WASHINGTON (AP) — As this year’s midterms approached, voting rights groups worried that restrictions in Republican-leaning states triggered by misrepresentations surrounding the 2020 election could undermine access at the polls for many voters.
These worries did not seem to come true. There have been no widespread reports of voters being turned away at the polls, and turnout, though down from the last midterm cycle four years ago, appears robust in Georgia, a state with highly competitive contests for Governor and US Senate.
The absence of broad disenfranchisement is not necessarily a sign that everyone who wanted to vote could; there is no good way to know why certain voters did not vote.
Voter advocacy groups promoted voter education campaigns and changed voting strategies to reduce confusion and encourage more voters to vote.
“We in the voting rights community in Texas feared the worst,” Anthony Gutierrez, director of Common Cause Texas, said Wednesday. “For the most part, that didn’t happen.”
False claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump have undermined public confidence in the election and prompted Republican officials to pass new election laws. Restrictions included stricter identification requirements for mail-in voting, shortening the period for requesting and returning a mail-in ballot, and limiting early voting days and access to ballot boxes.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or other wrongdoing in the 2020 election.
An estimated 33 restrictive election laws in 20 states were in effect for this year’s midterms, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The most publicized and sweeping laws have been passed in Georgia, Florida, Iowa and Texas. Arizona also passed new voting rules, but those were largely suspended this year or will go into effect later.
Of the four states where major election law changes are in effect, preliminary analysis shows declining turnout among registered voters in Florida, Iowa and Texas, while turnout in Georgia has fallen slightly . Several factors can affect turnout, including voter enthusiasm and bad weather.
In Texas, the clumsy rollout of new voting restrictions in the state’s March primary led to authorities throwing away nearly 23,000 ballots in the mail as confused voters struggled to navigate the news identification requirements.
But preliminary reports after Tuesday’s election showed rejection rates returning to more normal levels, which election officials attributed to outreach and mailing voters to understand the new rules. In San Antonio, county officials estimated the preliminary rejection rate at less than 2% — a sharp reversal from the 23% of mail-in ballots they rejected in March.
Groups such as the Texas Civil Rights Project, working through churches and other organizations, focused on ensuring that voters knew how to properly complete their mail-in ballots under the law known as the name of Senate Bill 1.
“As a Texas community, we’ve worked very hard to prepare for SB1,” said Emily Eby, the group’s senior election protection attorney.
Last year, Florida added a host of new rules regarding mail and early voting. They included new ID requirements, changes to the number of ballots a person can hand in on someone else’s behalf and limiting access to drop boxes after office hours. . This year lawmakers created a controversial new office dedicated to investigating fraud and other election crimes.
Still, voting has seemed relatively smooth this year, leading up to and on Election Day. Election officials reported no major issues.
Mark Earley, president of the Florida Election Supervisors, said the new laws didn’t affect voter turnout or access much this year, but said the rules, taken together, posed a challenge.
“When you put it all together – the cumulative effect – it becomes confusing, difficult to communicate and educate the public, difficult for the public to understand,” said Earley, who oversees elections in Leon County in Tallahassee. “It becomes a big logistical and educational burden, and more hurdles for people to jump over before they can collect their ballots.”
Iowa’s new law shortened the time for voters to return their ballots by mail, reduced polling hours and early voting days, and banned anyone except next of kin, household member or caregiver, to cast someone else’s ballot.
More than 1.2 million voters cast their ballots in the November 8 elections. State officials said it was the second-highest in state history for a midterm, but voting groups expressed concern that Latino turnout would have may have decreased due to the changes.
“Historically, we’ve had a fair number of Latino voters who voted by mail, which allowed LULAC volunteers to pick up those early ballots and return them to county election offices,” said Joe Henry, member of the board of directors of the Iowa chapter of the League of United Citizens of Latin America.
In Georgia, more votes were cast in this general election than in any previous midterm election – although with more registered voters than four years ago, the actual turnout was lower .
Gabriel Sterling, acting undersecretary of state, noted that most of the changes to election law, known as Senate Bill 202, affected pre-election voting – “and they blew up all records”.
He said more votes were cast early — both in person and by mail — than in any previous midterm election in the state. It was the voter turnout on polling day that was lower than expected.
After Democrats won the 2020 presidential contest and two U.S. Senate elections, the Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s election laws in 2021.
The law shortened the time to request a mail-in ballot and required voters to hand-sign mail-in ballot applications, meaning they needed access to a printer. It also reduced the number of ballot boxes in the state’s most populous counties and limited the hours they were accessible.
Critics said the changes made it more difficult to vote by mail. Democrats have urged people to vote early and in person this year instead. Kendra Cotton, CEO of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, said she believes the election law is having a negative effect in a state where key races were decided by narrow margins in recent elections.
“The narrative that’s out there is that SB202 was trying to depress the vote at large, and we contend that was not, in fact, the case,” she said. “He was trying to stop just enough people from voting that the election result here in Georgia would change.”
This year, Republicans have swept constitutional offices across the state, and a runoff will be held Dec. 6 to decide the winner of the U.S. Senate race.
While she acknowledged there weren’t many issues on Election Day, Cotton said the law created a lot of “noise” that drained energy and resources from organizations like hers.
“We have to go out and help voters fight to stay on the rolls,” Cotton said.
Voter advocacy groups are already mobilizing to support Georgian voters ahead of the Senate runoff on Dec. 6. Previously, the second round took place nine weeks after an election. The new law shortened this period to just four weeks, a period that also leaves too little time for new voter registrations.
“These types of tactics are aimed at suppressing votes,” Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org, said in a statement. “But Georgians have shown they are ready and willing to navigate difficult voting environments in order to make their voices heard.”
Associated Press data reporter Aaron Kessler in Washington, DC, and writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida; Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa; and Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.
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