor vehicle offices unless residents opted out. A bipartisan redistricting commission was created for 2021. Same-day voter registration would begin in July 2022. It passed the federal Equal Rights Amendment.

In August 2020, a special session to address the pandemic further expanded voting options in Virginia. Registrars were required to contact voters to fix any mistakes they had made when filling out their ballot-return envelopes. A witness signature requirement for returned absentee ballot envelopes was suspended. Those envelopes had prepaid return postage. Drop boxes also were put into use to collect ballots.

"2020 was an incredible year where there were huge changes," said Deb Wake, League of Women Voters of Virginia president. "Before the changes in voting laws, Virginia was… [ranked 49th in the list of states based on how easy it was to vote there]. After the 2020 legislative sessions, we moved to the 12th [easiest state in which to vote]."

In Virginia's 2021 legislative session, which ended in February, most of the emergency responses to the pandemic were made permanent—except for suspending a witness signature on ballot return envelopes. Legislators also passed a state constitutional amendment to re-enfranchise ex-felons—a process that takes several years to enact. (It also abolished the death penalty, legalized recreational marijuana and allowed state health plans to cover abortions.) Gov. Northam is expected to sign all of these measures into law, advocates said.

A state Voting Rights Act was also passed. It bars the "denial or abridgment of the right of any United States citizen to vote based on his race or color or membership in a language minority group." It notably also creates a process where any change in voting rules can be contested—and reversed—if it rolls back prior voting options. This preclearance is akin to what the U.S. Supreme Court removed from the federal Voting Rights Act in a 2013 decision—which led numerous Southern states to quickly enact new barriers for voters.

"With the preclearance requirement of federal law eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court, Virginia replaced that rule with its own preclearance requirement," wrote Janet Boyd in a March 1 legislative summary for the League of Women Voters of Virginia. "The preclearance rule provides two pathways for a locality to clear changes, either through a process of providing public notice and receiving comments or through approval by the Office of the Attorney General."

"The legislature did flip from Republican to Democratic control in 2019, and that did allow for many of these voting/election laws to pass," said Wake. "One of the things leading to the flip was the redrawing of racially gerrymandered [legislative districts]. … We now have our own VRA [Voting Rights Act], and we have a bipartisan, citizen-led redistricting commission. It's not independent, but it's a huge step forward."

What Happened in Virginia?

Despite the inclusive voting rights legislation, Wake was "not prepared" to call Virginia a blue state. "I can attest that more people are engaged than were before 2016. I also note that the election/voting meetings since the November [2020] election have been full of new faces concerned about voter fraud—and all of their questions and objections fall on the incorrect assertion that there is massive voter fraud. Many people do not understand the system, and many people live in a partisan echo chamber. The challenge is to inform voters in a way that they hear, and [to] accept truths and processes that prevent the thing they fear."

Wake's prescription of informed engagement is precisely what led Virginia's progressives—arguably more than its centrist Democrats—to start focusing on local politics after the 2016 defeat of Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries, and the defeat of its U.S. senator and 2016 vice presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, in that year's general election.

Miller, who lives near Richmond, said Virginia's political landscape was similar to Georgia's. "People tend to look at Georgia and look at their legislature and say, 'Oh, there's no point in trying to do anything in that state.' Virginia looked exactly like Georgia five years ago."

Virginia is among a handful of states with statewide elections in odd-numbered years. In 2015, the year before the presidential campaign that elected Trump, 61 out of 100 seats in its House of Delegates, its lower chamber, were uncontested. After Sanders' and Hillary Clinton's loss, many progressives, including men and women of color who never held elective office, decided to continue their activism by running for delegate or supporting candidates, said Josh Stanfield, who created a widely signed pledge not to take donations from the state's biggest utility companies.

In November 2017, many candidates—including men and women of color who in 2021 are now running for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general—were elected without the initial support of Virginia's Democratic Party, Miller said. Many of the national groups that were active in 2016 refocused on the state's legislative races in 2017, Stanfield said, which helped boost voter turnout.

"The majority of the increase in voter turnout was anti-Trump backlash," Stanfield said, "but what do we mean by anti-Trump backlash? It could include people who were fed up with xenophobia. It was not necessarily Trump-specific… There was so much more mobilization and organization on the ground. Among the grassroots activists, so many more people were involved."

After the November 2017 election, partisan control of the 100-seat House of Delegates came down to a tie in one contest. On January 4, 2018, a Republican was declared the winner of that race—giving the GOP a 51-49 majority—after the state election board's chair drew a slip of paper out of a bowl.

One year later, federal judges approved a court-ordered redrawing of 26 House of Delegate districts before Virginia's 2019 elections, after a federal judge found that the Republican majority had used race-based considerations when drawing the districts' boundaries after the 2010 census. In November 2019, 70 House of Delegate seats were contested. Democrats won a 55-45 seat majority. Democrats also won a 21-18 seat majority in the state's Senate. (One seat is vacant.)

"One of the things leading to the flip in the legislature in 2019 was the redrawing of racially gerrymandered maps," said Wake. "Besides the party flip—and more importantly—we see increased representation of minorities in Virginia. More women and more Black people are serving as legislators. Some legislators have served time. One is transgender. Some are Muslim. This means better representation, and we see this in the laws being passed."

Virginia's expansion of voting options and redrawing 26 lower legislative districts to be more representative have also led to the most diverse pool of Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in upcoming party primaries and nominating conventions. There are more women, people of color, and religiously diverse candidates than in any prior election.

"The state's Democratic gubernatorial primary, taking place in June, features the most diverse set of candidates in Virginia's history," noted Jewish Insider. "There's Jennifer Carroll Foy, one of the first Black women to graduate from the esteemed Virginia Military Institute; Jennifer McClellan, a corporate attorney and vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus; Justin Fairfax, the current lieutenant governor and just the second Black politician ever elected to statewide office; Lee Carter, a 33-year-old self-proclaimed socialist in the House of Delegates; and Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor once before and has been a Democratic Party fixture since the Clinton administration."

"Virginia has four Black candidates running for governor in 2021. Who saw that coming in 2015?" Miller said. "Maybe the people of Georgia can look at Virginia and say, 'Oh my. Maybe there's hope for us. Virginia did it. Why can't we?' And Georgia has a bigger community of color population than Virginia—much bigger."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Swing state voting wars have become permanent — and it's putting our democracy in jeopardy

Like endless candidate fundraising, partisan battles over accessing a ballot and voting have become akin to a "permanent campaign" in America's battleground states—where voters often decide which party holds national power.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Not every state's voters determine which party wins congressional majorities and the presidency. But among the states that tip these outcomes, partisan battles over the ease or difficulty of voting have become ongoing features of their political life—bleeding over from completed elections into state legislative sessions and forcing voters and local election officials to pivot as the cycle continues.

In America's 2020 general election, voters had more options than ever to vote—due to state responses to the pandemic. They set turnout records. But partisan fights over voting rules did not stop after Election Day, nor after the Electoral College met, nor after Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

In January, as lawmakers convened in the battleground states with Republican governors and GOP-majority statehouses, Republicans introduced a wave of restrictive voting legislation. Not every bill had traction, but bills rolling back access to a ballot and options to return it moved in Iowa, New Hampshire, Georgia, Arizona, Florida and Texas. In March, Iowa became the first state to enact rollbacks into laws, immediately triggering a lawsuit claiming that the restrictions violated its state constitution's right of equal access to a ballot. Advocates for Latino voters and the Democratic Party filed the lawsuit.

Republicans introduced similar bills in other battleground states with Democratic governors, such as in Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. But unlike in the red-led states where some of the bills may yet become law, these states lack sufficient numbers of Republican legislators to override gubernatorial vetoes. In other words, their efforts attacking voting and undermining confidence in the most democratic of public institutions are posturing mostly intended to placate their base after Democrats swept control of Congress and the White House.

Either way, partisan fights over the options to access and cast a ballot appear to have become an ongoing feature in battleground states. This development is akin to what campaign consultants first coined as a "permanent campaign" during the 1970s, referring to nonstop "image making and strategic calculation." The most disturbing aspects of permanent campaigns, according to scholars, are how they disrupt and distort political representation, governing and now, voting.

"No one planned such an emergent pattern in the general management of our public affairs, yet it now seems to lie at the heart of the way Americans do politics—or more accurately—the way politics is done to Americans," wrote Hugh Heclo, for the joint publication in 2000 from the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute on permanent campaigns.

With fundraising, the endless drive to raise big money skews a candidate's time and attention. With voting, many lawmakers are driven to revise the rules to benefit their party. After 2020, some Democrat-led states, like Virginia, passed several laws expanding ballot access. But many more Republican-led states have sought to make voting harder. These power grabs often ignore warnings from election officials about deliberately complicating the process for voters and election administrators, which is what has been unfolding in Florida over a Republican proposal to ban absentee ballot drop boxes.

