Focus on the States: 250 bills to restrict voting rights and 70 bills to restrict transgender rights in the first two months of 2021

Welcome to Focus on the States. There has been a lot of local-level news, too much to include in one post. I did my best to choose a representative sample. Be aware, this is far from comprehensive.


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Voting rights

As of February 19, 2021, state lawmakers have carried over, prefiled, or introduced 246 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states. By far the states with the largest number of restrictive bills are Arizona and Georgia, with at least 22 in each. It’s important to note that there have been more bills expanding voting rights filed or introduced in the same time frame: over 700 in a different set of 43 states. Source: Brennan Center.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in a critical voting rights case on Tuesday involving two Arizona laws that make it harder for some voters to cast a ballot. The first law in question in Brnovich v. DNC and Arizona Republican Party v. DNC blocks the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct. The second law prohibits so-called “ballot harvesting,” or the collection of ballots by a third party who isn’t a close family member. It is unclear from questioning which way the key justices like Chief Justice John Roberts and Trump-appointee Amy Coney Barrett are leaning, with legal observers contradicting each other on the likelihood of the Republicans’ case succeeding.

A pivotal moment in the hearing came when the Republican Party lawyer was asked by Barrett why the party cared about whether votes cast in the wrong precinct should be counted. He responded, “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

  • Vox’s Ian Millhiser believes the justices will rule against the voting restrictions. Adam Liptak of the New York Times, however, thinks the justices seem more likely to uphold Arizona’s laws, thus allowing other states to impose similar limitations to voting.

Georgia state House Republicans approved a 66-page bill that requires ID for absentee voting, curbs the use of ballot drop boxes, and restricts weekend early voting hours. HB 531 passed along party lines 97-72; it will now be taken up by the Republican-controlled state Senate. The massive “election reform” package has wide-reaching impacts, including stripping the Secretary of State of his role as chair of the State Election Board and preventing county elections offices from receiving direct grant funding. Additionally, a separate bill in the state Senate to end automatic voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting was passed out of committee last week.

“Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly are trying to change the rules of the election here in Georgia, rules that you wrote, because you were handed defeat,” said [Rep. Kimberly] Alexander, a Democrat from Hiram. “You know that your only chance of winning future elections is to prevent Georgians from having their votes counted and their voices heard.”

According to exit polls, 88% of black voters in the state cast a ballot for Biden and more than 90% voted for Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the January runoff elections. During arguments in the Brnovich v. DNC case before the Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan appeared to allude to Georgia’s proposed limitations on Sunday voting:

“If a state has long had two weeks of early voting and then the state decides that it is going to get rid of Sunday voting on those two weeks, leave everything else in place, and Black voters vote on Sunday 10 times more than white voters, is that system equally open?” Justice Kagan asked.

The Idaho Senate approved a bill to make it more difficult for citizens to get initiatives or referendums on ballots, sending it next to the state House for consideration. The legislation would require initiative campaigns to collect signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, a dramatic increase from the current 18 district requirement. Both critics and proponents say the measure would give more power to Idaho’s rural corners, which tend to trend more conservative than the rest of the state. There isn’t another state that currently requires a minimum number of signatures in every district.

Voter-driven ballot initiatives, which act as a check on the Legislature, have become a major focus in the state in recent years. After years of inaction by Republican lawmakers, 62% of Idaho voters approved an initiative expanding Medicaid in 2018… In response to Medicaid expansion, Republicans in the House and Senate in 2019 tried to make the initiative process nearly impossible so they could head off future measures such as raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana.

Similar bills: Six other states—Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota—are considering laws to enact or increase supermajority requirements for certain ballot measures. Missouri has seen great success with citizen-led initiatives, passing independent districting, medical marijuana, and expanded Medicaid measures during the past three years. Last month, 11 Republican-sponsored bills making the initiative petition process more difficult were voted out of committee.

To combat the rise in voting rights restrictions, House Democrats passed HR 1 “For the People Act” by a 220-210 vote, with only Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) breaking ranks. The 700+ page bill covers a lot of ground, including creating a national system for automatic voter registration, instituting two weeks of early voting in every state, putting in transparency requirements for political advertising, and instituting nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end partisan gerrymandering.

