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Republicans, defending voting restrictions, point finger at blue states with laws they say are worse

By Jane C. Timm | NBC News, April 8, 2021

Republicans, under fire from Democrats and major corporations for their nationwide push for new limits on voting, are defending their proposals as similar to or better for ballot access than the election laws some blue states already have on the books.

In statements and news conferences, Republican leaders have pointed to what they say is a double standard from Democrats and activists who say the bills — and Georgia's newly enacted restrictions, in particular — are attempts to suppress the votes of the multiracial coalition that powered President Joe Biden's victory last year.

In several cases, the Republicans are right. Some traditionally Democratic states, including big ones like New York, do have longstanding policies that advocates say are anti-voter. And some red states employ best practices to promote voter access. The difference is that many of the blue states have been moving to liberalize access to the ballot, while states like Georgia and Texas are actively moving in the other direction.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, said Tuesday that his state already offers more early voting days than a number of other states where Democrats control both legislative chambers, as well as the governor's mansion.

But Texas' GOP-controlled Legislature is considering massive packages of bills that would limit early voting options, affect how polling stations are allocated and add penalties for mistakes officials make in the election process. While nothing has landed on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's desk just yet, Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Technologies, which is outside Austin, have already spoken out.

"So if, somehow, we're accused of being racist because we want to suppress the vote of the people of color, I guess New York, New Jersey and Delaware are even more racist," Patrick said during a news conference, defending one of the bills.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made a similar argument Monday, saying the same companies criticizing red state bills have overlooked problems elsewhere.

"Wealthy corporations have no problem operating in New York, for example, which has fewer days of early voting than Georgia, requires excuses for absentee ballots and restricts electioneering via refreshments," he said. "There is no consistent or factual standard being applied here. It's just a fake narrative gaining speed by its own momentum."

It's an argument that's gaining steam on the right. After the mayor of Denver announced that the city would host the Major League Baseball All-Star Game — MLB withdrew from the original host city, Atlanta, in protest of Georgia's new law — some Republicans claimed that Colorado's voter ID requirement was similar to Georgia's, which is considered one of the strictest laws in the country.

Advocates acknowledge that there is still work to do in several Democratic states.

"It doesn't have to be a partisan thing, 'but New York?' A lot of election advocates respond, 'Yeah — and — New York,'" said Justin Levitt, an election law expert and professor at Loyola Law School at Loyola Marymount University in California, who worked at the Justice Department during the Obama administration.

Still, experts on election policy warned that Republicans are drawing a false equivalence, and they say the argument being used to justify major changes after former President Donald Trump's election loss requires more context.

"Here's the big difference: New York, New Jersey, Delaware have all moved increasingly in the last few years to increase options for voting, while Georgia, Texas, Iowa have gone the opposite direction," said Bob Brandon, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center, which advocates for removing barriers to the ballot box.

Colorado, for example, "led the way in expanding ways and options to vote and as a result has among the highest turnout of any state around the country," he said.

Here's how some of the election laws and proposals compare.

How does Colorado compare to Georgia?

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., tweeted Tuesday that Colorado and Georgia both have voter ID laws, while Colorado has fewer days of early voting.

That's misleading, thanks to the different ways the states conduct elections. It's true that Georgia has more days of early in-person voting than Colorado — at least 17, according to the new law.

But Colorado, where Democrats control the Legislature and the governor's office, runs its elections almost entirely by mail. Ballots are mailed automatically to eligible voters, who can choose to vote in person during the 15 days of early voting and on Election Day. Most voters — 94 percent, according to Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold — chose to vote by mail last year.

The state has automatic voter registration for voters who apply for driver's licenses or interact with certain state agencies and same-day voter registration for those who don't.

In Georgia, there is automatic voter registration at the Department of Driver Services.

According to state law, voters are required to register to vote about a month in advance of an election in order to be eligible. The state's new law makes it illegal for the state or counties to mail out absentee ballot applications.

Colorado voters are required to show ID in certain circumstances, but a wide variety of documents are eligible, including utility bills and paychecks. Mail voters' ballots are verified with a signature match process.

Brandon said that the suggestion that Colorado has restrictive election laws is "completely false" and that the state is "among the best" in voting policies.

Georgia has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, allowing only government or tribal photo IDs, like driver's licenses, passports or free voter ID cards that counties offer.

While anyone can vote by mail, those voters will now need to include driver's license numbers or other proof of their identity with documentation. Before Georgia passed its law, mail ballots were verified by a signature match process, as in Colorado.

What about New Jersey, New York and Delaware?

Republicans have also criticized New Jersey, New York and Delaware, Biden's home state, zeroing in on early voting in those states, too.

Delaware and New York both enacted legislation in 2019 to create permanent early voting, while New Jersey did the same just last week. When all three states have fully implemented their laws, more than a week of early voting will be required by law. Texas and Georgia have about two and three weeks of early voting, respectively.

Voting rights advocates have long targeted New York for its restrictive policies and slowness to adopt reforms — like strict limits on mail voting — but they have applauded the state's expansion of early voting last year and its ongoing efforts to expand mail voting.

Georgia has had both early voting and no-excuse mail voting for more than a decade, although experts said the strict ID requirements can create barriers to using those options.

Texas limits who can vote absentee by mail, although the limits are somewhat looser than New York's, according to research compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas also requires voter ID at the polls.

New Jersey already has no-excuse mail voting; Delaware legislators are considering expanding mail voting to all voters, as well.

The trajectory of laws and election administration must be considered, experts said.

"If we want to talk about comparing one state to comparing the other, let's see what trajectory they're on. There's no question that Georgia, which already had a number of limits, has tried to make it even more difficult," Brandon said.

New York has long been criticized for a voting system that tends to favor incumbents by making it difficult to cast ballots, and its election system, particularly in New York City, has been plagued by patronage and incompetence. Levitt said the issue is less about partisanship and more about "incumbents who fear the electorate."

"When you have incumbents that don't value the electorate as potential voters but as opposition elements to be feared, you get election procedures and practices that aren't great," he said.

Does New York ban giving voters food at the polls?

McConnell said in a statement Monday that New York "restricts electioneering via refreshments," an apparent reference to criticism of Georgia's ban on giving food or water to people standing in line to vote.

Experts say many states have laws that mention food in electioneering prohibitions, but they say the context of the laws is critical.

New York's law, which bans inducement of voters with things like meat, drink or tobacco, dates back more than 100 years, Levitt said, when political machines would turn voters out with promises of things like whiskey and roast chicken.

New York's law also includes an exception for giving refreshments to voters inside polling places that retail for less than a dollar — which is likely to cover bottled water.

Having an old anti-bribery law on the books is very different from "looking back on that law, in the current context, and saying, 'Yeah, we need one of those,'" Levitt said.

"'Somebody else screwed up' is not an excuse for screwing up. That's the inane part about whatabout-ism," he said. "It's an argument that more jurisdictions should get better."

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