Another feature of the permanent voting wars is the nonstop campaigning that now surrounds the rules for casting ballots. In Georgia, for example, which arguably has the nation's most intense post-election battles—after ex-President Trump lost its 2020 general election and its two GOP senators lost in January's runoffs—Democrats and their allies have responded to restrictive GOP bills with lobbying, media and calls to boycott Republicans' corporate donors. Ahead of the early March NBA all-star game, superstar LeBron James' and his More Than a Vote group created a TV ad criticizing the Georgia rollbacks and emphasizing that this is a long-term struggle for representative government.

The GOP efforts in red-led swing states are also striking. Notably, Republican lawmakers are justifying their proposed rollbacks by citing falsehoods about voters and voting. The most activist Republican lawmakers continue to cast doubts about the legitimacy of 2020's presidential results, even after ex-Trump administration officials—starting with former Attorney General William Barr—stated there was no widespread election fraud. The professional organizations for top state election officials have repeatedly said that 2020's general election was the most transparent, secure and problem-free exercise in decades—from a voting and vote counting perspective. But that hasn't stopped GOP attacks.

Some of these lies have been around for years, such as falsely claiming that the country is plagued by massive illegal voting—voter fraud by Democrats. Other lies are newer, such as Trump's evidence-free claim of millions of stolen votes.

While what unfolds inside statehouses may appear to be inside local political ecosystems, some of the falsity-filled messaging and strategic calculations are coming from the Republican National Committee and its top partisan allies.

As Mandi Merritt, an RNC spokeswoman, recently told the Washington Post, the national party "remains laser focused on protecting election integrity, and that includes aggressively engaging at the state level on voting laws and litigating as necessary." She continued, "Democrats have abandoned any pretense that they still care about election issues."

On March 8, Fox News reported that Heritage Action, the grassroots front of the right-wing Heritage Foundation—which has, for years, perpetuated a myth that illegal voting is widespread and a blight—"plan[ned] to spend at least $10 million on efforts [media and ads] to tighten election security laws in eight key swing states."

"Fair elections are essential," said Heritage Action Executive Director Jessica Anderson. The group's website had links to a February 1 "factsheet" that listed purported problems that largely do not exist—such as failures to update voter rolls. (More than half the states cooperate on this task, including sharing more reliable data than these partisans advocate.)

While Heritage Action's swing-state ads will seek to sound authoritative as they fan fears about voting, its much-hyped "Election Fraud Database" bears scrutiny. Nationally, in 2020's election cycle, where more than 155 million people voted for president—and tens of millions more voted in primaries—Heritage's database only cited five examples of illegal voting by individuals. It cited examples of people illegally signing qualifying petitions for candidates and ballot measures, and also falsifying absentee ballot applications in 2020. But these latter illegal activities were detected by officials and prosecuted, meaning, among other things, that this handful of potentially illegal ballots were caught, not cast. More importantly, Heritage's numbers attest to the fact that illegal voting is very rare and almost always detected before it counts.

But such facts are often lost when more simplistic partisan disinformation and smears race ahead, often amplified by social media sites that elevate incendiary content that attracts readers, which is what advertisers seek. Such propaganda perpetuates fake narratives that mask the real agenda: gaming election results.

"The right-wing is organizing and spending millions to enact voter suppression laws," tweeted Marc Elias, who leads the national Democratic Party's legal team, in response to the Fox News report on Heritage Action's propaganda campaign.

The reality of permanent campaigns to reshuffle voting options and rules in battleground states is yet another sign that an even-handed federal response is called for. Whether the remedy is the Democrats' omnibus election reform bill, H.R. 1, or the narrower restoration of the Voting Rights Act's enforcement provisions, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, remains to be seen. But as Brooking and AEI scholar Hugh Heclo noted a generation ago, the "permanent campaign" was eroding foundational features of representative government.

"[B]y the beginning of the twenty-first century, American national politics had gone past a mentality of campaigning to govern. It had reached the more truly corrupted condition of governing to campaign," he wrote. "It is no exaggeration to use the imagery of true 'corruption' in its classic sense—something much darker than money or sex scandals."

"We can know quite well from history when democratic politics is passing from degradation to debauchery. That happens when leaders teach a willing people to love illusions—to like nonsense because it sounds good. That happens when a free people eventually come to believe that whatever pleases them is what is true."

Arizona Republicans chase Rudy Giuliani's election fever dream — winning control over millions of ballots

After winning a lawsuit to take possession of all of the 2020 presidential ballots and election equipment in Arizona's most populous county, Arizona's Republican-led Senate is poised to take 2020's post-election brawls into new territory where investigating unproven claims of electronically stolen votes, not widespread illegal voting, will be center stage.

Many Republicans, including Arizona legislators, have voiced their belief that former President Trump was unfairly denied a second term, citing various vote-centered conspiracies. In 61 out of 62 post-election lawsuits filed by Trump's allies across the country, scores of federal and state judges rejected those assertions as groundless and lacking proof.

But now that Arizona's Senate has affirmed its authority to investigate the accuracy of 2020's presidential vote count in America's second-largest election jurisdiction—Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located—the focus has shifted from legislators fanning unproven claims of stolen votes to whether Republican lawmakers will conduct a credible evidence-centered inquiry.

"The Senate has and is doing a 100 percent audit, which is why we fought so hard to have access to all the data and documents," Arizona Senate President Karen Fann wrote on Facebook on March 2. "We are doing extensive research, interviewing, and background checks to make sure we find the best team available… This is and has always been about election integrity and getting answers to our constituents' questions and concerns."

The exercise will not change the election results, which have been certified. Trump lost Arizona by 10,457 votes, a closer margin than in Georgia, where that GOP-led state conducted a manual hand count of all of its presidential election ballots, and then electronically recounted those same paper ballots. It twice confirmed Joe Biden's victory over Trump before certifying the result. The investigation that is taking shape in Arizona could be as thorough as what was undertaken in Georgia, or it could descend into political theater to placate Trump's base.

"As you know, there is no credible evidence for any of the conspiracy theories that have abounded about the 2020 General Election," wrote Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, to Fann and Sen. Warren Petersen on March 3. "If your goal is truly to rebuild public confidence in our democracy, it is imperative that you establish and abide by clear procedures and parameters for the security and confidentiality of the ballots and election equipment while in your custody and ensure independence and transparency should you proceed with any further audit."

A Closer Look at 2020's Closest Swing State?

Immediately after Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Thomason's February 25 ruling authorizing the state Senate's subpoenas, the county's supervisors—where four out of five are Republicans—said that they would not appeal. Its election staff began transferring the election materials, starting with 11 gigabytes of activity logs from its hundreds of voting machines.

What soon became apparent was that the senators had been more focused on winning in court than on planning the investigation that they hoped to take on. For example, the Senate had not yet secured a site for truckloads of materials, starting with 2.1 million paper ballots in sealed boxes on 70 pallets, hundreds of voting machines and tabulators, vote count management systems and the related data—digital images of every ballot cast, machine activity logs, and more.

As the first week of March began, election experts in Arizona were skeptical that the exercise would be a serious effort to examine the accuracy of Maricopa County's 2020 results.

"In this case, Sen. Fann and House members are chasing down a rabbit hole that was proposed by Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell back in November. Now they're trying to find the evidence," said Benny White, a longtime Republican Party election observer in Pima County, which is not far from Phoenix. "I don't want to talk poorly about my legislators, but I don't know what the hell they are doing. They don't understand election administration at all. They don't understand how these machines work. They don't understand how votes are calculated and aggregated. They are in a political position where they think they have to do something [to respond to Trump supporters]. So they're trying to do something."

Some of White's skepticism came from Fann's prior endorsement of a proposal by a Texas firm, Allied Security Operations Group (ASOG), that had made unfounded claims about the process in Michigan and Arizona. ASOG's "scope of work" said it would "hand count approximately 550,000 of the following paper ballots and scan approximately 55,000 of the following paper ballots… over a 7-10 day period on site in Arizona for a firm, fixed price fee of $10,000."

White and others said that proposal was not serious. A precise audit does not cherry-pick what ballots to examine, he said, and its fee was unrealistically low. Fann later distanced herself from ASOG. While neither Fann nor other Senate Republican spokespeople would speak on the record to Voting Booth, several background interviews suggested that the enormity of the actual task before the Republicans was dawning on them.

"My concern is I'm not sure if they know what they're looking for—or looking at," said Tammy Patrick, who, for 11 years, was the federal compliance officer for Maricopa County's elections department, has served on a presidential commission for election reform, and now is the senior adviser for elections at the Democracy Fund, a philanthropic organization. "I also don't think they understand the volume of materials they are talking about. You're talking about at least one semitractor load for the ballots alone. What are their security protocols going to be?"