Passing the landmark bill through the Senate, however, would require either Republican support – which isn’t going to happen – or reforming the filibuster, if not killing it altogether. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who recently called for “get[ting] rid of the filibuster” to pass HR1/S1, set the first Senate hearing for March 24.

As Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent wrote:

Democrats such as Manchin and Sinema constantly treat keeping the filibuster as something that will facilitate the operations of democracy… That’s nonsense. In an ideal world where civic virtue and good faith reigned, denying a partisan majority the ability to pass legislation would theoretically result in more bipartisanship, since that majority then would need a few members of the minority to get 60 votes to end filibusters.

But that’s not the world that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made.


  • The Kentucky House on Friday wrapped up its quick work on legislation that would make early voting a permanent feature in the state’s elections.
  • Montana bill would make voting easier for Native Americans
  • Hawaii Senate committee passes automatic voter registration


This does not include any of the insurrection news.

Law enforcement in Ankeny, Iowa, detonated a live pipe bomb left inside a community polling center during a school district election on Tuesday. There is no indication of who left the bomb in the suburb just outside of Des Moines or when it was placed. The center was closed for around three hours while authorities disposed of the device.

A member of the relatively new neo-nazi group, the 14 First Foundation, was arraigned in Spokane, Washington, on malicious harassment charges for defacing a synagogue. Raymond Bryant, 44, was identified from surveillance video spray-painting a swastika on Temple Beth Shalom and vandalizing a Holocaust memorial. The 14 First has been active distributing white nationalist flyers across the nation, including in Texas, Kentucky, and Louisiana, though they have arguably taken a more aggressive position in eastern Washington than anywhere else.

The Oregon state Republican Party elected a far-right senator who supported extremists storming the state Capitol in January as their chairman. Sen. Dallas Heard addressed a pro-Trump crowd in Salem on Jan. 6, telling them that the Capitol was being “occupied” by elitists and encouraging listeners to “bring the power to them.” In December, he participated in a similar event that resulted in the anti-mask rightwing crowd breaking into the state Capitol building, smashing windows, and fighting with police.


  • Washington Senate votes to ban open carry of firearms at Capitol and at demonstrations
  • Neo-Nazis planned to establish white nationalist compound in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
  • A New Jersey teen admitted Friday to coordinating with The Base, a neo-Nazi group, to vandalize two Midwestern synagogues.
  • Montana House failed to denounce white supremacist groups after Republicans suggest there are zero white supremacists in the state.
  • Several armed groups have been trying to prevent Oregon OSHA from investigating restaurants for coronavirus violations, threatening the inspectors and following them to their cars.

Social issues

There were 79 pieces of legislation in states to restrict transgender rights last year, many focused on student-athletes. In 2021 so far, there have been 69 bills in more than 20 states, many sailing quickly through state legislatures where the GOP grew its majorities. The ACLU is tracking some of the anti-LGBTQ legislation under consideration here.

The Tennessee Senate passed a bill forcing student-athletes to compete in events under the gender they were assigned at birth, teeing up the Republican-controlled House to take up the matter this month. SB228/HB3 passed in a 27-6 party-line vote, without an amendment that would have made exceptions for transgender athletes receiving gender-affirming care, such as hormone blockers. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) has voiced support for the legislation, saying that transgender athletes “will destroy women’s sports.”

Minnesota state Rep. Eric Lucero (R) introduced a bill to criminalize transgender girls who play on the school sports teams of their gender or use their gender’s bathroom. H.F. 1657 would make it a petty misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $300, for transgender girls to play on women’s school sports teams. Furthermore, using a women’s bathroom as a transgender girl would be a full misdemeanor, which could lead to a transgender person being sentenced to up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, and one to two years of probation.

