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Voter ID and absentee-ballot limits: the South tightens key voting laws ahead of election

This story was originally published by USA Today

When Michael McClanahan was growing up, his grandmother would tell him stories about what it was like to vote during the pre-civil rights era in their small town in northwest Louisiana.

Like a carnival game, white poll workers would ask Black voters to accurately count the number of jelly beans in a jar or pass other tests if they wanted to get their ballot, she told him.

“There was always intimidation if there was a big election,” McClanahan said. “She would talk about how the sheriff or the town police officers were there talking into the microphone trying to intimidate people.”

Those practices were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but new voting restrictions are being adopted in the South. And the new laws may alter the outcome of the 2024 election by lowering voting among Black Americans, who overwhelmingly choose Democrats.

Since 2020, states have tightened who can vote absentee and who can turn in absentee ballots. They've passed or stiffened voter identification laws. And, under pressure from Republicans who falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen through fraud, they're adjusting how they remove voters from the rolls.

That could affect which presidential candidate wins the swing states of Georgia and North Carolina, the outcome of key congressional and state legislative races, and which party’s candidate wins a seat on the Alabama court that upended fertility medicine.

McClanahan, president of the Louisiana state conference of the NAACP, said Jim Crow never left the state. Efforts to undermine voting rights were underway long before former President Donald Trump came into the picture, he said, but the misinformation surrounding the 2020 election provided a fresh opportunity.

“One thing’s for sure: They’re relentless,” he said of the Republicans who control the Louisiana state government. “They’re going to try until Jesus comes back. And they just need to know we’re going to fight until Jesus comes back.”

Southern states target ballot ‘harvesting’

Texas, Mississippi and Alabama have all passed laws since the 2020 election reining in what they call "harvesting" absentee ballots. The term generally refers to someone collecting absentee ballots for other voters, a practice that is common among voter mobilization efforts.

The new laws place restrictions on who can witness a person signing their absentee ballot, how many ballots a single person can witness, and who can return those ballots on behalf of the voters. Civil rights groups argue that this will disenfranchise voters who rely on help from strangers and friends to cast their ballots.

Louisiana could be next to tighten 'ballot harvesting' laws

Louisiana Secretary of State Nancy Landry, a Republican, is asking the Republican-led Legislature to pass several election integrity bills that include ones to “further crack down on absentee ballot harvesting” and stop people from helping with “more than one absentee ballot, except for immediate family members.”

Louisiana is ranked No. 9 on the conservative Heritage Foundation’s election integrity scorecard, which awards points for restrictions on absentee ballots and voter identification. It’s behind seven other states in the South, including Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

Landry’s office said she was not available for an interview. In a statement in March, she said: “Louisiana has some of the most well-run elections in the nation, but there is always room for improvement. This package of bills will further boost our state’s election integrity policies and procedures.”

Black voters in Alabama more likely to vote absentee

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, signed a law in March that made it illegal to turn in someone else’s absentee ballot, and made it a felony to give or receive payment to collect others’ absentee ballots. She promised there wouldn’t be any “funny business” in the state’s elections.

Civil rights groups have now sued, arguing that it "criminalizes constitutionally protected speech" and disenfranchises people of color, people who are disabled, senior citizens, incarcerated voters, and others who "depend on assistance to vote."

“Groups that claim that SB1 is discriminatory either misunderstand this bill or are purposely misrepresenting SB1 to promote their own political narrative,” Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen, also a Republican, said in a statement to USA TODAY, referring to the law by its bill number. “SB1 is designed to protect the absentee elections process and show partisan, third-party organizers that Alabama votes are not for sale.”

Alabama is one of only four states that don't allow in-person early voting. And absentee ballots are more often used by Black voters, data from Allen’s office shows. In the five counties that saw the highest proportion of absentee voting in 2022, the populations were 70% to 81% Black.

Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP, said absentee ballots are common among Black voters who work regular jobs and can’t get to the polls on Election Day. For people with limited mobility who are elderly or living in nursing homes, he said, family members may not be able to return their ballots for them.

“It's still somewhat unclear what we can and can’t do, but right now we are telling our members not to engage in that unless you’re of course next of kin to (the voter),” he said.

NAACP says Texas law is 'meant to intimidate'

The local NAACP and the League of Women Voters almost immediately sued over Mississippi's ballot harvesting law, saying limits on who could help people with disabilities fill out their ballots violated the Voting Rights Act. A court blocked the law temporarily, and the case is ongoing.

Mississippi also does not offer in-person early voting. That means the only alternative to showing up to a polling place on Nov. 5 is to plan ahead to vote absentee.