Most of Hobbs' letter to the Senate Republican leaders concerned maintaining a catalog of security and inventory controls for the ballots and machinery, as well as urging the Senate to plan for bipartisan teams to count ballots and be as transparent as possible as it proceeded.

"I implore you to treat your responsibility for the custody, security, and integrity of those items with the same level of vigilance that election officials across this State treat that responsibility," the secretary of state wrote. "I again urge you not to waste taxpayer resources chasing false claims of fraud that will only further erode public confidence in our election processes and elected officials."

What Will They Do? Who Will Do It?

Maricopa County, and Arizona as a state, both have reputations for well-run elections. While no election is error-free, election officials have extensive protocols that test their voting system hardware and software, their voting machine performance, and the vote count's accuracy before and after Election Day—before results are certified. While vote count audits don't review every vote cast, the process includes political parties choosing samples of ballots that are examined by hand, which was done following November's election. In response to Trump supporters' claims of secret manipulation of vote counts—and GOP legislators encouraging those claims—the county hired two national voting system testing laboratories to examine whether their hardware or software had been hacked or hijacked. They found no breaches.

"What's wild in all of this is that all of the voting equipment had logic and accuracy tests, and those logic and accuracy test reports could be reviewed," Patrick said. "The machinery has also undergone the [post-election] forensic test that was done by two federal testing labs. The challenge that I've had with some of this is that voting systems are not just like every other electronic device that's out there. There are some very specific things that you need to understand about voting systems in order to know what you're looking at and what it means."

"There's not a lot of point to what they're proposing," she said, assessing the Senate's probe. "They wanted a forensic report, and they got one. And now that's not enough. Even if they bring in their own specialists, they're not going to find anything, because there is no 'there' there."

As the week progressed, background interviews with reputable experts advising the Republicans said that the Senate investigation, ideally, would have three focal points.

Like Georgia, there would be a full manual hand count of every paper ballot—a massive operation involving potentially hundreds of workers in a giant warehouse. Unlike Georgia, but like the state of Maryland—whose electorate is larger than Maricopa County's—there would be an independent audit of all of the digital ballot images created by scanners. Even though voters cast paper ballots, digital images of every ballot card are what is counted by Maricopa's voting system. Third, there would be an analysis of the system's software and activity logs—detailing every operation by each voting machine—to ensure that the ballot images were correctly read and counted.

These steps, if all undertaken and not marred by predetermined conclusions, would arguably be more comprehensive than what Georgia did to verify its 2020 presidential vote. Where politics would re-enter is when Arizona's Republican legislators have to stand by the results of their process that, in all likelihood, will affirm Trump's loss. Thus, in 2020's two presidential swing states with the closest 2020 margins and histories of electing Republicans for president, the evidence would show that Biden won.

But before that assessment can occur, the Senate has to hire credible contractors and a reputable audit manager—possibly a former state election director like Detroit did before its 2020 general election. Additionally, the legislature's investigation will have to demonstrate the same level of security and inventory controls that are required of local election officials—a point underscored by Hobbs in her letter to the Senate Republican leaders.

"You have stated previously that you believe a further audit by the Senate is critical for the people of Arizona to be able to move forward and trust the 2020 General Election results. I respectfully disagree," she wrote. "But I believe we can agree that proceeding without clear procedures for the security of the ballots and election equipment when they are in your custody, and clear procedures to ensure the integrity, independence, and transparency of the audit itself and the auditors selected, will only open the door to more conspiracy theories and further erosion of voters' confidence in Arizona's elections processes."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Many Republicans want to restrict voting access — but their plans could backfire

On February 22, Iowa legislators held a one-hour public hearing on a Republican election reform bill that had been introduced just days before and could achieve what Donald Trump's campaign had failed to do during 2020's election—curtail voting options for perceived Democratic voting blocs.

Iowa's House State Government Committee's first witness was Alan Ostergren, a conservative lawyer whose views typified those backing the legislation.

"This bill has needed improvements," he said, referring to its rollback of early in-person voting (from 40 days last fall to 18 days), ban on election officials sending voters an absentee ballot application, $10,000 fines for county officials and poll workers who err, and harder ballot access thresholds for third-party candidates. "It's also not voter suppression. That's name-calling. … No one ever defines what that term means. It just means that somebody is upset."

The majority of those testifying, however, opposed the bill and were specific.

"The way the bill is currently written will limit the voting options of older Iowans, Iowans with disabilities, Iowans with chronic health conditions, Iowans working multiple jobs and Iowans without reliable transportation," said Amy Campbell, representing the League of Women Voters and Area Agencies on Aging. "The bill does not allow the voter to call the [county] auditor and ask for an absentee ballot request form to be sent to them. Not all Iowans have printers [at home] and have the ability to go to the county seat to request an absentee ballot."

"I'm concerned about the provision… which, in effect, threatens county auditors and ordinary co-workers with fines and jail time for merely asking a disruptive observer to stop interfering with the process," said Emily Silliman, an election observer last year. "I witnessed a serious attempt to shut down the process."

Iowa's legislation is one of the most aggressive responses to 2020's record voter turnout in the presidential election. Iowa saw nearly 76 percent of its voters cast ballots, including 1 million people who voted early or with a mailed-out ballot. Nationally, about two-thirds of voters cast mailed-out ballots (66 million people) or voted in-person before November 3's Election Day (36 million people.) But not every battleground state with a Republican-majority legislature is poised to pass draconian voting bills as Iowa is, where GOP legislators fast-tracked a bill that they expect to be signed into law days after the hearing.

"You heard the majority of the folks who testify asking us to rethink this; slow down," said Iowa Rep. Mary Mascher, the House State Government Committee's ranking Democrat, at the hearing's close. "This has been fast-tracked, and usually that occurs when the majority party decides that they want to push something through quickly without people being able to fully understand what is actually in the bill."

Across the country, as state legislatures approach crossover deadlines, where a bill must pass one chamber to stay in play, election bills—some curtailing voting, some expanding voting—have led to a flurry of activity in a few swing states.

Arizona, which was tagged by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law as having the most anti-voter bills introduced in 2021, had seen the most extreme measures (voter purges, ending early voting, restricting mail ballots) proposed by Trump allies fall by the wayside. But on February 24, its Senate revived a bill that would purge about 200,000 voters from a list of automatic mail ballot recipients. It had failed one week before that when one Republican joined all Democrats in opposition.

Georgia, where two recounts affirmed Trump's loss and two Republican incumbent U.S. senators were defeated in January runoffs—giving Democrats full control in Washington—has also seen a spike in Republican bills to roll back voting options.

As the last week of February began, Georgia's Senate added a new ID requirement for returning a mailed-out ballot. By midweek, other measures with more sweeping restrictions began swiftly moving through its House and Senate.

The Georgia Senate passed a bill adding a voter ID requirement on February 23. That step, which adds work for voters and election officials, was backed by "91 percent of conservatives and 55 percent of liberals," according to a January poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But the later House and Senate bills are more punitive, such as imposing wider restrictions on absentee voting, limiting drop boxes for returning ballots, banning giving voters food or drinks as they wait outside polls, and disqualifying provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

"Georgia Republicans once again showed their contempt for voters as two of the worst voter suppression bills since Reconstruction continued to move quickly through the state legislature," said a statement by Fair Fight, a Georgia voting rights group, about the new bills. "SB 241 would end no-excuse mail voting, implement new ID requirements, and add witness requirements for mail voters—in essence, creating one of the most restrictive absentee voting laws in the entire country and resulting in some of the worst voter suppression since Jim Crow."

No Single Republican Narrative

But outside of national battleground states, some GOP-majority legislatures are putting into law some of the same expanded voting options offered in response to the pandemic—the same voting options that are under attack in swing states.

Idaho, a deep-red state where in 2020 about 400,000 voters cast absentee ballots and another 100,000 people voted early, is not changing these voting options. A unanimously passed Senate bill allows local election officials to contact voters if there is a problem with a returned absentee ballot—to fix it. The bill also allows officials to start processing absentee ballots before Election Day, so results can more quickly be tabulated on election night.

In Kentucky, where the Republican-majority legislature recently overrode vetoes by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on bills stripping him of emergency authority (such as ordering state residents to wear masks in the pandemic), bills have been introduced to add four days of early in-person voting, but not to continue its pandemic response of suspending requirements to get a mailed-out ballot.

"I still call it a pro-voter bill. They are doing the best they can with the kind of support they can get, and I feel like they should be commended for that," said Audrey Kline, national policy director at the National Vote at Home Institute, which helps state and local officials to implement voting via absentee ballots. "Obviously, I'd like it if everybody voted like Colorado [with mailed-out ballots], but you have a lot of competing forces [in Kentucky], and some of them are town clerks. If a reform doesn't work for them, it isn't going anywhere."

