By Lisa Hagen and Susan Milligan | U.S. News and World Report, April 9, 2021
Looking back in an election cycle or two, it may be that the political and economic fallout gripping Georgia today over its controversial new voter law proves to have been a sign of an inevitable march toward a very different electoral map.
The next frontier in the battle over voting rights is already creeping toward other states across the South and the Sun Belt that have two things in common: They are all seeing a similar rapid demographic shift in their electorates that stands to reimagine the American political landscape. And they have entrenched political interests trying to stop it.
After a year of record turnout, especially among voters of color in Southern states, and a barrage of unfounded fraud claims propagated by the former president, GOP-led state legislatures are leading the charge to challenge and amend voting laws. They saw their first big success last month in Georgia. That sweeping law among other things imposes identification requirements for absentee ballots, limits ballot drop boxes and shortens runoff elections.
Measures with similar implications in Texas and Arizona, meanwhile, are now steadily gaining traction. Like Georgia, these once-reliably red strongholds have been dramatically reshaped in recent years and are likely to keep trending further away from Republicans. In 2020, Democrats clinched major victories at both the presidential and Senate levels in Georgia and Arizona last year, though Texas has moved toward them at a slower pace.
The 2020 results redefined how Democrats and Republicans will need to compete in the years ahead, particularly in what has been dubbed the "New South." But the onslaught of resistance to heightened voter turnout could slow down the effects of the ongoing demographic shifts happening across the Sun Belt – a swath of states from the Southeast to the Southwest that are defined by fast population growth and warm weather.
Since late March, state legislators have introduced around 361 measures across 47 states that could limit voting – a 43% uptick from the previous month – according to the most recent tally from the Brennan Center for Justice. Texas, Georgia and Arizona are at the top of the pack, respectively.
"In a backlash to 2020's historic voter turnout, and under the pretense of responding to baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, state lawmakers have introduced a startling number of bills to curb the vote," the report reads.
Political experts see a theme in Sun Belt states, where demographics have been making states bluer or at least more gettable for Democratic candidates – states expected to play a critical role in the fight for control of Congress in the 2022 midterms and the next presidential race in 2024.
In Texas, urbanization has brought younger and more left-leaning voters to the state. In Arizona and North Carolina, increases in Latino and Asian American populations have made a difference. And in Georgia, heavier Black turnout helped propel Democrats to victory in 2020.
Left to their own demographic devices, Sun Belt states "are on the Virginia path" toward Democratic dominance, says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato.
"I think Republicans in those states are doing what Republicans didn't do (in Virginia) – they're trying to correct for that," Sabato says.
Demographic changes in Virginia put the Old Dominion on an unstoppable march toward solid blue status presaged by Barack Obama's decisive win in 2008 in a state that hadn't picked a Democrat for president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Since then, the state has moved steadily in Democrats' favor, with the party now controlling both chambers of the state legislatures and holding every statewide office. Virginia recently approved a package of bills meant to make it easier to vote, a move experts believe will make it even harder for the GOP to regain ground there.
But in a number of these other states, new legislation may clamp down on access to the ballot box, which had been greatly expanded and eased around much of the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and ultimately led to the highest turnout election in over a century.
Democrats and voting rights activists have called the proposed restrictions a reincarnation of Jim Crow-era laws that place disproportionate burdens on voters of color as well as people with disabilities. But Republicans repudiate that characterization as well as suppression claims, arguing that they are looking to restore voter trust and insulate elections from fraud.
While a number of measures have been introduced in Texas, Senate Bill 7 is generating a groundswell of attention as it moves through the state legislature. The legislation, which passed the state Senate last week, includes a spate of restrictions like limiting early-voting hours, banning drive-through and 24-hour voting and strengthening protections for poll watchers.
And on Thursday, a Texas House committee advanced a separate bill on a party-line vote that criminalizes sending unsolicited applications to receive mail-in ballots and requires that people helping disabled voters must provide a reason for such assistance.
Texas has long been the anchor of the GOP presidential map, but that advantage has been steadily eroding as the state becomes more urbanized and more prominently majority-minority. After years of double-digit margins, the GOP's advantage narrowed to single digits by 2016, and in 2020, former President Donald Trump won the state by a little more than 5 percentage points.
And while Democrats did not flip Texas congressional seats in 2020, as they had hoped, the voting trends are moving in their direction. Williamson County, in the Austin area, flipped to Biden after Trump had won it in 2016 by 9.7 percentage points. Nearby Hays County, which Trump won in 2016, voted for Biden by a double-digit margin last year.
