Republicans Are Weaponizing Trump's Election-Fraud Lies for Voter Suppression

The Georgia runoff is just the beginning: "They’re already talking about eliminating absentee voting, outlawing dropboxes, to get rid of problems that don’t exist."
December 21, 2020, 2:28pm
Fulton County elections workers work with voters during early voting in the state's runoff election at Chastain Park Gymnasium in Atlanta's Chastain Park neighborhood, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.
Fulton County elections workers work with voters during early voting in the state's runoff election at Chastain Park Gymnasium in Atlanta's Chastain Park neighborhood, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

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Republicans are already weaponizing President Trump’s election-fraud lies to try to restrict voting—and voting rights advocates are bracing for an onslaught of GOP voter-suppression efforts in the new year.

Georgia Republicans are leading the charge in their feverish quest to keep control of the Senate, seeking a flurry of changes to voting rules for the state’s high-stakes runoff race on Jan. 5 and even bigger changes after that.

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They’re not the only ones. Republican lawmakers in several states have seized on Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud to begin pushing new election rules, with threats to end mail voting, curtail in-person early voting, add voter identification, and tighten signature-matching and other requirements for people who hope to cast ballots.

“Republicans have adopted the president’s rhetoric and are using that as an excuse to limit access to the ballot,” Sylvia Albert, Common Cause’s director of voting and elections, told VICE News. “They’re already talking about eliminating absentee voting, outlawing drop boxes, to get rid of problems that don’t exist.”

The effort couldn’t be more explicit—and dangerous—than in Georgia, the current political epicenter of the universe. Republicans, smarting after Joe Biden carried their state, are trying everything to make it harder to vote ahead of the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs. And then they want to get rid of mail voting entirely.

Trump’s spurious claims of voter fraud were soundly rejected in court after court. But his sustained attack on democracy has convinced large majorities of his voters that the election was stolen from him, making voting changes an easier sell for them — especially in GOP-leaning states where Republicans have unified control of their governments and see an opportunity to cement their power for years to come.

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Georgia Republicans have unleashed a full-court press seeking to make it harder to vote ahead of the runoffs. GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, facing tough reelection fights, have filed a number of lawsuits trying to eliminate the use of mail ballot dropboxes, increase requirements to make sure mail voters’ signatures match those on file, and keep new Georgia residents from voting in the election.

So far, those efforts have failed: Judges tossed three separate GOP lawsuits on Thursday and Friday because they’re coming in the middle of the election. But state lawmakers could easily change the rules for future elections when they reconvene in January.

Voting rights groups are also worried about some counties reducing early-voting sites for the Georgia runoff. Democrats have sued to try to get Fulton County, home of Atlanta, to add more voting machines. Cobb County, a major suburban county whose shift left powered Biden’s win in the state, has trimmed sites and seen long lines in early voting as a result; Hall County, in exurban Atlanta, also cut voting sites. 

Republicans’ efforts in the runoff haven’t gotten much traction. But they pale in the face of wholesale changes that Georgia Republicans are plotting for future elections.

A pledge to ban mail voting

State lawmakers have already pledged to ban mail voting in the state, a huge shift that would end a program that’s been in place for almost two decades. Fully one-third of Georgians voted by mail in the 2020 presidential election as more voters opted to use it during the coronavirus pandemic.

“As soon as we may constitutionally convene, we will reform our election laws to secure our electoral process by eliminating at-will absentee voting,” Georgia’s Senate Republicans promised in a public statement Dec. 3. “We will require photo identification for absentee voting for cause, and we will crack down on ballot harvesting by outlawing dropboxes.”

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Even Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican whose clear rejection of Trump’s campaign lies made him a surprising post-election hero of the Left, is advocating for the state to add voter-identification requirements for mail voting.

Georgia isn’t the only state where Republicans are moving to make it harder to vote, using Trump’s widely debunked claims as fodder. In multiple states, GOP legislatures invited Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani to showcase flimsy or false claims of voter fraud that had already been rejected by state and federal courts. In those states and others, Republican lawmakers have begun talking about remedies to widespread voting fraud, a problem that doesn’t exist.

“The bombastic claims in the post-election lawsuits combined with the rhetoric at the hands of President Trump and others is in many respects laying the groundwork for a potential voter suppression campaign,” Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President Kristen Clarke told VICE News. “This battle will extend beyond Georgia in the new year.”

Republicans are making some moves to push for national restrictions on voting as well, though they’re unlikely to go anywhere so long as Joe Biden is president. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman and Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson held a hearing last week that let Trump lawyers air on national television the same false claims that courts had already rejected, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has introduced legislation to ban “ballot harvesting,” which allows political groups to collect mail ballots rather than force people to submit their ballots in directly to election officials. This practice is banned in many states already.

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Even though they refused Trump’s entreaties to overturn 2020’s election results, Republican state lawmakers in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have all talked about creating new restrictions to voting access in the name of protecting against voter fraud.

While Republican state legislators in all of those states rejected Trump’s call for them to break the law to appoint their own electors, they all have held hearings with the ostensible aim of investigating voter fraud.

“Election laws must be a priority in the next session,” Wisconsin’s incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said in an open letter to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) on Thursday. The letter, which was signed by nearly all of the state’s GOP senators, demanded Evers work with them to “ensure future elections are safeguarded from perversion of our election laws.”

In Pennsylvania, Republicans have begun talking about changing a state law they themselves passed in 2018 that allowed mail voting

Arizona is another state that could see some changes. Republicans have total control of the state, and while Arizona GOP Gov. Doug Ducey doesn’t seem eager to embrace major changes to the state’s voting rules, which heavily encourage mail voting, more hard-line conservative state lawmakers are pushing for widespread changes. Republicans in the legislature have already been demanding documents from local election officials, and have hinted they’ll push to add new restrictions to the state’s longstanding mail voting laws. 

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Things could get worse after the next midterms.

Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are among the numerous states that saw a wave of restrictive efforts put in place a decade ago when Republicans had sole control of the states, including voter identification laws.

All three states currently have Democratic governors who will likely block any efforts to make these changes. But all three governorships are up for grabs in 2022, and if Republicans retake complete control of these states and others, there could be another wave of election-related state efforts come 2023.

Other states where local GOP lawmakers have begun talking about new restrictions include Iowa and Ohio, with voting rights experts warily watching other GOP-controlled states like Florida and Texas.

Voting rights advocates are also worried about another disturbing trend: Republican state lawmakers are following in Trump’s footsteps to attack nonpartisan public servants. GOP legislators in Wisconsin and North Carolina have been vocal about wanting to rein in nonpartisan and bipartisan election bodies, a move that could threaten politicize offices that have historically managed to keep a semblance of nonpartisanship and hurt their integrity in the long term.

“You’re seeing attacks in many states on nonpartisan elections administrators,” said Sarah Walker of the good-government group Secure Democracy. “The narrative that Trump has created is going to do longstanding damage.”