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Republican lawmakers seek new powers over elections

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Testing the voting machines

Matt Zakibe, Republican tabulation supervisor, left, and Paul Schmitt, Democrat tabulation supervisor, conduct a public "logic and accuracy" test on the voting equipment that will be used in the March 10 Presidential Preference Primary Election. They test the machines on Friday, February 28, 2020, at the Board of Election Commissioners for the City of St. Louis. Photo by Hillary Levin,

The pervasive myths of a stolen 2020 presidential election and widespread voter fraud are still dominant in many state legislatures, as Republican policymakers call for more investigations and reshape election administration in a way that could give them a partisan advantage.

In Georgia, the Republican-led State Election Board could use a new state law to install partisan officials on county election boards in Democratic-leaning areas, giving them the power to decide which ballots to reject or even overturn results.

Voting rights advocates in Wisconsin worry the GOP-led state legislature is ramping up an effort to dissolve the state’s bipartisan election commission, granting lawmakers authority over the administration of elections and the awarding of the state’s presidential electors in future contests.

Republican leaders in Arizona and Florida want to establish agencies that would investigate cases of voter fraud, even though such cases are vanishingly rare. GOP-led investigations into the 2020 election, meanwhile, are plowing ahead in states including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and five or more states may follow.

The latest efforts come as Republican state lawmakers also attempt to tighten mail-in voting through new photo identification requirements and bans on ballot drop boxes. Lawmakers are considering at least 165 such restrictive bills nationwide.

Meanwhile, the lie that the 2020 election was rigged has ramped up the pressure on election officials, who increasingly face the prospect of criminal charges for even minor mistakes as well as death threats from voters in thrall to conspiracy theories. In response, many nonpartisan officials are stepping down, clearing the way for people who embrace election falsehoods to seek their offices.

This year’s push to overhaul election administration holds a huge potential significance: By restructuring the historically routine administrative work carried out by election boards and secretaries of state, Republican officials could shape a presidential election.

It’s vital for policymakers to speak out against election misinformation, said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican.

Cox, whose state conducts its elections almost entirely by mail, has criticized fellow Utah Republicans who have called for an Arizona-style audit in his state. Those legislators have claimed there are major security concerns with the current voting system. But this frenzy, Cox said, is based on nothing but lies and mistruths.

“It’s so difficult to hear people say, ‘Well, we just want to make sure everything is right,’ when those same people are spreading the misinformation that is leading to the distrust,” Cox said in an interview with Stateline at a recent meeting of the Western Governors’ Association. “Once you take that trust out of the system, it’s a lot harder to put it back in.”

Some states are heading down a path where officials could overturn the outcome of elections with which they disagree, said David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works with officials from both parties to improve election administration.

“What we have seen over the past year is all grounds for significant concern,” said Becker, who served in the U.S. Department of Justice’s voting section as a senior attorney under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “If the losers keep lying to their supporters that there’s no way they could lose, you have to be pretty divorced from reality.”

Even after a partisan audit in Arizona was widely panned for its embarrassing errors and for embracing conspiracy theories, GOP legislators in at least five states are proposing similar investigations this year, questioning whether President Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate.

Republicans argue these inquiries are necessary to restore voters’ confidence in American democracy. Polling over the past year has shown a precipitous decline in voters’ faith in election integrity — a jarring shift that voting rights activists attribute to lies around elections. Indeed, only a fifth of Americans are very confident in the voting system, according to an ABC/Ipsos poll released this month.

“These elections belong to the American people; they do not belong to government officials,” said Colorado state Rep. Ron Hanks, a Republican who has pursued a “forensic” audit of the 2020 presidential election in his state. “We do not have confidence in [elections], and if we don’t it weakens our republic.”

Citing his 32-year career in Air Force intelligence, Hanks in an interview repeated several unfounded claims made by conspiracy theorist and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell about the security of election equipment designed by Dominion Voting Systems, which is seeking $1.3 billion from Lindell in a lawsuit claiming defamation. Hanks said mail-in ballots have “tremendous risk” for fraud, though there is no evidence to support that view. He also called his state’s current audit system “garbage.”

Biden, Hanks added, is “completely illegitimate.”

Hanks attended last year’s Jan. 6 rally to overturn former President Donald Trump’s reelection loss, which led to the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Hanks, who marched to the Capitol with other rallygoers, told Stateline many “great” people were just concerned for their country. But he has falsely attributed the violence to individuals who wanted to create trouble and blame Trump supporters. Last week, two-thirds of his fellow Republican members of the Colorado House voted to thank Hanks for attending the rally.