Similarly, Indiana's House passed a bill to slightly expand early voting hours. (It also backed off a draconian reform: a Senate proposal to require proof of citizenship when registering to vote. It was withdrawn after Indiana's secretary of state, a Republican, determined that requirement was unconstitutional.)

In a handful of states with GOP-majority legislatures and Democratic governors—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina—Republicans do not have sufficient members to override a gubernatorial veto. That means that passed bills rolling back voting options or adding bureaucracy will not likely become law. (Several just-introduced GOP bills in Wisconsin would face vetoes if passed by the legislature, local media has predicted.)

In Republican-led states in the Midwest and Plains, early and absentee voting options that may have been expanded in the pandemic are unlikely to become law, according to Electionline.org. In these states, Republicans who are seeking to roll back voting rights are meeting a mixed response.

The Arkansas legislature passed an anti-voter bill saying that voters who lack ID can no longer sign an affidavit swearing to their identity. That revision "would return us to the pure aspect of voter ID," a GOP lawmaker said. In contrast, in Nebraska, which has the country's only unicameral legislature, only one senator spoke in favor of a bill to curtail mailing out ballots and voting early.

Missouri, a red state where top officials reluctantly expanded absentee voting in response to the pandemic, is reverting to its pre-COVID-19 landscape. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said he expected this spring's municipal elections to take place without expanded no-excuse absentee ballots. "People want to vote in person," he said. But in St. Louis, the Board of Elections told reporters that some voters have asked if 2020's no-excuse absentee voting was still available. It's not.

Stepping back, the most restrictive election reforms appear to be concentrated in a few swing states—led by Trump-supporting legislators—not in all of the 23 states where Republicans control their state legislature and the governorship.

"None of these things fit into a tight neat narrative that Republicans are trying to destroy vote-by-mail," said Kline, when assessing the national reform landscape. "The states and the circumstances are just so unique. You cross the border from one state into another, and you're in a different ecosystem."

Democratic States Also Differ

Similarly, the notion that Democratic-led states are widely embracing an expansion of voting options following the pandemic is also not entirely accurate.

In progressive states like Maryland and Vermont, Kline said legislators have been studying options to expand early and absentee balloting. In Vermont, a Senate committee just passed a bill to mail all voters a ballot for all general elections In Maryland, lawmakers are considering a mix of expanded early and absentee voting.

In bigger states like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, post-2020 reforms are on a slower track. News reports from New Jersey and Massachusetts suggest that municipalities are transitioning back to narrower pre-pandemic voting options for elections this March and April—which is akin to Missouri. (In Massachusetts on February 24, the House Speaker said he would extend the deadline for expanded voting by mail to June 30, and supported making the option permanent.)

In Connecticut, the state's Constitution would have to be amended to expand voting by mail, a years-long process. Red-led Alabama, by contrast, will extend all pandemic-sparked voting options for all of 2021's municipal elections, including for mayoral elections in Mobile and Birmingham later this year.

So far, 2021 has seen a few local elections, even as most cities will hold primaries and mayoral elections this year. Michael McDonald, the University of Florida political scientist who tracked the daily turnout numbers for early and absentee voters in the presidential election, said that it was too early to know if 2020's embrace of absentee and early voting would continue after the pandemic.

"When it passes, do normal patterns restore? That's the big question," he said.

McDonald, who is finishing a book on 2020's voting patterns, said that legislatures now adopting aggressive election reforms were mistakenly assuming the way that people voted during the pandemic would be "how everything is going to work in the future, and we have to take preventative action to affect future elections."

Many Republicans voted in person after Trump attacked voting by mail, he said, because "if Trump [had] endorsed mail-in balloting, he [might have] had to admit that the pandemic was real." But there was a late surge of Republicans who voted with mailed-out ballots, he said, especially as Election Day approached.

Historically, the biggest impact of voting with mailed-out ballots is to increase turnout for local elections, McDonald said. Thus, legislation to roll back this option—such as in Iowa and possibly Georgia—could backfire on the GOP.

"Interestingly, when you look at the studies, this is where these efforts hurt Republicans to some degree," he said. "The studies find it is more affluent people, higher educated, whiter, who fit the Republican profile, and are the ones who are more likely to be stimulated to vote by all-mail-ballot elections."

Kline raised another issue that could backfire on legislators who are pushing bills to add 'security' measures to the processing of returned mailed-out ballots: those requirements would end up costing county officials more time and money.

"There are costs," she said, citing Florida legislation that would require voters who sign up to automatically receive mailed-out ballots to update their request every two years. (The current law is every four years.) About 5 million Floridians voted with absentee ballots in the presidential election. If it conservatively costs each county $1 to process an absentee ballot request, Kline said that potential mandate could foist millions in new costs onto counties.

"A longer or more complex process costs more money—period," she said. "A couple of years ago, if I could walk up to a Republican legislator and say, 'Hey, I can save you a couple of million dollars on running elections more efficiently,' they would say to me, 'Sign me up.'"

As Kline noted, every state is a different political ecosystem. While not every red state is following Iowa's footsteps, it remains to be seen how far Georgia's GOP legislators will go to subvert voting rights.

On February 24, Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's Republican secretary of state who resisted Trump's call to "find" votes and declare him the winner of its presidential election, tweeted his response to the GOP bills racing through its legislature.

"We are reviewing bills," he said. "Once we see something that prioritizes the security and accessibility of elections, we'll throw in support. At the end of the day, many of these bills are reactionary to a three-month disinformation campaign that could have been prevented."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How online propaganda grew more insidious as 2020 Election Day approached

Partisan disinformation to undermine 2020's presidential election shadowed every step of the voting process last year but took an unprecedented turn when the earliest false claims morphed into intricate conspiracies as Election Day passed and President Trump worked to subvert the results, according to two of the nation's top experts tracking the election propaganda.

At the general election's outset, as states wrapped up their primaries and urged voters to use mailed-out ballots in response to the pandemic, false claims began surfacing online—in tweets, social media posts, text messages, reports on websites, videos and memes—targeting the stage in the electoral process that was before voters. These attacks on the nuts and bolts of voting, from registration to the steps to obtain and cast a ballot, began as "claims of hacking and voter fraud… [that] honed [in] on specific events," said Matt Masterson, who helped lead the Department of Homeland Security's election security team.

"This is a lot of what we talked about with you at CISA [the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] in the lead-up [to Election Day], anticipating that were there were problems experienced, and then in the contested elections, those would be used to blow out of proportion or lie about what was actually taking place," Masterson said, speaking to the nation's state election directors in early February at a winter 2021 conference.

But as November 3's Election Day approached and the vote-counting continued afterward in presidential battleground states, Masterson and a handful of teams working inside and outside of government to trace and track disinformation, and to urge online platforms and sources to curb their false content, saw an unexpected development. The narrowly focused threads that attacked earlier steps in the process of running elections swapped out purported villains and protagonists and became a full-blown conspiratorial tapestry attacking the results.

"They all got combined into one big narrative… one large lie to try to undermine confidence in the election," said Masterson, whose presentation at the National Association of State Election Directors' (NASED) meeting traced this evolution.

"Misinformation is the frontier in election security and election integrity," said Aaron Wilson, senior director for election security at the Center for Internet Security, which tracked 209 cases of misleading or deliberately false attacks on voting, at the same NASED forum.

Early Predictable Attacks

Masterson's and Wilson's presentations were some of the most detailed analyses yet tracing the evolution of propagandistic attacks on 2020's voting process and election administration. The Stanford Internet Observatory, where Masterson is a fellow, will release a full report—including naming the biggest purveyors of 2020 election disinformation, both the platforms and their highest-volume users—later this winter.

Election officials knew they would be targets for partisan misinformation (mistaken claims) and disinformation (intentionally distorted claims) in 2020. Their first lines of defense, following the cyber intrusions by Russia in 2016, were hardening their infrastructure—the computers that run elections—and creating clearinghouses to rapidly communicate about threats and responses among the nation's more than 8,000 election jurisdictions. Masterson and Wilson led efforts within this sphere, where, by all accounts, 2020 saw no major cybersecurity breaches.

But while election officials were pleased with the steps they were taking inside their state and local offices, the outside attacks on the nuts and bolts of voting kept building during the general election. The early attacks were narrowly focused but shrewd, noted Wilson, who said election disinformation's purveyors exploited the public's lack of knowledge of how elections are run. As Masterson noted, the initial wave cited procedural steps to claim voter fraud and hacking.

For example, as voting rights groups sent absentee ballot applications to voters in swing states, posts appeared on social media falsely stating that voters—and dead people—were receiving multiple ballots, Wilson said. As states put up online voter registration portals to assist voters during the pandemic, online posts falsely asserted that voter information could be sabotaged—altered by political opponents to block would-be voters. When early in-person voting began, false claims erupted about when and where to vote, using ballot drop boxes, the results (before there were any), and votes being thrown out.

"A theme that permeated the misinformation that was reported to us was that it really resulted from or took advantage of people's lack of knowledge of how elections are run," Wilson said.

In the week before Election Day and in its immediate aftermath, the volume of misinformation and disinformation increased. Half of CIS's cases emerged in this period. As the process shifted to casting ballots and counting votes, more conspiratorial narratives emerged where the vote-counting process became the target—and the villains were swapped to fit the new storyline.

Masterson offered two examples of this transition. The first showed how ex-President Trump's fervent supporters rapidly embraced the false claim that Trump votes were being disqualified because of the pens they used to mark their ballots. The second example showed how older false claims were updated and expanded in ways not seen in prior election propaganda.

More Than Echo Chambers

The first example was "Sharpiegate," which emerged on November 4, a day after Election Day.

"Sharpiegate was, of course, the claim that using Sharpies [pens] on ballots either invalidated the ballots or the votes weren't counted," said Masterson. "It originated in Arizona. And what you saw was these messages really begin to take off. Of the 100 messages that were shared [on Twitter], they got 200,000 or more retweets, or likes, or furtherances."

Within hours, fact-check organizations like PolitiFact posted responses on Twitter, he said. But those posts barely drew more than 10,000 viewers on November 4 and the next day, whereas the "#Sharpiegate" retweets escalated to 20 times that volume. Masterson said Sharpiegate showed "how quickly a narrative can take off, and despite really good efforts to push back, how fast people will latch onto a false or misleading narrative."

The episode didn't stop there—and showed how the architecture of online communications amplified a patently false claim to an audience primed to receive it.

"It started in Arizona, but it didn't take much time to then have those claims alleged in other states, other jurisdictions, Michigan specifically, even if the same [voting] systems, the same pens, Sharpies, weren't used at all," Masterson said.

Election officials did not sit idly by. The secretaries of state in Arizona and Michigan, and county election departments in those states, all responded with their own tweets on November 4, he said. Their rebuttals took the best form at dispelling misinformation: first stating facts, then addressing the disinformation's claims, and then laying out other information, he said.

Notably, two Arizona NBC TV affiliates reported on the fabricated controversy and posted on its Twitter page, "Sharpies do not invalidate ballots," Masterson recounted, showing slides of the posts. "Those are two local television stations pushing back, offering facts, [yet] along the side there, in the comments, people are basically saying, 'You're lying,' 'You're incorrect,' 'You don't know what we are talking about…' 'You're covering it up.'"

Masterson then turned to his second case study, which showed "the building of the conspiracy or narrative around a fraudulent election."

Hammer and Scorecard Becomes Dominion

Masterson started with a November 2018 post on a social media page for QAnon, which is an increasingly popular and layered far-right conspiracy that, among other things, baselessly accuses leading Democrats of operating pedophile rings and drinking the blood of children. The 2018 post includes "claims or theories—false, incorrect—that DHS [the Department of Homeland Security—where Masterson was a senior adviser for election security] was putting watermarks and isotopes on ballots in order to track those ballots to track voter fraud."

"It was not new to 2020. But it built. It grew. The narrative got more and more complex as it went on," he said. "And 'Ballotgate' became a phrase that started with that tighter conversation around how DHS was going to track voter fraud and crack down on it, and began to be used to describe any claims of any manipulation of any ballots… which then grew into 'Hammer and Scorecard."

"For those of you not familiar, Hammer and Scorecard was a claim that there were two pieces of software that U.S. intelligence had developed to use internationally to rig [voting] systems, and the two pieces of software allowed for the manipulation of the systems in it," he continued. There were several versions of this claim. One said that foreign governments were using the software against Trump. Another claimed that federal officials were using this software against Trump. Another blamed unspecified domestic "bad actors."

The "obviously, demonstrably false" Hammer and Scorecard story drew hundreds of thousands of retweets and shares in the week after Election Day, Masterson noted. By the next weekend, the related traffic on Parler—an unregulated platform favored by Trump supporters until it was taken offline in January—escalated into hundreds of thousands of messages, as traced hashtags. Those conversations then began to blend with claims that Dominion Voting Systems, whose balloting and counting machines were used in a few swing states, were secretly stealing Trump votes.

"Hammer and Scorecard morphs into, instead of just this CIA-, intelligence community-focused theory, to then begin to talk about Dominion and the various conspiracies about Dominion," he said. Theories about unadvertised counting features on voting systems being used by insiders to steal votes have circulated among the political left for two decades, Masterson noted.

"But now they got all combined into one big narrative that used Hammer and Scorecard, and Dominion, and other systems into one large lie to try to undermine confidence in the election," he said, "to the point… [where] there were conversations [by Republican legislators in Arizona] about the seizure of voting systems. That should make any state election official's skin crawl and shudder. Because none of it is true, and yet there's this push to use the lie to undermine the results completely."

More Transparency, More Propaganda

Masterson and Wilson discussed other 2020 trends that had unexpected consequences that fed the stolen election narrative. By many measures—live video streams, public and press viewing areas, partisan election observers—the 2020 presidential election was the most transparent ever. But some of those public images were put forth as false evidence of election theft, they said. Images of ballot drop boxes and storage bins were top examples, where pro-Trump pundits and bloggers claimed that the images showed vote theft in progress.

"The same goes for data," Masterson said. "We have more data available around elections than we've ever had before. I think that's only going to increase. That is, again, a positive, a good thing. But we saw over and over again the misapplication of election data, whether it was election night reporting… [or] vote totals—you know, the claims that there were dumps of votes, even though election officials had messages over and over and over again [about] how the vote count was going to proceed."

More insidious were statistical reports that purported to show vote count irregularities from academics and others who had little experience running elections or that made big assumptions—such as that registered Republicans would only vote for Trump. "I know [MIT election scholar] Charles Stewart and the folks at Stanford [Internet Observatory and its partners] just picked apart all these statistical inaccuracies and claims. But [those making the claims were] using the data to create really good-looking but completely misleading and incorrect charts… to undermine confidence."

Masterson said that foreign adversaries, such as Russia and Iran, both overtly and covertly drew on the domestic disinformation campaigns to fan an already chaotic election—for example, there were reports of Iranian intelligence officials posing as the far-right Proud Boys and sending threatening emails to Democrats.

He praised some statewide election officials, such as Wisconsin's Meagan Wolfe and Georgia's Gabriel Sterling, for being constant presences that debunked disinformation. He said that a constant media presence was needed in 2020 and would be needed in future elections.

"The more avenues that it's coming at people, the more likely they are to both see it and digest it, because they are seeing it [disinformation] from multiple sources," he said. "The response to these claims needs to be a continued broad push of transparency and facts, not recoiling and saying, 'It doesn't matter. It's already too late…'

The Platforms Feint Response

Masterson and Wilson ended their NASED presentations on upbeat notes. But their analyses underscored that online disinformation attacking the voting process was often more effective in its ability to propel cynical partisan beliefs than factual rebuttals.

Immediately after their talk, another little-known aspect to combatting 2020's misinformation emerged. The next panel featured representatives from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. They defended how their platforms dealt with the falsehoods on their perches, such as posting labels on posts that were disputed or false, posting voter alerts, and occasionally taking down posts.

When the time for questions came, the very officials who avoided cybersecurity breaches in 2020, who pivoted to voting by mail and early voting in the pandemic, and who presided over America's highest-turnout presidential election sat in grim silence.

"I'll jump in," said Judd Choate, Colorado's elections director. "There was a real concentrated effort to dismiss or undercut all the basic tenets of the way we operate elections."

"We had Sharpiegate. We had attacks on our voting systems and on our election policies, claims of fraudulent votes, dead voters, and so forth, all of which we have the facts. We have the ability and wherewithal to… attack on each one of those claims," he said.

But after Election Day, when counting votes was under attack and new narratives emerged that attacked the accuracy of the results and election's legitimacy, Choate said that the platforms' ban on political ads prevented officials from responding to falsities filling their platforms.

"Colorado, in particular, made several attempts to purchase time on Google, and [we] were rebuffed every time. We were categorized as a political ad. We're clearly not a political ad. We were the facts. We were the trusted voice," he said, adding that Colorado met similar obstacles at Facebook.

"Going forward… we need the ability to be proactive," he said. "And we really didn't have it in this post-election environment."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Trump supporters are still going after Arizona's election results — here's what we can learn from the fight

Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo had heard enough. More than a half-hour into the board's January 27 consideration of a "forensic" audit where two outside firms would assess if its voting system used in Arizona's 2020 presidential election had been infiltrated and the results altered, the former state senator said that his vote in favor of the audit "was a tough pill to swallow."

