Focus on the states: Republicans quickly advance voter suppression measures
Three months after a record 4.8 million Floridians cast vote-by-mail, the state’s Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved a bill that would require voters to request vote-by-mail ballots more frequently. Chairman Dennis Baxley (R) sponsored the measure (SB 90), saying it would improve voter security. Currently, voters need only request absentee ballots every four years; Republicans wish to make it a yearly requirement. If it becomes law, all standing requests for mail-in ballots would be erased, requiring voters to start over ahead of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ re-election.
Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, asked Baxley what evidence he had for a need for reform. When Baxley didn’t provide any, Bracy suggested the “elephant in the room” appeared to be that Republicans wanted to make the change to diminish Democratic participation. “I don’t get why now, when it’s been working,’’ Bracy said. “I mean it looks like there’s an effort to try to get a strategic advantage — knowing that Democrats overwhelmingly vote by mail, the motivation of the measure is partisan.”
The Arizona Senate defeated a bill to purge about 200,000 people from a list of voters that signed up to automatically receive mail ballots. However, the vote was tied 15-15 after Republican Sen. Paul Boyer joined all 14 Democrats in opposition of the measure. According to the AP, Boyer is under pressure from the right to change his vote, which would open the possibility of bringing the bill back for a vote at a later date.
At the end of last month, the chair of Arizona’s state House Ways and Means Committee introduced a bill to give the legislature the ability to overturn presidential election results. House Bill 2720, sponsored by Rep. Shawnna Bolick (R), grants lawmakers the power to revoke the secretary of state’s certification “by majority vote at any time before the presidential inauguration.” The measure has not gained much support yet, with even Republican members of the House speaking out against the idea of changing the electoral process.
Georgia Republicans have begun a push to crackdown on voting access after the state played a critical role in Biden’s election and giving Democrats the control of the U.S. Congress. Two such bills were advanced through a state Senate subcommittee along party lines Wednesday. The first, SB 71, would end Georgia’s no-excuse absentee system that has been in place since 2005, restricting mail ballots to those over 75 years old. SB 67, the second approved bill, requires voters to submit their driver’s license in order to apply for an absentee ballot by mail.
“In a democracy, we should be focusing on ways of making voting easier for our citizens,” [ACLU’s Chris Bruce] said. “This bill builds more barriers and has the potential to disenfranchise a significant number of voters.”
Republican state representatives are quickly moving a bill that would change the partisan composition of the State Election Commission, tilting it in their party’s favor 6-3. Additionally, House Bill 3444 would expand the powers of the commission to direct how counties conduct elections. Opponents have blasted the effort as “not fair” and argue it undermines the perception that the commission is “going to make non-biased, non-politically motivated decisions”.
Idaho’s House Majority Leader, Mike Moyle (R) of Star, has been pushing an anti-ballot collecting bill, declaring “voting shouldn’t be easy.” Ballot collecting, also called ballot harvesting, is when an individual fills out a ballot, signs it, and has someone else deliver it to a ballot drop-off location. Moyle wants to make the practice a felony, even for family members, citing hearsay and Facebook posts as “evidence” that ballot collecting results in voter fraud.
However, Moyle’s bill (PDF has been put on the sidelines as even some Republicans seemed likely to vote against it. For instance, House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma (R) explained that she had her adult child drop off her absentee ballot last year: “With this legislation, my daughter’s a felon. A 20-year-old kid is a felon.”
Republican Rep. Tammy Nichols and House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D) said they, too, had dropped off ballots for other people. “Their ballot is their property – arguably one of the most sacred pieces of property in our democracy – and if they want to ask a trusted friend or neighbor to drop it off for them, that should be their freedom and their right,” Rubel said.
Spurred by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), the Georgia State Election Board referred 35 instances of voter fraud to law enforcement for criminal prosecution. Raffensperger has targeted the New Georgia Project, which was instrumental in getting out the Democratic vote ahead of January’s runoff election. According to his investigators and the state board, the New Georgia Project misidentified Sen. Raphael Warnock as its CEO on paperwork and was slow to deliver 1,268 voter registration applications, “causing voters to be disenfranchised” during 2019’s special election.
- The New Georgia Project sued state election officials last year to challenge several election laws that the group said “pose[d] a serious threat to [citizen’s] right to vote,” particularly in a pandemic. The case did not make it past the appellate level, with the 11th Circuit refusing to tell the state how to run its elections.
Legislators in Mississippi have introduced three measures that would increase the number of people removed from voter rolls. One of these, HB 586, requires the comparison of voter rolls against other databases in an attempt to identify noncitizens. The ACLU calls the effort “a solution in search of a problem,” pointing to the lack of evidence that noncitizens are actually casting votes in the state. Further, these types of policies often result in purges of American voters erroneously identified as non-citizens.
Utah’s House Education Committee voted against a bill that would have required students in sexual education classes to learn about consent, coercion, and sexual violence deterrence. The bill failed in a 7-4 vote which saw just one Republican join with the three Democrats on the committee in approval of the legislation. Utah has experienced an unusually high rate of rape compared to other states; one in seven high-schoolers in the state report experiencing sexual violence in a year.
“By giving young people the knowledge and skills to protect themselves from sexual violence, it will not only ensure that every child in Utah can be protected,” [sponsor Rep. Carol Moss (D)] told KUTV, “but consent education can also help them have healthy relationships.”
