What you need to know about hotly debated US voting laws

A battle is unfolding between Democrats and Republicans over changes to voting access. Here’s what is being proposed.

Protesters hold signs reading 'Save our Elections' in support of voting rights in Texas
Protesters show support for voting rights during a rally against Republican legislators in Texas who are advancing a slew of new voting restrictions [File: Mikala Compton/Reuters]

As the fight over voting laws intensifies throughout the United States, Democrats and Republicans are defining it as an existential battle.

In his first detailed speech on the issue as president, Joe Biden on Tuesday called Republican efforts to implement more restrictive voting laws “a new wave of voter suppression and raw and sustained election subversion”. Biden and his fellow Democrats also argue that these laws target and will disproportionately affect voters of colour.

Republicans, however, say these measures are necessary to prevent voting fraud, something that former President Donald Trump continues to allege is widespread, contrary to the evidence and the opinions of numerous courts across the country.

In the United States, there is no federal election playbook; individual states and localities are responsible for their own voting laws, which Democrats in Congress are trying to change via a voting rights bill that has little chance of passing.

Contentious laws are being debated in states like Texas and implemented by Republican lawmakers in other states, including Arizona, Florida and Georgia. Here are the key issues at the heart of the fight and how things have been heating up:

Voter IDs

The debate over whether voters should be required to show valid identification and what constitutes valid identification at their polling place has been hotly debated for years.

Democrats have long argued that voter ID laws depress turnout, especially among low-income minority voters who may not have the means to obtain a driver’s licence or another government-issued identification card.

“These voters are disproportionately low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities,” the American Civil Liberties Union points out.

Republicans contend that such IDs are required for many aspects of daily life, including boarding an aeroplane, entering many government buildings and picking up a package at the post office, and they also argue the requirement is a fraud-prevention measure. 

But statistics do not back up the Republicans’ argument. One oft-cited study by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt revealed that between 2000 and 2014, there were only 31 incidents of voter ID fraud out of 1 billion ballots cast.

That being said, this is one issue where Democrats are out of the mainstream, according to polls taken over the past decade. A Monmouth University poll (PDF) released last month showed 80 percent of Americans supporting “requiring voters to show a photo I.D. in order to vote”, including 62 percent of Democrats and 84 percent of non-white respondents.

In recent months, even the most vocal anti-voter ID activists have softened their opposition.

In an effort to urge Democrats to broker a deal with Republicans to get their broad voting rights bill through Congress, former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who made arguing against voter ID laws a pillar of her candidacy, told CNN last month, “No one has ever objected to having to prove who you are to vote. It’s been part of our nation’s history since the inception of voting.”

Reversing pandemic rules

As COVID-19 swept through the US in 2020, a presidential election year, many states and localities implemented pandemic-related voting laws designed to make it easier for voters to cast ballots without waiting in crowded lines or even without leaving their homes.

Some areas sent mail-in ballots to all voters, regardless of whether they were specifically requested. Other jurisdictions expanded voting hours or placed 24-hour dropboxes in public areas for people to place their completed ballots. One Texas county allowed voters to cast their ballots while in their vehicle in a “drive-through” setting.

A car enters a drive-through voting site on Election Day, November 3, 2020, in Houston, Texas [File: David J Phillip/AP Photo]

Last month’s Monmouth Poll showed more Americans – 50 percent – agreed that voting by mail should be made easier, compared with 39 percent who said it should be made harder.

Republicans in various states are working to roll back many of these voting changes, arguing that they are insecure or, in some cases, that they were applied inconsistently within states and would be a burden or unnecessary to roll them out statewide.

The Texas Tribune reported that, during a hearing last weekend about the proposed Texas voting changes, Republican state representative Andrew Murr argued, “One of the important goals here is to establish and reemphasise uniformity … you had one jurisdiction over here doing it and then other parts of the state that weren’t.”

Democratic state representative John Bucy said, “We’re going to make it harder for communities of colour, for individuals with disabilities, for individuals where English isn’t their primary language, and for seniors to vote and to have access to the ballot box, even though the elections were a resounding success.”

Partisan poll watchers, vote counters

Democrats are also growing alarmed by new laws passed by Republicans that would grant more power to partisan poll watchers who monitor the voting process on Election Day. The Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks changes to voting laws, argued those changes invite “the opportunity for increased voter intimidation and harassment at the polls”.

In addition, Republicans in some states have moved to allow partisan legislatures or elected officials to have more of a say in how votes are counted, which critics have argued is a reaction to Trump’s failed attempts to intimidate various state election officials into subverting the results of the 2020 election.

Biden on Tuesday called those moves “the most dangerous threat to voting in the integrity of free and fair elections in our history”.

Source: Al Jazeera