"We had our presidential preference election, not one complaint," Gallardo said. "We had our primary election in August. Not one complaint. Everyone was happy. We had our general election. No complaint, until a day or two after the general election, when some folks in our community and across this country started looking at the results."

"They were not happy with the result," he continued. "That's quite normal in the world of elections. Folks that are not happy with the results generally do complain. This year, they took it a step further. They continue to spread lies and conspiracies about how our elections are conducted, and now our machines are the target."

Arizona had the second-closest presidential election margin in 2020, a difference of about 10,500 votes between the winner, Joe Biden, and Donald Trump. The margin did not trigger a recount under state election laws, which the state's GOP-majority legislature had changed to make the margin that triggers a recount narrower in recent years. But in the months since Election Day, Trump supporters, including state legislators, have ramped up their attacks, raising the question of what proof, if any, will convince them of the outcome.

The supervisors governing Arizona's most populous county unanimously voted to begin an audit to determine if its electronic voting system was "accurate, reliable and secure," as the county's election co-director told the board. Meanwhile, in Arizona's state Senate, Republicans who supported Trump have ramped up their attack on Biden's victory and demanded Maricopa County turn over its voting machines and 2.1 million ballots to Senate investigators.

The county has so far refused, even as Trump supporters are urging the Senate to seize the machinery and ballots. Leaders of Trump's legal team, including Rudy Giuliani, speculated in Arizona testimony that Trump votes were secretly turned into Biden votes. Those allegations, in part, led Dominion Voting Systems, which made the county's voting equipment, to sue Giuliani for $1.3 billion. (Dominion has filed 2,912-pages of exhibits detailing Giuliani's false statements.)

This fight in Arizona centers on what evidence could be used to satisfy voters that election results are accurate and legitimate. But the fight is also part of a pattern in battleground states where perpetuating the myth of a stolen election has become the opening move in what may become major rollbacks of voting options.

"Nothing is going to convince them. They're always going to be casting doubt," said Gallardo. "They're using our system; they're using our audit as justification for doing it. How many times did I hear… the legislature, over the last two weeks now, say, 'We need to do an audit so we can introduce legislation?'… They're using this audit to introduce legislation to make it difficult for other people to vote. It's called voter suppression."

Gallardo's assertion that Trump's supporters will never be convinced underscores that one of the top challenges confronting American democracy is identifying what steps will restore public confidence in elections. Beyond debating how officials might counter propaganda attacking the process is a baseline question for those concerned with presenting the facts: Is the most crucial balloting data to verify results being made public?

Evidence of Accurate Vote Counts

Seen from afar, Arizona is a national leader in transparent elections. As Sambo Dul, Arizona elections director, told the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) during its recent winter 2021 conference, every step of the process—from programming the voting systems without being connected to the internet, to the use of hand-marked paper ballots, to pre- and post-election testing of machinery and audits of reported results, including verifying results before its certifies winners—is "aimed at ensuring the security and integrity of our system."

"After each voting location is closed down on election night, their materials go to an audit board," Dul said on February 3. "The audit board reviews the election board materials to make sure that all of the numbers [voters, ballots returned, ballots counted] are reconciled prior to the canvass… And as a final check, we require counties to conduct a logic and accuracy test [on counting scanners] after all of the ballots in the counties have been tabulated."

These steps all occurred in the 2020 presidential election, including post-Election Day machinery tests and vote count audits that showed no hint that the results were wrong.

As granular as these steps were, Maricopa County's audit will go further, Scott Jarrett, director of Election Day and emergency voting with the Maricopa County Elections Department, told the county supervisors on January 27. "A forensic audit is a process that will review [the election process], to determine and identify whether our electronic equipment is accurate, reliable and secure."

"It's a multilayered, robust process that will review that it's not susceptible to hacking, and that it wasn't hacked during the November 2020 general election," he said, describing the audit. "We'll also review that there's no malicious software or hardware that has been installed on any of our tabulation equipment or devices. It'll also confirm that our tabulation equipment is not connected to the internet and wasn't connected to the internet throughout the November 2020 general election. But we're going to expand that to be even further [and] go back to when the logic and accuracy tests occurred for the August primary election."

These assessments will be technical and likely hard for the public to follow. Given the political landscape, their conclusions will likely be dismissed by Trump's base. But Maricopa County's forensic audit also may surface too much information without getting to the heart of the matter—which would reveal the most direct evidence that the county's 2020 results were accurate.

Why not? The forensic audit will probe whether the county's computers that processed its hand-marked and machine-marked ballots to count votes were accurately reading those ballots—not recalculating or reassigning votes, which is what the pro-Trump witnesses alleged during Senate's hearings in November.

But what the audit will not do is examine what may be the most important part of the vote-counting evidence trail: the computer files, including images of every paper ballot cast, created to count votes, and the activity logs documenting that process. The county will examine the machinery and software used, but not compare the paper ballots, ballot images and the ensuing vote count. That distinction was confirmed by the county election office's spokeswoman.

"The ballot images and the activity logs should be a public record," said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist focusing on ballot image audits.

How Paper Ballots Are Counted

The latest voting systems, including those used in Maricopa County, do not count paper ballots directly. Instead, computer scanners create a digital image of every ballot card. Those images are then analyzed by software, which creates a grid that correlates ink marks—votes—with each ballot's choices. The resulting tally, a spreadsheet of sorts, is built into the vote count. Formally, that tally becomes what is called the cast vote record.

In mid-2020, lawyers associated with the Florida Democratic Party sued the eight largest counties in that state seeking to force the counties to preserve ballot images as public election records. Since the 1960 Civil Rights Act, all materials used in federal elections must be preserved for 22 months. However, that federal law, which criminalized the destruction of election materials, was written in an era predating today's paper and electronic voting systems.

The Florida counties agreed to preserve their ballot images if there was a 2020 presidential recount—which did not happen. Meanwhile, in January 2021, a Florida law took effect that allows its counties to use ballot images as part of their recount process. (Recounts are not the same as audits; recounts can change election results.) This seemingly arcane and technical fight revolves around a key question: Is all of the data surrounding vote counts a protected public record?

The short answer is no—even though state and federal election officials have been gradually acknowledging that this data is there and crucial. For several years, the state of Maryland has used ballot image audits to verify its results before certifying winners. The soon-to-be-adopted Voluntary Voting System Guidelines 2.0 from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which states used as a best practice standard, refer to ballot images but do not urge states to save them. The massive election reform bill introduced by Democrats in Congress, H.R. 1 and its Senate companion, does not update election records retention requirements for digital data.

But, increasingly, election officials, including Republicans being attacked by pro-Trump factions, have been citing digital evidence generated during ballot-processing and vote-counting to push back on conspiracy theories that their elections were fraudulent and illegitimate.

In Georgia, during its second count of all presidential ballots—an unprecedented hand count of 5 million ballots—Gabriel Sterling, the state election operations manager, told the press that his staff was able to use the activity logs in scanners to identify why several thousand votes for Trump were not counted on election night. Basically, some poll workers, after a 15-hour day, failed to transfer the data from the scanners to their county's tabulation system. Those votes were subsequently added to Trump's totals, although he did not win the state.

A Paper and Digital Evidence Trail

There is no guarantee that providing real evidence to hyperpartisans will change minds when their candidate lost. However, not making public—and preserving—the paper and electronic records, data and evidence trail associated with counting votes will only fan more suspicions. Those doubts will emerge when facts about how ballots are counted are obscured.

For example, when Arizona Trump activist Liz Harris went on Stephen Bannon's "War Room" online radio show on February 3, she gave a laundry list of election files and data that she was hoping the Arizona Senate would seize to prove Biden lost. While the list was a fishing expedition seeking targets to boost their stolen election narrative, much of what she sought was irrelevant to counting votes.

"We're looking for election log files, election settings, accounts and tokens, Windows servers and desktops, Dominion equipment, Dominion network access to the logins for the Dominion records. We're looking for Election Systems and Software [another voting system maker]. We're looking for the voter rolls, and most importantly, and I can't stress this enough, access to all original paper ballots including but not limited to early ballots, Election Day ballots and provisional ballots," Harris said. "I'm very confident based on the work… we will find a minimum of 106,000 fraudulent ballots, and I make that statement with great faith."

What's missing from this list are the specific records and related data that were used to count the presidential election's votes in Maricopa County—in addition to the paper ballots, the digital ballot image files of every paper ballot cast, and activity logs from the scanners processing those ballots and tabulating the votes.