Texas is already "one of the toughest places in the country to vote, anyway," says Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan voting rights group.
After 2020 – when Texas had record voter turnout overall but especially in traditionally underperforming communities – Republican lawmakers are moving to make it harder to vote. Many of those provisions appear aimed at certain vulnerable populations, Brandon says.
For example, one proposal would allow partisan poll-watchers to videotape what's going on – something that could intimidate people who are legal voters but live in households with immigrants in the country illegally. Another provision would limit the number of people an individual can help with getting an absentee ballot or delivering them, he explains.
"It's pretty clear that the goal here is to get people who are increasingly voting at higher rates, who tend not to be voting Republican," and make it harder for them to cast ballots, Brandon says. Republicans may be losing ground in Texas, but "they're the ones in charge."
In Arizona, which has relied heavily on vote-by-mail for years, a series of bills is also moving through the state legislature, including an array of provisions like preventing election officials from sending mail ballots to voters unless requested. One proposal would remove names from the permanent early voting list who don't cast a ballot in the primary and general elections in two consecutive cycles.
Last year, Arizona flipped to the Democratic column in the presidential race for the first time since 1996, though even that was an outlier at the time since the GOP had won the state every other election since 1948. Arizona also has two Democratic U.S. senators for the first time since 1953, with Sen. Mark Kelly winning a special election to fill the late GOP Sen. John McCain's seat last year.
Voters of color appear to have put Biden over the top in Arizona: Non-white voters, who made up 26% of the voting electorate last year, went for Biden over Trump by a 59-39% margin, according to exit polls. White voters favored Trump more narrowly – 52% to 46% for Biden – not enough to make up for Latinos and other minority voters.
In North Carolina, trends are also moving in the Democrats' direction despite their losses at the top of the ticket and for a Senate seat in 2020. The Republicans' nominee won the state by more than 12 percentage points in 2000, by 3.6 percentage points in 2016 and by 1.3 percentage points last year. Notably, Biden expanded the Democratic advantage in the more populous areas around Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte.
Legislators in North Carolina are seeking less stringent measures but would require that local election officials receive mail-in ballots by 5 p.m. on Election Day. State law currently allows ballots to arrive up to three days after if they're postmarked by the election. Similar to other states in 2020, North Carolina allowed ballots to arrive even later due to the pandemic, an extension that ended up before the Supreme Court and was upheld.
But Republicans see it differently. They argue that the purpose of such legislation around the country serves to restore election integrity and combat voter fraud.
Many have cited problems that arose in the 2020 elections, though no widespread fraud was found – an assertion backed by the intelligence community and top election officials in the battlegrounds states that were challenged by Trump and his Republican defenders.
Still, with a high distrust in how elections are conducted, Republicans point to measures they believe will help rehabilitate that image. Legislation in North Carolina and Arizona would prevent private individuals and organizations from giving money to state and local election boards and officials. Those bills come in light of conservative backlash to donations last year from people like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg aiming to help underfunded election administrators.
"No organization should be able to give millions of dollars to election boards or officials – elections are the exclusive responsibility of the government, and private money creates partisan incentives and the appearance of corruption," Heritage Action for America executive director Jessica Anderson said in a statement. "Arizonans have the right to know their elections are being run without outside influence."
While there's a concerted effort across the U.S. to impose limits on voting, a number of states – both red and blue – are passing expansions, like Kentucky and Virginia. And they come as Congress seeks to pass a landmark voting bill and a restoration of part of the Voting Rights Act.
After a party-line vote in the House, the "For the People Act" is dead on arrival in the Senate with the legislative filibuster still intact, meaning Democrats would need at least 10 Republican votes to advance it. As of now, Democrats don't have the support to ax the filibuster or advance voting rights legislation through regular order.
With no current path for federal legislation, the specter of potential new voting laws looms large over the 2022 midterms elections and the battle over which party controls both the House and Senate. Republicans also have an advantage since the party in power historically loses seats in their first midterm.
After some recent vacancies, Democrats will have a six-seat majority in the House once a GOP seat is filled next week. And with the slightest advantage in a 50-50 split Senate, the party has virtually no room for error. The fight for the Senate will ultimately come down to many of the Sun Belt states that are weighing restrictive voting bills: Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina.
Activists, like Andrea Young, the executive director of ACLU Georgia, say they are worried that the passage of these bills will hinder the voting power of people of color who played an outsized role in 2020.
"I think this is very much directed at making it more difficult for Black voters to influence the outcome of the 2022 election."