While the bill is not expected to pass, it is a dangerous sign of how far some in the GOP are willing to go to discriminate against transgender people:

“This is one of the most extreme political attacks on trans youth that I have ever seen,” said the ACLU’s Chase Strangio in a statement. “Even if the bill does not pass, it has already sent a dangerous message to trans youth in Minnesota and around the country. Being trans is not a crime and trans youth should never be banned from sports or criminalized for simply being themselves.”

The Washington state Supreme Court struck down the law making simple drug possession a crime, providing lawmakers an opportunity to rework the criminal code. Justices ruled 5-4 that the statute was unconstitutional because it doesn’t require prosecutors to prove that someone knowingly or intentionally possessed the drugs. Currently, a person cannot be arrested for possessing a small amount of an illegal substance unless there is evidence that the individual was selling the drugs.

There is, in fact, already a bill teed up that could fix this particular situation: HB 1499 was approved by the Washington House Public Safety Committee just days before the Supreme Court ruling. Called the Pathways to Recovery Act, the bill would remove penalties for personal use amounts of illegal drugs and greatly expand recovery services in the state.

Rep. Tarra Simmons (D), who voted in favor of the change, said that in her experience as someone in recovery, criminalization only prevents people from getting help. “As a person who now has 9 1/2 years in recovery from substance use disorder that included opiates, methamphetamine and marijuana,” she said, “I remember wanting to get help but being afraid because it was a crime.”


  • Harris County got rid of cash bail for many people accused of minor crimes. GOP lawmakers want to walk that back.
  • Illinois becomes first state to sign law eliminating cash bail
  • No more urine tests: Proposed California law would end most workplace marijuana tests
  • Republican lawmaker asks if GA colleges are teaching white privilege. Professor says it’s a ‘threat’
  • The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness: How the right is trying to censor critical race theory.


Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had his first court hearing Monday in a case brought against him by four whistleblowers who formerly worked in his office. James Brickman, David Maxwell, J. Mark Penley, and Ryan Vassar were among the aides and officials who reported Paxton to law enforcement last year, alleging the AG used his office to serve the interests of a political donor. They were later fired in retaliation.

[The whistleblowers claim] that Austin real estate developer Nate Paul helped Paxton remodel his house and gave a job to a woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an affair. In return, the aides allege, Paxton used his office to help Paul’s business interests, investigate Paul’s adversaries and help settle a lawsuit. The claims in the filing provide even more details about what the former aides believe Paxton’s motivations were in what they describe as a “bizarre, obsessive use of power.”

Most of the hearing was spent on the motion to dismiss the case brought by the Office of Attorney General (OAG), which was ultimately denied by Texas District Judge Amy Clark Meachum. During the short amount of witness testimony, OAG attorneys raised numerous objections to questions and claimed attorney-client privilege in an attempt to block admission of evidence. By the end of the day, Paxton’s office filed an appeal of Meachum’s decision to allow the case to proceed and was granted a stay by the 3rd Court of Appeals, halting the lawsuit hearing for the time being.

A wealthy ultra-exclusive private community in Florida received enough doses to fully vaccinate nearly all residents over 65 years old by mid-January. At a time when the state was struggling to obtain enough of the vaccine to sustain a week’s-worth of first doses, Ocean Reef Club received enough to provide first and second doses to over 1,200 homeowners. Officials have not explained how the community, home to many wealthy Republican donors, was chosen as an early distribution site, but evidence suggests political connections played a key role:

In fact, the only people from Key Largo who gave to DeSantis’ political committee live in Ocean Reef. All 17 of them had given the governor contributions of $5,000 each through December 2020, according to the Florida Division of Elections. But on Feb. 25, one resident of Ocean Reef, Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois and former chairman of the Chicago-based private equity firm GTCR, increased his contribution and wrote a $250,000 check.

Further reading:

  • 3 out of 4 Abbott medical advisers say they were not consulted before he lifted Texas mask mandate
  • Cuomo Accused of Unwanted Advance at a Wedding: ‘Can I Kiss You?’
  • Newsom recall bankrolled by wealthy mega-donors, national Republicans – and retirees
  • North Dakota officials block wind power in effort to save coal
  • 4 States Propose Harsh New Penalties for Climate Protesters