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Inside State Republicans' Fight To Make It More Difficult To Vote

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A record 158 million Americans voted last November. Many cast their ballots early and by mail. Well, now in the aftermath of President Biden's victory, some Republican state lawmakers are proposing bills that would effectively make it harder to vote. Here to talk us through what is happening with voting laws in three states where the election was very close are Steven Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, WKAR's Abigail Censky from Lansing, Mich., and Ben Giles of KJZZ in Phoenix, Ariz. Welcome, all three of you.

STEVEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Thanks.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Thank you.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Thank you for having us.

KELLY: Steven, I've got to start with you not only because Georgia is my home state but because there has, of course, been so much focus on Georgia and on Trump's efforts to throw out Biden's victory there. What are GOP lawmakers there discussing?

FOWLER: Well, this week many Republican lawmakers who pushed false claims of election fraud have signed on to a number of bills in the Senate aimed at making it harder to vote. And that's after Democrats flipped both U.S. Senate seats and helped defeat President Trump. They would do things like ban absentee ballot drop boxes, severely restrict who could request a mail-in absentee ballot and would undo the so-called motor voter law that automatically updates your voter registration whenever you go to the DMV.

Now, there are a few proposals that seem most likely to be enacted. One would add some sort of security requirement when you request an absentee by mail vote in the future, such as writing your driver's license ID number or sending in a photocopy of your ID when you request a ballot.

KELLY: All right. Let's head west over to Arizona. Ben, as you know well, Biden's victory was razor-thin there, as it was in Georgia. What is the debate unfolding where you are?

GILES: Well, we're seeing voting laws that would impact every step of the voting process, starting with getting registered. One measure would make it more difficult for county officials to go out into the community and hold voter registration drives. There was even a bill to abolish the incredibly popular vote-by-mail system in Arizona. The sponsor backtracked off that idea within hours of introducing the bill.

But other ideas include requiring people to get early ballot envelopes notarized. That's been described by some as a poll tax. And another proposal says you could get an early ballot mailed to you, but you couldn't mail it back. They'd want you to hand-deliver it to a polling place. And perhaps the most controversial ideas would directly impact the presidential election results. One plan would divvy up Electoral College votes by congressional district like Maine and Nebraska. Another would actually let the legislature straight-up revoke the certification of results and let lawmakers pick who gets the Electoral College votes.

KELLY: Wow. Abigail, how about Michigan? Democrats control the executive branch, but Republicans control the legislature. How does that dynamic play out in terms of what's happening with voting laws and the discussion over what to do with them in Michigan?

CENSKY: Well, it's been a real split screen. We have Democrats and clerks who are pointing to this election as the safest and most secure of their careers. Barb Byrum is one of the clerks from the larger counties in Michigan, and she called on Republicans this week to say what's been clear throughout all of these hearings - that this election was fair and free of fraud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARB BYRUM: At the end of the day, if people do not want to believe this fact, they're not going to believe it regardless of how many audits are performed, reports are issued or how transparent the process is.

CENSKY: And in Michigan, our Democratic secretary of state is saying she wants to do things like mail absentee ballot applications to registered voters in federal elections. Republicans are countering with things like putting cameras on unstaffed ballot drop boxes. Neither of those are likely to get very far, but there is middle ground on issues like making sure there's common training for poll challengers.

KELLY: And, Steven and Ben, a quick reaction from each of you on that. How much of this in your state is real policy proposal? How much is for show?

FOWLER: Well, Mary Louise, after the last couple months of hand-wringing over votes, we've seen top Republican lawmakers in Georgia say that they're not going to do some of the more extreme proposals. They're not for cutting no-excuse absentee voting, and many of these bills are likely just to appease their constituents who say that more needs to be done.

KELLY: Why do Republicans in your states say changes like this are necessary given that there were no major issues with absentee voting in the 2020 election, given that federal officials have confirmed it was the most secure election in American history? Steven, Ben, do one of you want to take that one?

GILES: The justification in Arizona is pretty simply put as distrust, citing the misinformation that's out there and citing the fact that there are a lot of these Republican constituents who say they have doubts. Whether or not those doubts are based on any valid information, Republicans have kind of pushed past that and just said the fact that there are doubts justifies continued discussions about the election and changes to the law that they say, you know, might inspire similar confidence in the election and its integrity.

KELLY: I mean, it sounds like one thread running through all of this in each of your states is that the 2020 election is never really going to end. It's certainly going to keep playing out as we figure out where politics head next in your state. Does that sound right in Michigan, Abigail?

CENSKY: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the 2020 election will ultimately have a great amount of impact on how accessible voting remains in Michigan or if it gets harder again.

GILES: And in Arizona, some see this never-ending discussion as a means to an end. You know, we talked about how Senate Republicans - House Republicans, too - are pushing all these bills. And Senate Republicans in particular have spent almost three months now pushing to audit the election in the state's largest county. Maricopa County supervisors have passionately defended the election results and resisted a subpoena to hand over ballots so that the Senate can conduct some kind of audit. And Democratic Supervisor Steve Gallardo said the senators - what they don't want is election integrity. He says they just want to drum up doubts about the election to provide cover to pass these kinds of bills.

STEVE GALLARDO: Anyone who doesn't look like them or think like them, they don't want them to vote. They don't care if it's people of color, someone with a disability, someone retired and elderly folk. If they're not looking like them or thinking like them, they're going to continue to introduce bills to keep them from voting, making it more difficult. That's what this is about.

GILES: And you'll hear that from legislative Democrats, too, as they try in vain to stop some of these bills from passing. Republicans control both chambers of the legislature here.

FOWLER: And, Mary Louise, I would add here in Georgia, at least, it all goes back to 2018, when the then-secretary of state Brian Kemp ran for governor against voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, a rematch that's likely expected in 2022.

KELLY: All right - talking there with Steven Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, Abigail Censky of WKAR in Lansing, Mich., and Ben Giles of KJZZ in Phoenix, Ariz., getting a roundup of steps underway in their states to change voting laws in the wake of the 2020 election. Thanks, all three of you.

FOWLER: Thank you.

CENSKY: Of course.

GILES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.