Alabama lawmakers are again pushing legislation to prohibit gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth. Last Wednesday, the state’s Senate Health Committee voted 11-2 to advance SB-10, sponsored by Sen. Shay Shelnutt (R). The companion House bill, HB-1, is sponsored by Reo. Wes Allen (R), who proclaimed in his “biblical worldview…when a person is born male, they’re male. When a person is born female, they’re female.” Health experts and human rights advocates criticize the pair of bills for inaccurately treating transgender identity as a mental disorder.
Numerous states have advanced legislation to prevent transgender student-athletes from participating in sports as the gender in which they identify. Last week, the Mississippi senate passed the so-called “Mississippi Fairness Act” by a 34-0 vote. The success of the bill was likely a reaction to Biden’s executive order mandating that transgender women should be able to compete on female teams in school. Gov. Tate Reeves called it “bad policy,” adding the unfounded claim that “politicians are pushing children into transgenderism.”
- Georgia’s House is working on House Bill 276, similarly banning transgender girls from competing in public high schools and universities. The Tennessee House has essentially the same bill but targeted at middle and high school students, HB0003.
The West Virginia House of Delegates is about to pass a bill giving parents $4600 per child to spend at private schools – most of which are strongly anti-LGBTQ. 16 out of 17 of the largest private schools in the state are Christian and, as non-public schools, don’t have to agree to federal anti-discrimination provisions. Democratic members attempted to amend the legislation to require the public money be spent on education programs that do not discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identification, religion, or disability, but the House committee rejected it.
In fact, the bill doesn’t just ignore the topic of discrimination, but actively permits it, saying that schools that receive state funds are “not required to alter its creed, practices, admission policy, hiring policy or curriculum in order to accept eligible [voucher] recipients.”
“This sort of voucher system… filters public money into institutions that can engage in all sorts of types of discrimination,” said the ACLU of West Virginia’s policy director, Eli Baumwell.
New Jersey police have filed over 6,000 charges for minor possession in the last three months despite an overwhelming popular vote in favor of marijuana legalization in November. Many users mistakenly believe that the ballot measure last year immediately decriminalized the drug. Instead, it required lawmakers to rewrite the law code to create a legal framework for marijuana use and sale in the state. This process has been hampered by disagreements over policy, implementation, and punishments.
Chris Goldstein, of the cannabis activist group NORML: “It is a huge concern,” he said. “I think the confusion — the dangerous confusion — isn’t among consumers. I think there’s a dangerous confusion among the police and prosecutors out there. The problem is police are still enforcing prohibition. I think they need a clearer directive.”
Numerous states are moving towards some form of marijuana decriminalization, including red bastions like North Dakota. A pair of bipartisan bills introduced by two Republicans at the beginning of the month would legalize and tax marijuana in North Dakota. While the resulting policies may be more restrictive than other states, advocates say it is “a step in the right direction”.
- In Minnesota, a bill to legalize marijuana passed the House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee in a 10-7 vote. On the 23rd, it is set for a second hearing before the Labor, Industry, Veterans, and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee.
The South Carolina House joined other conservative states in advancing legislation to ban nearly all abortions immediately should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. Today, the bill faces a final procedural vote – that it is expected to pass – before it’ll be sent to Gov. Henry McMaster (R) for his signature.
“You love the fetus in the womb. But when it is born, it’s a different reaction,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter [D] of Orangeburg, the House’s longest serving member at 29 years…“’The government not having any business mandating face masks’ sounds to me real close to ‘the government not having any business telling a woman what to do with her body,’” Cobb-Hunter said.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Seth Grove introduced legislation to prohibit cities and municipalities from imposing paid sick leave requirements on businesses. Some cities, like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, already have laws mandating paid sick leave. Grove has been a consistent critic of the policy, continually bringing up bills to block it based on his belief that it is “counter productive to economic growth.”
The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill guaranteeing paid sick leave for all essential employees at the beginning of the month, but approval in the Senate is in question. House Bill 2137 is more conservative and targeted than the version that was introduced and failed last year. Opponents in the state senate say legislation mandating paid sick leave will hurt small employers who are “already facing pandemic-related financial burdens.”
After the Biden administration informed states that it will no longer allow Medicaid work requirements, Arkansas lawmakers are working to develop a so-called work “incentive” program. Under the discussed proposal, those who are on Medicaid and have a certain level of employment will be able to enroll in private health insurance plans; those without a job will be covered directly by Medicaid. DHS officials are reportedly open to the idea, likely to maintain state support for keeping the Medicaid expansion that covers more than 300,000 low-income Arkansans.
Corruption and campaign finances
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) used a state airplane to fly around the country on the taxpayer’s dime, attending rightwing events hosted by the NRA and Turning Point USA, among others. Flight records reviewed by Raw Story show tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent on flights to these out-of-state events, potentially violating the South Dakota law against using state-owned aircraft for anything other than state business. Noem also used the plane to pick her up from her family home rather than the governor’s residence and, in another instance, from her daughter’s wedding in the far west part of the state.
Noem’s spokesman defended her actions as those of “South Dakota’s top ambassador to the rest of the nation.” State lawmakers are already examining the costs of her national campaigning, including the high price tag for a state-paid security team and her $5 million request for a new governor’s airplane.