ATLANTA – In Arizona, a Republican state senator worried aloud that his party’s proposed voter identification requirements might be too “cumbersome.” But he voted for the bill anyway.
In Iowa, the state’s Republican elections chief put out a carefully worded statement that didn't say whether he backs his own party’s legislation making it more difficult to vote early.
And in Georgia, Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan left the room as Senate Republicans approved a bill to block early voting for all but the GOP's most reliable voting bloc. Duncan instead watched Monday's proceedings from a television in his office to protest.
This is what amounts to dissent as Republican lawmakers push a wave of legislation through statehouses across the nation to make voting more difficult. The bills are fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud and many are sponsored by his most loyal allies. But support for the effort is much broader than just Trump's hard-right base, and objections from GOP policymakers are so quiet they can be easy to miss.
“It's appalling what’s happening,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who condemned the silence of the GOP's elected officials. “There have been no provable, obvious, systemwide failures or fraud that would require the kind of ‘legislative remedies’ that Republican legislatures are embarking on. What the hell are you so afraid of? Black people voting?”
Experts note that most changes up for debate would disproportionately affect voters of color, younger people and the poor — all groups that historically vote for Democrats. But Republicans are also pushing restrictions with the potential to place new burdens on GOP-leaning groups.
It's a startling shift for a party whose voters in some states, such as Florida and Arizona, had embraced absentee and mail voting. Several Republican strategists note the party may be passing laws that only box out their own voters.
“There are multiple states and in multiple demographics where Republicans consistently outperform Democrats in early voting and absentee voting, and they need to be very careful because they could be shooting themselves in the foot to restrict that and make it more difficult,," said Terry Sullivan, a Republican strategist.
If elected Republicans share these concerns, they have done little so far to slow the momentum of major legislation in competitive states like Georgia, Arizona, Florida and Texas, where Republicans control the state legislature and the governor's office.
Democratic officials, civil rights leaders and voting advocates are horrified.
Martin Luther King III said he spent last weekend in Selma, Alabama, celebrating the 56th anniversary of his father's bloody march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Instead of being a day of celebration, he said, there was a sense that the civil rights movement was sliding backward because of the Republican voting proposals.
“There’s no question about this being a higher level of Jim Crow,” King said in an interview. He said he's worried that little can be done to stop the Republican effort in the short-term.
“I’m not sure what would make Republicans change other than they lose (in upcoming elections,” King added. “There has to be a maximum effort so that does happen. They’re going to get very few votes from community of color.”
Republicans championing the changes insist they're simply trying to help restore public confidence to the U.S. election system. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in 2020, but polls suggest that many Republicans doubted the outcome of the election after Trump repeatedly declared, falsely, that he was the victim of illegal voting.
In an interview, Trump ally Ken Cuccinelli used an expletive to describe King's suggestion that the new laws are designed to disenfranchise African Americans.
“I take great offense to the idea that I’m trying to keep anybody from voting,” Cuccinelli said. “There’s no reason anybody, no matter what color they are, can’t access this system if they’re a legal and appropriate voter."
In Georgia, the state Senate has voted to limit access to absentee mail ballots to people 65 and over, those with a physical disability and people out of town on Election Day. Legislation passed by the state House would also dramatically reduce early voting hours, limit the use of early-voting drop boxes, and make it a crime to give food or water to voters standing in line.
During Monday's Senate vote, several Republicans who represent competitive metro Atlanta districts didn’t vote, including Sen. Brian Strickland. He had tried to amend the bill in committee to remove provisions scrapping no-excuse absentee voting but was unable to muster enough support.
Strickland said he didn’t vote against the bill because he agrees with much of it, except the provision to end no-excuse absentee voting.
“The idea of going backward on that now and requiring excuses, I think it sends the wrong message,” Strickland said.
If ultimately approved by both chambers of the legislature, the change would end broad no-excuse absentee voting put in place in 2005 by a Republican-led legislature, after more than 1.3 million people voted absentee by mail in November.
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, on Monday signed a GOP-backed bill that requires voting sites to close an hour earlier and shortens the early-voting period to 20 days from the current 29. Voters will be also removed from active voting lists if they miss a single general election and don’t report a change in address or re-register.
Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate, who contradicted Trump’s references to widespread voter fraud last fall and expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic, did not oppose the new law, but he offered no ringing endorsement either after a Latino advocacy group sued Tuesday to stop it from taking effect.
“My office will continue providing resources to help every eligible Iowan be a voter and understand any changes in election law," Pate said. "Our goal has always been to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat.”
And in Arizona, Republicans introduced dozens of bills to impose new restrictions on voting, many of them targeting the vote-by-mail system that accounts for about 80 percent of Arizona’s ballots.
Some of the most aggressive proposals have died unceremoniously. House Speaker Rusty Bowers, a Republican, quietly buried a bill that would have allowed the Legislature to overturn presidential election results and appoint its own Electoral College representatives. But other measures are advancing, some with the support of Republicans who acknowledge discomfort.
The Arizona Senate this week voted to require identification such as a driver’s license number or a copy of a utility bill to be included with mail ballots. Republican Sen. Tyler Pace said he worried it would reduce ballot secrecy and pose a serious barrier to the many voters who don’t have a printer at home.
“The problem is every single way you look at that it gets cumbersome,” Pace said during the bill debate.
Meanwhile, Steele warned Republican officials that they would face a fierce political backlash in next year's midterm elections and beyond if they continue to make it harder for some voters to participate in elections.
“If you’re silent, you’re complicit. You’re complicit in disenfranchising African American voters in key jurisdictions across the country,” Steele said. “They will rue upcoming elections if they stay on this course."
Peoples reported from New York and Cooper reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.