By Adam Brewster and Caitlin Huey-Burns
January 25, 2021 / 6:00 AM / CBS News
Since November’s election, Republican Pennsylvania state Representative Jim Gregory has been inundated with calls from constituents angry about the results and his previous support for legislation that expanded absentee voting. He found one call so troubling that law enforcement had to get involved.
He represents a district that former President Trump won overwhelmingly, and Gregory wants to make it clear to his constituents: He’s no fan of the way mail-in voting was used in November.
He and fellow Republicans voted for a bill that did just that, but he argues it was part of broader legislation with elements supported by the Trump White House.
And now he’s introduced a bill that would repeal the expansion.
“I feel like my constituents who feel like their vote was taken away from them. I feel like my vote as a legislator was taken away from the state supreme court, the governor and the secretary of state,” Gregory told CBS News.
Pennsylvania lawmakers are also holding a series of hearings to review nearly all aspects of voting laws.
A new push to change election laws extends beyond Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said the committee is encouraging state legislatures to take up measures about access for poll workers and to pass “meaningful voter ID laws.”
“I want to promise the grassroots of our party: we hear you, we hear your frustration,” McDaniel said.
Among the changes being discussed in state legislatures are increasing required documentation for absentee voting, stricter rules about maintaining voter rolls and reducing access to mail voting.
Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, expects legislation in the states to focus on curbing access to absentee voting after it was used in record numbers in 2020.
“What I think will be the trend this year is attacks rolling back mail voting and attacks rolling back accommodations that happened in response to the pandemic, which we usually don’t see,” Perez said. “We usually don’t see a lot of people wasting their time and energy on mail voting because the people that used it, liked it, and the states that use it a lot, really like it.”
She cautioned that adding restrictions may not improve election security, but instead limit access to voting.
“We have proven time and time again that election fraud is rare,” Pérez said.
Mr. Trump and many Republicans repeatedly attacked absentee voting, claiming without evidence that it led to widespread fraud. Mr. Trump and his allies lost more than 60 court cases since the November election and his own attorney general said there was no evidence of fraud at a level that “could have effected a different outcome in the election.” It was the “most secure election in American history,” said the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Still, many Republicans have lost faith in the electoral process: 67% of Republicans said that President Biden’s victory isn’t legitimate in a recent Quinnipiac poll.
One key state to watch will be Georgia, where Republicans control the governor’s mansion and the legislature. Mr. Biden was the first Democrat to win the state in nearly 30 years and Georgia voters sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Trump and his allies targeted Georgia with baseless allegations of fraud, but two recounts in Georgia affirmed Mr. Biden’s victory.
Still, Republicans in the state have said they intend to make changes to Georgia’s voting laws. State Senate GOP lawmakers said in December that they wanted to pass laws that would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, require a photo ID for absentee voting and outlaw ballot drop boxes.
Governor Brian Kemp told the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this month that election laws would be “front and center” this year and expressed support for adding photo ID requirements for those requesting absentee ballots.
“It’s a simple way to make sure that type of voting is further secured, and it’s a good first place to start,” Kemp said. “It’s completely reasonable in this day and time, and in light of what’s going on, it would give all voters peace of mind and wouldn’t be restrictive.”
Voting rights experts say there are better ways to add security for absentee ballot requests that are less restrictive and more secure than requiring photo ID, such as providing the last four numbers of a Social Security number.
Even Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who publicly defended Georgia’s results against Mr. Trump’s attacks, has expressed support for getting rid of no-excuse absentee voting. He said in a statement on December 23 it was “too much to manage” for election administrators who also have to deal with three weeks of early in-person voting and Election Day. Republicans passed no-excuse absentee voting in 2005, but it was used at a much larger scale last year due to the pandemic. Georgia’s lieutenant governor has said he doesn’t support scrapping no-excuse absentee voting and the speaker of the Georgia House has expressed skepticism about getting rid of the practice.
Some Republicans have suggested that new voting restrictions may help their party win elections. Last week, the Gwinnett Daily Post reported that the Republican chair of the Gwinnett County election board in Georgia said she won’t let lawmakers “end session without changing some of these laws” so that Republicans “at least have a shot at winning.”
“One of the lessons that at least some Republicans seem to have drawn from the election in places like Georgia is that higher turnout is going to help Democrats and therefore there’s a reason to roll back those methods of voting that have made things easier for voters,” said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at University of California, Irvine. “We’ve got to move Republicans away from this idea that increased turnout certainly benefits Democrats because Texas is a good example to show that it doesn’t.”
But that isn’t stopping Texas lawmakers, who have already introduced election-related bills, including rules governing voter rolls and allowing election officials to copy a voter’s documentation or photograph a voter in some circumstances, Pérez said.
In Arizona, another state Mr. Biden flipped, there’s a bill that would remove voters from the permanent early voter list if they did not use an early ballot in two consecutive primary and general elections.
Michigan’s Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey told The Detroit News that he wants to improve the state’s qualified voter file and said working on photo ID requirements “will probably be the one where we see the most attention.”
Pennsylvania and Michigan, unlike Arizona, Georgia and Texas, have Democratic governors who may veto some election-related bills passed by GOP-controlled legislatures.
Election experts say there are plenty of practices that states can adopt to improve their election administration, including adding online voter registration, expanding early in-person voting, making drop boxes more available and giving voters a chance to “cure” their ballots when mistakes are identified.
As state legislatures debate potential changes, there will be a key balancing act, said David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. Lawmakers who cite the need to improve election integrity need to assure that any new laws aren’t limiting access to voting.
“We have to acknowledge that the threat of this integrity problem, this potential integrity problem is, very, very low,” said Becker. “And that as long as we don’t apply burdensome restrictions on voters, that it’s OK to try to make it as low as possible.”