Republicans target voting rights groups with election laws

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The 2020 election may be remembered for Donald Trump’s attempt to steal a second term in the White House, but there is another fundamental truth about the last election: Tens of millions of people voted in the midst of a historic pandemic, largely without a hitch. In other words, it went well. Really good.

In large part, this is thanks to the elbow grease of hundreds of volunteer groups across the country: civil society organizations have dedicated time and effort to registering voters and helping them through both a global pandemic and the then President’s relentless attacks on the democratic process.

And so, for the past two years, Republicans have pursued legislation aimed at marginalizing these groups with the threat of harsh criminal penalties.

In several states, new laws and legislative proposals create the threat of criminal prosecution for a bread-and-butter job on voting rights. In Kansas, for example, the League of Women Voters has drastically reduced its voter registration program due to the threat of prosecution under a vague new law that makes it a crime to impersonate election officials. . In Alabama, the sponsor of a bill banning private involvement in election administration says a county sheriff could face criminal charges for even accepting stamps for people in jail to vote by correspondence.

The pattern of new restrictions makes voting rights groups and civil society organizations think twice about what they can do safely. Observers say it is intentional.

“It’s a symptom of a general evil that we’re dealing with right now, and it’s an attack on our electoral system,” said Tammy Patrick, senior election program adviser at the Democracy Fund.

“In addition to the wave of new restrictions being placed on voters themselves, there are many restrictions being placed on the people who make the democratic process work,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the voting rights program at Brennan. Center. “It is no longer just a question of putting up obstacles [voters’] way, it puts obstacles in the way of people who could help them get over those obstacles.

In 2020, “there was massive turnout,” Morales-Doyle added. “And that’s a backlash against turnout.”

Suspend a robust voter registration program

The threat — or potential threat — of lawsuits is at the heart of the new crackdown on the work of voting rights groups.

In Kansas, the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs have been waging a legal battle for nearly a year over HB 2183, making it a crime to engage in conduct “that would cause another person to believe that a person engaging in such conduct is an election official.

The law is so vague that when it was passed last year, the League ceased all in-person voter registration activities.

“We wanted to make sure our members wouldn’t be prosecuted for work that we’ve been doing for 102 years without incident,” state league co-chair Jacqueline Lightcap told TPM.

Before the law was passed, the group was the go-to resource for election officials who lacked the formal means to set up a voter registration presence at statewide events. Now, rather than using official registration forms and dropping them off side-by-side with election officials, the Kansas League is referring people to a QR code, adding extra steps for voters to go through on their own. .

“This law has really made us stop and think about how we can still do this work in an atmosphere that is sometimes very suspicious because, in our view, no legitimate reason,” Lightcap said.

The Specter of ‘Zuckerbucks’

Much of the recent backlash against the involvement of nongovernmental groups in the election can be traced, curiously, to Mark Zuckerberg: the Facebook founder and his wife Priscilla Chan donated hundreds of millions of dollars in 2020 in the form of one-time grants to electoral offices around the world. the country as they struggled to prepare for a pandemic election. Grants went to jurisdictions large and small, red and blue.

But because there was strong turnout in the major urban areas that benefited from the funds, “Zuckerbucks” has since become a right-wing bugaboo. In Wisconsin, for example, Michael Gableman, election investigator for the 2020 Legislature Republicans, called the money a bribe, though several courts have said the grants were legal. An interim report it released said certain grant terms “favour black and minority voters as opposed to the rest of residents.”

More than a dozen states now have laws in place prohibiting election officials from receiving outside funding, and some go further than that.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed his election restrictions package, including a rule against outside financing, during a Fox News TV hit. But the same law also required third-party voter registration organizations to verbally warn everyone they registered that their paperwork might not reach polling stations in time — giving the impression that voluntary registration groups were being negligent. with voter forms, although in general, third-party groups have an excellent track record of processing registrations quickly.

The state argued that the disclaimer was justified in part because voter registration groups “have professional employees who profit from their participation in voter registration activities.” But a federal judge didn’t buy it, enjoining that part of the law and calling it the “constitutional equivalent of using a flamethrower to dust cobwebs.”

Florida Republicans aren’t done: An updated law, which has passed both houses and is awaiting DeSantis’ signature, would prevent election officials from accepting pro bono legal aid from outside groups – like the organization recently formed by veteran Republican and Democratic election lawyers Ben Ginsberg and Bob Bauer, of the Election Official Legal Defense Network.

Stamp acceptance fees?

In Alabama, a similar bill against outside funding, signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey (R) on Wednesday, has voting rights groups concerned it could chill what have generally been productive relationships with officials county voters.

Like other states, HB 194 prohibits election officials and other government employees from accepting private funds for election administration. During a floor debate for HB 194, his sponsor, State Representative Wes Allen (R), acknowledged that a county sheriff could be held criminally liable if he even accepted a donation of stamps in order to facilitate absentee voting in a county jail.

After the article was published, Alabama State Rep. Wes Allen (R), the sponsor of HB 194, told TPM in an email that the new law “does not prohibit individuals or organizations to work with their election administration officials” and “The State of Alabama provides each of the 67 counties with all the resources they need to administer the elections.

But suffrage advocates are concerned about the new law’s wording criminalizing the acceptance of “personal services,” which is vague enough to mean all kinds of volunteer work.

“If workers are afraid of facing criminal charges, they are likely to be reluctant to work with groups outside of their own office,” said Kathy Jones, president of the Alabama League of Women. Voters.

Jones said volunteers often assist state and local authorities with their work, such as helping people with criminal records regain their right to vote, or supporting the Secretary of State’s Voter ID van, which provides identification that the state requires voters to present.

“I think Wes Allen’s main goal is to keep smaller, poorer counties from getting outside help,” Jones said of the bill’s sponsor. “Everything else is kind of like a guarantee.”

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