Led by loyalists who embrace former President Donald J. Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election, Republicans in state legislatures nationwide are mounting extraordinary efforts to change the rules of voting and representation — and enhance their own political clout.
At the top of those efforts is a slew of bills raising new barriers to casting votes, particularly the mail ballots that Democrats flocked to in the 2020 election. But other measures go well beyond that, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules for the benefit of Republicans; clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives; and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections, which were crucial to the smooth November vote.
And although the decennial redrawing of political maps has been pushed to the fall because of delays in delivering 2020 census totals, there are already signs of an aggressive drive to further gerrymander political districts, particularly in states under complete Republican control.
The national Republican Party joined the movement this past week by setting up a Committee on Election Integrity to scrutinize state election laws, echoing similar moves by Republicans in a number of state legislatures.
Republicans have long thought — sometimes quietly, occasionally out loud — that large turnouts, particularly in urban areas, favor Democrats, and that Republicans benefit when fewer people vote. But politicians and scholars alike say that this moment feels like a dangerous plunge into uncharted waters.
The avalanche of legislation also raises fundamental questions about the ability of a minority of voters to exert majority control in American politics, with Republicans winning the popular vote in just one of the last eight presidential elections but filling six of the nine seats on the Supreme Court.
The party’s battle in the past decade to raise barriers to voting, principally among minorities, young people and other Democrat-leaning groups, has been waged under the banner of stopping voter fraud that multiple studies have shown barely exists.
“The typical response by a losing party in a functioning democracy is that they alter their platform to make it more appealing,” Kenneth Mayer, an expert on voting and elections at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said. “Here the response is to try to keep people from voting. It’s dangerously antidemocratic.”
Consider Iowa, a state that has not been a major participant in the past decade’s wars over voting and election rules. The November election saw record turnout and little if any reported fraud. Republicans were the state’s big winners, including in the key races for the White House and Senate.
Yet, in a vote strictly along party lines, the State Legislature voted this past week to cut early voting by nine days, close polls an hour earlier and tighten rules on absentee voting, as well as strip the authority of county auditors to decide how election rules can best serve voters.
State Senator Jim Carlin, a Republican who recently announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, made the party’s position clear during the floor debate: “Most of us in my caucus and the Republican caucus believe the election was stolen,” he said.
State Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat, said that served as justification for a law that created “a voting system tailored to the voting tendency of older white Republican voters.”
“They’ve convinced all their supporters of the big lie. They don’t see any downside in this,” he said in an interview. “It’s a bad sign for the country. We’re not going to have a working democracy on this path.”
The issues are particularly stark because fresh restrictions would disproportionately hit minorities just as the nation is belatedly reckoning with a racist past, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the chief executive of the voting advocacy group Fair Fight Action.
The Republican push comes as the rules and procedures of American elections increasingly have become a central issue in the nation’s politics. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, counts 253 bills in 43 states that seek to tighten voting rules. At the same time, 704 bills have been introduced with provisions to improve access to voting.
The push also comes as Democrats in Congress are attempting to pass federal legislation that would tear down barriers to voting, automatically register new voters and outlaw gerrymanders, among many other measures. Some provisions, such as a prohibition on restricting a voter’s ability to cast a mail ballot, could undo some of the changes being proposed in state legislatures.
Such legislation, combined with the renewed enforcement of federal voting laws, could counter some Republican initiatives in the 23 states where the party controls the legislature and governor’s office. But neither that Democratic proposal nor a companion effort to enact a stronger version of the 1965 Voting Rights Act stands any chance of passing unless Democrats modify or abolish Senate rules allowing filibusters. It remains unclear whether the party has either the will or the votes to do that.
On the legal front, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in an Arizona election lawsuit that turns on the enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That section is the government’s main remaining weapon against discriminatory voting practices after the court struck down another provision in 2013 that gave the Justice Department broad authority over voting in states with histories of discrimination.
Those who back the Republican legislative efforts say they are needed to restore flagging public confidence in elections and democracy, even as some of them continue to attack the system as corrupt. In Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, for example, the chairs of House election committees refused for weeks or months to affirm that President Biden won the election. The chairs in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin urged U.S. House members or former Vice President Mike Pence to oppose the presidential electors certified after Mr. Biden won those states’ votes.
Some respected Republican lawmakers reject charges that election proposals are bad-faith attempts to advance Republican power. “These are really big tweaks. I get that,” said State Senator Kathy Bernier, who heads an election committee in Wisconsin. “But we do this routinely every session.” Ms. Bernier said the party’s election-law bills, two of which would strengthen ID requirements for absentee ballots and limit ballot drop boxes to one per municipality, were honest efforts to make voting more secure.
That said, proposals in many states have little or nothing to do with that goal. Georgia Republicans would sharply limit early voting on Sundays, when many Black voters follow church services with “souls to the polls” bus rides to cast ballots. On Friday, a State Senate committee approved bills to end no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices.