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It’s Not Just Georgia: More Than A Dozen Other States Are Trying To Take Power Away From Local Election Officials

Georgia’s new election restrictions have garnered no shortage of criticism thanks to provisions that directly impose additional burdens on voters, such as an ID requirement for absentee voting or a ban on distributing food or water to people waiting in line to vote. But equally importantly, the law opens up the possibility for elections to become more nakedly partisan.

In essence, the law provides a mechanism to transfer power currently vested in bipartisan or nonpartisan county election boards to the majority-Republican1 State Election Board by giving the board the authority to suspend local election officials in up to four counties at a time and appoint a temporary replacement. County boards’ powers include the ability to decide challenges to voters’ eligibility and certify election results, meaning that a state-appointed election czar could theoretically invalidate a fair election by refusing to certify the results and throwing out thousands of supposedly questionable votes (the new law also allows people to challenge an unlimited number of votes). However, the State Election Board can only suspend local election officials after a hearing that must take place at least 30 days after the initial complaint, so in practice there probably would not be enough time after an election for partisan hardliners to coopt these powers and overturn an election.

A more realistic concern that Democrats have, however, is that the proviso could be used to target heavily Democratic, heavily nonwhite jurisdictions such as Fulton County, which includes much of metro Atlanta. A state appointee would have the power to condense polling places in these counties and offer less early voting than locals are accustomed to, disproportionately curtailing voting access in bluer parts of the state. The removal clause could also be used to retaliate against local officials who go further to promote voting than state officials would like, as DeKalb County did in the 2020 general election when it mailed absentee-ballot applications to all registered voters. (Such mass unsolicited mailings of absentee-ballot applications are now prohibited by the law as well.) 

And importantly, attempts to diminish local control of elections are not limited to Georgia. As part of the hundreds of election restrictions Republican legislators have proposed so far this year, at least 13 other states have passed or are considering bills that would handcuff local election officials (in some cases, literally).

  • In Iowa, a package of recently passed voting restrictions makes it a felony for election officials to fail to perform their duties or disobey guidance from the (currently Republican) secretary of state. County election officials are also now subject to $10,000 fines for “technical infractions” of election law. The law also reins in county election officials’ discretion over how aggressively to promote early and absentee voting: They are barred from mailing absentee-ballot applications to any voter who didn’t ask for one, and they can’t open a satellite early-voting site unless a local voter specifically requests it.
  • Similarly, a Texas bill that recently passed committee would make it a felony for election officials to pre-fill absentee-ballot applications, deliver an absentee ballot to anyone other than the person who requested it, alter election rules without the approval of the secretary of state, or even encourage people to apply to vote by mail — even those eligible to. Another bill, which has passed the state Senate, would also ban local election officials from encouraging people to vote by mail in any way, as well as from expanding voting access the way several blue counties did in 2020, such as 24-hour early voting, drive-through voting and, again, the mailing of unsolicited absentee-ballot applications. The bill would also require the secretary of state’s permission for counties to accept outside funding exceeding $1,000 for election administration, fine county election officials if they don’t purge noncitizens from the voting rolls within 30 days of being notified of a voter’s status and give the secretary of state the authority to purge voters from the rolls if county clerks don’t. A third bill, currently pending in committee, would also transfer the entire responsibility for registering voters and maintaining the voter rolls from county clerks to the secretary of state.
  • Four bills appropriating local control of elections have already passed one chamber of the Arkansas legislature. One would make local election officials answerable to partisan county election boards;2 another would refer possible violations of election law to the State Board of Election Commissioners, bypassing county officials. A third takes away county clerks’ power to designate vote centers, while the fourth prohibits the mailing of unsolicited absentee-ballot applications. A fifth bill, still in committee, would allow the State Board of Election Commissioners to take over local election administration. Though this last one may be the most blatant, the bills’ opponents see all of them as thinly veiled attacks on the sovereignty of Pulaski County, home to Little Rock and one of the few remaining blue counties in the state.
  • A voter ID bill recently passed by the Missouri state House would allow the secretary of state to audit a local election authority’s voter rolls and identify names that should be purged; if the local authority doesn’t cooperate, the secretary of state can withhold funding from it. Similarly to its counterparts in other states, the legislation also states, “no use of mail-in ballots shall be authorized by any executive or administrative order.” Another bill would make it a misdemeanor for local election officials not to purge voters from the rolls within 10 days of receiving notice that they have died or become incapacitated.
  • Bills have also been proposed to prohibit the mass mailing of absentee-ballot applications in Connecticut, Michigan, South Dakota and Tennessee. (South Dakota’s proposal was, however, voted down.)
  • Bills in Arizona, New Jersey and New York would similarly ban mailing absentee ballots to anyone who didn’t request one.
  • And legislation in Illinois and Wisconsin would ban the unsolicited mailing of both applications and ballots.3

Most of these bills are not as aggressive as Georgia’s, but they all undermine localities’ ability to self-rule. In this way, Illinois State University political scientist Lori Riverstone-Newell told FiveThirtyEight, they’re part of an increasing trend of states preempting local government in order to retain power for themselves: Conservative legislatures, in particular, have passed several laws in recent years that limit the types of laws municipalities can pass, including sanctuary-city protections, anti-LGBT discrimination ordinances and minimum-wage increases (especially in the South). These laws can often have what Riverstone-Newell calls a “chilling effect,” where the mere threat of having their power taken away makes local officials afraid to govern as they see fit.

These laws often have racial undertones, too. For example, in Michigan, the state is allowed to appoint an “emergency manager” to take over the administration of local governments that are in distress — which has been used in recent years to remove local control from majority-Black Detroit and Flint (notably, emergency managers were accused of exacerbating the Flint water crisis). Similarly, because county election officials are chosen at the local level, laws that remove them in majority-minority counties specifically strip nonwhite citizens’ say over how their elections are conducted. And some, like the Texas bills that appear to be a reaction to diverse countiesvoting expansions in 2020, criminalize actions that make it easier for people of color to vote. “The part that I think is so concerning is the retaliation,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Look at who on the ground would actually be impeded [by these laws]. That suggests to me a real opposition to an expanded electorate.”

So no, not all of these laws include an actual mechanism for overturning elections. But the mere act of usurping the powers of local election officials threatens democratic values in and of itself. “That undermines our idea of intergovernmental relations … where we recognize there’s a vital role for local government within the federal system,” said Riverstone-Newell. “It’s such a strange thing that we’d want to put local governments in that position where they can’t respond to local needs and desires.” Pérez agreed: “They are taking away opportunities that election administrators have to go above and beyond the bare minimum requirements … and to consider facts on the ground and local needs when serving their voters.”

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, the bill states that the state legislature can appoint three election board members, the state Republican Party can appoint one and the state Democratic Party can appoint one. The legislature, however, is controlled by Republicans and likely will be for the foreseeable future.

  2. Regardless of the partisanship of the county, each county election board has two members from the statewide majority party and one from the statewide minority party, which currently gives every county elections board a 2-1 Republican majority.

  3. The Illinois bill would allow the mass mailing of applications, but only after the passage of a statewide referendum specifically authorizing it.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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