During NASED's winter meeting, countering misinformation was the subject of February 4's presentations. State election directors from states with Republican and Democratic majorities were uniformly confident that the 2020 election results were accurate. They said that election officials had done more than ever before to open their processes to public viewing. But they still felt they were burned by partisan disinformation, despite their efforts at transparency.

"I want to talk a little bit about transparency, which is a positive," said Matt Masterson, a former top-ranking federal official who has worked for various agencies on election technology and voting security. "I want to state over and over again… that the level of transparency that election officials offered in this election was far greater than any election that I've experienced. There were more livestreams or updates, more press conferences, more access to the information than ever before."

"And transparency is a positive, but can also be used as a negative, right?" he continued. "We saw repeatedly the use of video and livestreams to make [false] claims about, 'Oh, did you see what he did there? He switched the ballots out.' 'Did you see what she did there?'… Using the data to create really good-looking but completely misleading and incorrect charts, using voter data to claim, 'I'm not saying something happened. But if you look at this, it doesn't appear right.'"

Masterson came down on the side of more transparency. He urged state election directors to counter disinformation by presenting the facts of their administrative processes "as quickly as possible," to then focus on dispelling rumors, and then to offer more detailed analyses.

In Arizona, Trump activist Liz Harris told Steve Bannon that her state "has this stuff intact," referring to its preservation of the paper and electronic records surrounding voting in the 2020 presidential election. "We would be the perfect state to do the deep dive forensic audit."

On that point, Harris was correct. Jarrett, a co-director of Maricopa County's elections, told the supervisors on January 27 that their ballot-marking devices, scanners, tabulators and their accompanying digital files have been sealed and kept in a vault since the November 3 election—including untouched memory cards containing a backup of all ballot images and their votes.

"Our equipment is ready," Jarrett said, referring to the county's audit. "It has not been tampered with. It's still in the same state it was during the election and then the post-election."

Maricopa County's assessment of its election machinery—but not its presidential ballots and vote count—began on February 2.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Independent Media InstituteCredit Line: This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The next battle over voting rights has already begun — and it could get nasty

Across the country, more than 500 election reform bills are pending in state legislatures. Eighty percent of these bills seek to put into law many of the temporary measures that helped voters in response to 2020's pandemic. The rest would roll back last year's emergency measures or more deeply police voting.

The list of bills was compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, whose Voting Laws Roundup 2021 report tracked and categorized bills that have been introduced, refiled or carried over from past legislative sessions.

"After historic turnout and increased mail voting in 2020, state lawmakers are pulling in opposite directions," the report said. "New legislation reflects a surge of bills to limit voter access, with a particular focus on mail voting and voter ID. At the same time, other bills would cement pro-voter policies implemented temporarily last year."

Most of the restrictive efforts concerned voter registration, a voter's access to a mailed-out ballot, and the options and requirements associated with returning mailed-out ballots. On the other hand, while there are 106 restrictive bills, 406 bills would expand access to a ballot or codify many of the emergency measures taken by states to assist voters.

"The 2021 legislative sessions have begun in all but six states, and state lawmakers have already introduced hundreds of bills aimed at election procedures and voter access—vastly exceeding the number of voting bills introduced by this time last year," said the report, which was published on January 26, 2021.

Expanding Participation

On the inclusion side of this ledger, the most prevalent legislation would permit all voters to receive a mailed-out (or absentee) ballot without satisfying an excuse, such as an illness, work conflict or travel. There are related proposals requiring local officials to contact voters who err when filling out their ballot return envelopes to fix those errors so their votes can be counted. There is also legislation to authorize or require officials to use drop boxes for returning these ballots, as well as legislation that allows officials to start vetting ballot envelopes sooner.

There are a handful of states where most or all of these options have been introduced. These steps are part of an overall system of verifying a voter's eligibility while making it easier for voters to participate in elections and for officials to administer elections. These states include Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

States with Democratic-majority legislatures and governors will be more receptive to these reform packages, while GOP-majority legislatures and governors are less likely to adopt them. However, that blue-red divide is not as fixed in states where both parties hold state offices.

Missouri, for example, which saw political battles in 2020 over expanding access to a mailed-out ballot as the pandemic struck, is less likely than Kentucky to endorse these inclusionary measures. In 2020, Kentucky's Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state worked together to ensure ballot access during the pandemic. Its fall election was praised as well run, although, as often happens, partisans questioned the accuracy of some results.

Early voting is the next most frequent focus of 2021 legislation. Fourteen states have bills to expand that voting option or to introduce it for the first time. These states span the spectrum, from blue states with historically difficult voting rules, such as New York, to red states such as Alabama, Indiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas. Purple states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania also have bills to expand early voting.

Going further upstream in the process to the starting line, 13 states have bills to implement same-day voter registration and voting. (These states are Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas.) Eleven states have legislation to automatically register their voters, following the adoption of automatic voter registration (AVR) in the District of Columbia and 19 states in the past six years. (The proposed AVR states are Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas.)

Restoration of voting rights for felons is another priority. Fifteen states have introduced bills to restore voting rights or ease restrictions. In 2018, Florida's voters passed Amendment 4, which re-enfranchised more than 1 million felons. However, its GOP-led legislature and Republican governor required those felons to pay back court fees before voting, which disenfranchised most of these individuals in 2020 and was seen as a factor helping Republicans to maintain statewide power. (The proposed rights restoration states are Alabama, Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington.)

"The Sentencing Project estimates that Mississippi disenfranchises over 214,000 citizens living in the community—more than 54% of whom are Black—because of past convictions," the Brennan Center report said.

Rolling Back Voting

While comprising only 20 percent of the proposed reforms, bills to make voting more difficult—compared to the options offered last fall—have gained the most attention. The Brennan Center said that the volume of 2021 bills represented "a backlash" to 2020's record voter turnout, and to last year's historic expansion of absentee and early balloting.

"In a backlash to historic voter turnout in the 2020 general election, and grounded in a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, legislators have introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to this time last year," the Brennan Center said. "Twenty-eight states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 106 restrictive bills this year (as compared to 35 such bills in fifteen states on February 3, 2020)."

There are four focal points to these restrictive measures: limiting access to a mailed-out ballot; imposing new or stiffer voter ID requirements for returning a mailed-out ballot; limiting voter registration; and enabling more aggressive voter purges.

The states with the most regressive bills are Pennsylvania (14), New Hampshire (11), Missouri (9), Mississippi (8), New Jersey (8), and Texas (8). Georgia also has numerous bills: "lawmakers reportedly plan to introduce bills to require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot, mandate photo ID when returning an absentee ballot, and ban ballot drop boxes, among other harsh restrictions," the Brennan Center's report said.

The biggest focus concerns voting with mailed-out ballots, which 65 million Americans used last fall. After the pandemic broke, states suspended the requirement that voters needed to satisfy an excuse requirement to get an absentee ballot. Three states—Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Dakota—seek to revive their excuse requirement. "[T]hree different proposals in Pennsylvania seek to eliminate no-excuse mail voting, a policy just adopted in 2019," the Brennan Center said.

Another feature of absentee voting is what is called the permanent absentee list. These are voters who automatically receive ballots by mail. Typically, the voters are seniors, people with disabilities and overseas civilians and soldiers. There is legislation in Arizona and New Jersey to "make it easier for officials to remove voters" from this list, the Brennan Center said. A related voting option is the "permanent early voter list," which is targeted for elimination by bills in Arizona and Pennsylvania. While Republicans back these proposals, their base—especially in retiree-rich Arizona—has long favored voting by mail or voting early.

Related targets of legislation are groups and individuals who try to help voters obtain absentee ballots and return them. Advocacy groups would face restrictions with mailing absentee ballot applications to voters under bills in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington. (In 2020, some pro-Democratic groups made mistakes with sending voters absentee ballot applications, leading to criticism from local election officials and Republicans.)

There are additional proposed restrictions on who can help voters to cast mailed-out ballots. In Arizona, current law limits such assistance to family and household members. A proposed bill would add an ID requirement for those returning the ballots for another person and require that these absentee ballots be notarized. Alaska, South Carolina and Virginia also have bills that require returned mail ballots to be notarized first. A Virginia bill would require the absentee ballots to be returned at registrars' offices, which would eliminate the use of drop boxes.

There are also bills expanding the reasons for the disqualification of returned ballots. A Pennsylvania bill would impose signature-matching requirements that are used to vet voters—by how they sign the outside of their ballot return envelope—before their votes are counted. There are ways that checking signatures can be done scientifically, but it can also be done in ways that end up mistakenly disqualifying valid votes. The more professional processes match the ballot envelope signature with a mix of signatures in other state records—from voter registration forms, absentee ballot applications, drivers' licenses, tax returns, etc.

Under the umbrella of bills that could expand disqualification, Kansas and Pennsylvania also have legislation to reject any absentee ballot that arrives after Election Day, even if it was postmarked before Election Day. An Iowa bill would require voters to mail all ballots at least 10 days before Election Day.