Standing in the way of a partisan audit in Colorado is Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold.

Last year, she issued emergency orders to ban any effort to give third parties access to the state’s election systems, lambasting “insider threats” to elections. Griswold is the first secretary of state to ban partisan audits. This came after a judge stripped Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters of her official 2021 election duties for allowing an unauthorized person to inspect the county’s voting equipment.

“Those efforts in other states are not about the truth,” Griswold said in an interview with Stateline. “They’re seriously flawed, cost taxpayers millions of dollars and their goal is to undermine confidence to such a degree they’re able to tilt future elections.”

Even so, similar investigations are moving forward in other states.

In Wisconsin, former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman is leading an investigation into the 2020 presidential election, subpoenaing local officials from Green Bay to Milwaukee. Democrats and voting rights advocates have lambasted the probe as an embarrassing partisan sham, while Gableman and Republicans have said their effort is meant to restore confidence in elections.

Biden won Wisconsin by more than 20,000 votes. The Wisconsin Elections Commission conducted a partial audit after the election and found no problems. A separate review by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau also did not find widespread voter fraud. Additional probes have many Democratic lawmakers concerned.

“Our election system only works if we have the peaceful transition of power, if we have rules,” said Democratic state Rep. Gordon Hintz. “It seems to be up for grabs, and there seems to be enough people willing to overturn the election or change the rules if it means staying in power.”

Republican state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo asserts the goal is to make sure election officials follow state law, not to overturn the last election.

Sanfelippo sponsored a resolution that calls on five of the six members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission to resign. The bipartisan panel has faced criticism for its decisions in 2020 to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic.

“Do I think our election system is completely corrupt? No, I don’t think so,” he said. “But there are some irregularities that are happening. We need to verify the overall system is fine because there is a crisis of confidence now.”

Other Wisconsin lawmakers have even hinted at criminal charges for members of the commission. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, suggested last year that the legislature should take away the commission’s oversight of state elections. Similar efforts are underway in different states.

In Georgia, a new Republican-backed law gave the state’s election board the power to remove local election officials and potentially take over local election administration in certain areas. Republicans have long criticized Democratic-led counties in the Atlanta area for long lines at polling places and delays in reporting results.

In Michigan, Republicans are appointing residents who have embraced election conspiracies to local boards of canvassers, which certify election results. This could disrupt the vote-counting process in future elections.

Many of these proposals are a continuation of last year’s momentum to curtail the mail-in voting systems that many states adopted because of the pandemic, as officials feared voting in crowded polling places could expose Americans to the coronavirus.

Earlier this month, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, called on the state legislature to approve mail-in voting for all elections.

But last year, 19 states enacted 34 new restrictive voting laws such as photo identification requirements for mail-in voting, bans on ballot drop boxes and reduced early voting hours, according to a count by the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning nonprofit at the New York University School of Law. New restrictions were tied to more rejections of mail-in ballot applications in Texas and Georgia.

Additionally, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa and Texas added criminal penalties for election officials who do not adhere to state laws, sparking fears that officials may be jailed or feel intimidated for performing their jobs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven states enacted laws that prevent local officials from using philanthropic, private money to help fund election administration. And in Texas, lawmakers gave partisan poll watchers unprecedented new access.

As the U.S. approaches midterm elections in November, many people who have perpetuated lies and disinformation about the integrity of elections are now running for offices that administer elections.

Heeding calls from conservative pundits such as Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser who helped lead the 2016 Trump campaign, people who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen are running for state and local election offices.

Candidates pedaling election falsehoods are running for secretary of state in swing states including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin, according to a recent report by the Brennan Center. Experts there think campaigns for these offices likely will spend a record amount of money this year.

“This insidious idea that the person who counts the votes not only does that but also decides who wins is very dangerous for our democracy and voter confidence,” said Ian Vandewalker, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We’re worried these elections that should be based on who would do a good job are becoming partisan with scorched-earth rhetoric.”

Voting rights groups such as the Brennan Center have for the past year argued that the way to prevent partisan takeovers of elections is through federal legislation. But last week, Democrats in the U.S. Senate failed to pass their landmark voting rights legislation, blocked by a Republican filibuster. Two Democrats, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, voted against scrapping the filibuster.

Now, that fight goes to the states. Leaders in Democratic-controlled states already have announced plans to vastly expand mail-in voting and add protections for election workers. Voting rights advocates also have vowed to continue challenging restrictive new laws in courts. But it’s unclear whether that will be enough to slow the momentum for new GOP-backed measures.

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