Nearly 36 million people voted early in the 2020 general election. Another wave of proposed legislation would impose more stringent requirements for early in-person voting.

Ten states have introduced voter ID bills, including six states that do not now require early voters to show ID to get a ballot (Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming). Two states, Mississippi and New Hampshire, would narrow the range of accepted IDs, including those often used by students. A related bill in New Hampshire would eliminate the state's same-day registration and voting option, which thousands of students use for its presidential primaries. GOP bills in Connecticut, Montana and Virginia would also eliminate same-day registration.

Finally, there are a handful of bills that, if passed, could create big bureaucratic problems. A Texas bill would strip "voter registration authority from county clerks and requir[e] the secretary of state to send voter registration information to the Department of Public Safety for citizenship verification." That scenario is troubling because the Public Safety agency would have to vet hundreds of thousands of voters, a process that is outside of its mission and expertise.

Similarly, three Mississippi bills would require the state to compare its voter rolls to other data lists to identify non-citizens, and "would require removal from the rolls of voters who fail to respond to a notice within 30 days with proof of citizenship," the Brennan Center reported. Depending on the database used to verify voters, many false positives (non-citizens) could be generated. Lawsuits from former President Trump's supporters made similar claims of non-citizen and illegal voting, but never produced authoritative evidence in court.

States and Congress

The fate of the proposed legislation will largely depend on which political party controls state government. Currently, 38 states are controlled by one party that has a legislative majority and the governor's seat, according to Ballotpedia—15 are Democratic; 23 are Republican. In these "trifecta" states, such as blue Virginia and red Texas, it is unlikely that bills proposed by the minority party will have traction. On the other hand, states with split party rule—such as Pennsylvania where the governor is a Democrat, and the legislature is in GOP hands—may experience nasty fights. But the state's legislature cannot override a gubernatorial veto.

How state legislatures handle election reforms will provide a very important legal baseline for whatever federal reforms might emerge from Congress in 2021. Currently, both chambers in Congress have teed up a massive reform bill drafted by Democrats for early action. The bills include many of the inclusionary reforms being pushed in the states. The federal legislation is written so court challenges could only apply to narrow policies—one at a time and not the whole bill—if successful.

Needless to say, Republicans are likely to challenge federal reforms passed by Democrats. In 2020, Republicans suing on Trump's behalf argued that the U.S. Constitution only authorized state legislatures—not governors, secretaries of state, or state supreme courts—to set the rules for elections. Reforms passed by blue state legislatures could be fortified if that "originalist" argument gained traction in federal court. But the converse is true as well. Red states rolling back voting options would also be sustained if that controversial legal theory was upheld in federal court—or by an expanded conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

The most that can be said at this stage in the process—as state legislatures and Congress begin their sessions—is the options and rules for voting into the foreseeable future are in play. Voters can see which political party controls the legislature and governorships in their states to game the likely success of the proposed reforms. For non-trifecta states, voters can take a closer look at whether a governor's veto can be overridden by the legislature.

The 2020 election showed how voting could be made easier for voters and officials despite the pandemic. Whether those emergency measures become laws and standard practices is now what is in play.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

GOP operatives send clear signals about the next attack on democracy

Hours after President Biden declared that "democracy has prevailed" during his inaugural address, longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove urged Republicans to pressure GOP election officials and legislators to create "a model election code" to reconsider the laws surrounding 2020's two voting options that lead to the presidential election's record turnout.

"Republicans should also encourage GOP secretaries of state and state lawmakers to develop a model election code," Rove wrote in a January 20 commentary for the Wall Street Journal entitled, "The Republican Future Starts Now."

"The job of proposing electoral reforms shouldn't be based on the unsupported claims of widespread fraud peddled by Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell," Rove continued. "Instead, the goal should be to suggest measures that restore public confidence in our democracy. How do states with extensive mail-in and early voting like Florida and Texas get it right?"

Rove's commentary comes as Republican-majority legislatures in battleground states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona have proposed bills or convened hearings to review the laws that allowed people to vote with mailed-out ballots or early in-person in 2020.

"Whenever Karl Rove writes a piece in the Wall Street Journal, the history of it suggests that Democrats should pay careful attention," said David Daley, author of Unrigged: How Americans are Battling Back to Save Democracy. "Because the Wall Street Journal is where Republicans can signal to their donor class their key projects."

In March 2010, Rove penned a Wall Street Journal commentary openly discussing the GOP's REDMAP project, which targeted 107 state legislative seats that "would give them control of drawing district lines for nearly 190 congressional seats." REDMAP succeeded, creating GOP majority legislatures and congressional delegations in the otherwise purple states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama.

The website of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model bills for social conservatives and economic libertarians, did not yet promote election reforms on its website. However, it linked to the Conservative Action project, which posted a defense of the GOP lawmakers who opposed certifying the Electoral College slates from Arizona and Pennsylvania. The expanded use of voting via mailed-out ballots and early voting must be examined, it said.

"The 2020 election was conducted in an unprecedented manner: largely by mail, and in a way that overwhelmed the capacities of many states. It is not at all unreasonable to review the manner in which votes were counted," said the Conservative Action Project memo, which was signed by more than 100 activists and organizations. "Indeed, if the goal is to restore faith in future elections, then a comprehensive review and analysis to determine what went wrong, what went right, and what is in need of reform should be a critical next step."

Daley, whose prior book, Ratf*cked, profiled REDMAP and its impacts on the past decade's political battles and extreme politics, said Rove's commentary was a warning sign.

"Whenever Rove writes in the Wall Street Journal, it not to be a public intellectual but to put ideas in front of the Republican donor class," he said. "It fits perfectly with much of the Republican strategy on voter suppression."

"So much of it sounds reasonable," Daley continued, referring to the suggestion that a model election code be developed and embraced. "How can you be opposed to a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission that is going to step back and ensure that our elections are free, fair and secure? Except, that's not actually their intention, because we just had an election that was free, fair and secure. And [Sens.] Hawley and Cruz and 130-plus Republicans in the House voted to decertify [the popular vote results and Electoral College slates from] Pennsylvania and Arizona—even after a Republican governor [in Arizona] signed off on certification."

Already, Republican legislators in 2020 battleground states held hearings where they are badgering statewide election officials—some elected Democrats, some career civil servants—about decisions they took last fall that made it easier to vote with absentee ballots.

For example, on Thursday in Pennsylvania, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, was pressed by Republican representatives advising county election officials to count the returned mailed-out ballots of people who forgot to put their ballots in a secrecy sleeve. The state's supreme court subsequently ruled that the "naked" ballots should be disqualified.

"You disagree with the decision that was rendered by the Supreme Court?" Rep. Ryan McKenzie, a Republican, asked Boockvar.

"It doesn't matter whether I disagree with a decision rendered by the Supreme Court, because the Supreme Court's rule governs," she replied. "But what I would say is, and maybe this is part of your question, do I think that is the right approach for voters for making sure that every eligible voter's vote counts? No, I'd love to see the legislature change that law and say, 'Look, if a voter makes a mistake that does not have anything to do with their eligibility or their qualifications, such as a naked ballot, that vote should still count."

The Thursday legislative hearing was one of 14 that are slated in Pennsylvania to review voting laws and administrative rules that were in effect during the 2020 election. A separate GOP-sponsored proposal would create districts for electing state supreme court judges. If put into effect, it could become a judicial gerrymander to recast Pennsylvania's appellate courts—including the state's supreme court.

These steps and others, such as Republicans in Wisconsin (and Pennsylvania) talking about changing the way their states choose presidential electors, or Georgia possibly turning the secretary of state from an elective to an appointed office filled by the legislature, seek to change the laws so Republicans can win elections, Daley said.

"Republicans talk a lot about following the rule of law, but what they are trying to do is change the law to make it make it easier to do in 2024 what they were unable to do in 2020," he said.

Daley said Rove's push to review ballot access laws after an election where no evidence of fraud was provided by Trump's allies—despite 65 lawsuits—posed a longer-term threat to representative government than the pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol.

"In 2020, there were two mobs that attacked the Capitol," he said. "One mob did it with baseball bats, Trump flags and Camp Auschwitz shirts. And they tried to overturn an election through fear and terror and insurrection. And then there was the mob that wore tailored suits and congressional pins that walked in after that [first] mob, while there was still blood in the hallways and bullet holes in the walls, and they voted not to certify free and fair results from Pennsylvania and Arizona. They gave that mob everything that they showed up for."

"We need to be more fearful of that second mob," Daley continued. "Because they remain inside the House. They have been elected to the rules so that if this happens again, with better lawyers making the cases, they will have statutes that they can rely on to press fraudulent claims of election fraud."

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