“The states aren’t making it easier to vote,” said Caren Short, director of legal and research for the League of Women Voters. “They are not helping voters navigate the voting process, and so that that leaves groups like the League, groups like the NAACP, to help voters navigate the process. And then when we are successful at doing so, the lawmakers pass laws that criminalize the very work that we’re doing.”

As part of a sweeping election integrity bill in 2021, Texas created a felony offense for collecting mail-in ballots in exchange for benefits, such as payment or a job offer. Gov. Greg Abbott said upon signing the bill that it “ensures trust and confidence in our elections system − and most importantly, it makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

Gary Bledsoe, a lawyer who heads the Texas NAACP, said the law has had a chilling effect on get-out-the-vote efforts. “If you say the wrong thing to a voter when you knock on the door, you’ve committed a crime, a serious crime,” he said. “It’s meant to intimidate people.”

Democrats perennially target Texas in hopes of flipping it blue, and this year is no exception. Democratic Rep. Colin Allred is seeking to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, who narrowly won his 2018 race, and could influence local races along the way.

Voter ID requirements tightened from Texas to North Carolina

Voters in the South are also required to show more identification than in 2020. Some states have stiffened their in-person identification requirements, and others are requiring identification with absentee ballots.

A new voter identification law is in place in North Carolina, where Democrats are targeting statehouse races to cut into a Republican supermajority in the state Trump carried by just 1 percentage point in 2020. Former President Barack Obama carried North Carolina and the Biden campaign, seeing it as winnable, is investing heavily in the state. Democrats also hope to flip a newly created congressional seat that includes predominately Black counties in the northeastern part of the state.

Arkansas updated its voter identification law in 2021. Before that, when voters could not provide state-issued photo identification, they could sign an affidavit to swear their identity. Now they have to cast a provisional ballot and return by the following Monday with the appropriate ID for the vote to count.

A sweeping election law Georgia passed in 2021 put stricter identification requirements on mail-in ballots. Instead of including their signatures, voters need to provide a driver's license number, a partial Social Security number or a copy of their photo identification. It’s one of the states that will decide the 2024 presidential race.

Texas’ 2021 election bill that targeted vote harvesting has a similar provision. Voters must use a driver's license number or similar state ID number, the last four digits of a Social Security number, or provide a statement saying they don't have any of those.

Americans tend to support voter ID, but not everyone has one

Eighty-one percent of Americans support requiring a government-issued photo ID to vote, according to the Pew Research Center. But people of color are less likely to have the identification they need for voting, such as a driver's license, and voter turnout often goes down after identification laws are passed, according to the Brennan Center, a good-government think tank.

Though states with voter ID laws often offer free ID, the NAACP said that when it sued Alabama over its voter ID law those IDs were difficult to get because the offices were hard to access from rural areas without a car, had limited hours, and required people to take an oath under penalty of prosecution.

“I’ve heard this claim a lot that somehow requiring minority voters to get an ID to vote is somehow racist or discriminatory,” said Zack Smith, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, which supports voter ID restrictions and free state-issued voter ID. “Frankly, I think that claim is somewhat insulting. It’s basically implying that minority voters are either unwilling or unable to get an ID.”

Pamela Phoenix, a Democrat who has worked polls in Tyler, Texas, pointed to people who come in and say their purses were snatched shortly before the election. “So they don’t have a driver's license. They don’t even have what it takes to go to the DMV and get a new driver's license.

“We have individuals whose houses have been totaled in fires so they don’t have driver's licenses, passports, proof of utilities, none of that.” 

Rasby Mason, a clergy leader in Shreveport, Louisiana, said it’s common for Black residents in rural parts of the South to never get driver's licenses. Others were born outside a hospital setting and weren’t issued proper identification.

“Some people just aren’t good with keeping up with those kinds of documents,” Mason said.

Whose votes count? Battles heading into November

Next on the horizon are battles over who gets to vote and whose votes get counted.

A law passed in Georgia would embolden citizen activists trying to remove people from the rolls and change how homeless people register to vote. And Louisiana wants to beef up how it cleans its rolls.

In Mississippi, a lawsuit filed this year by the state and national Republican parties seeks to overturn a law the Republican-dominated statehouse passed in 2020 allowing absentee votes to be counted up to five days after the election if the ballot is postmarked by Election Day. The lawsuit says votes counted after the deadline are invalid and that it harms Republicans because Democrats are more likely to vote absentee.

And in Louisiana, Secretary of State Nancy Landry is backing a proposal that would require the secretary of state, starting in 2025, to conduct an annual canvass of voters and identify people to place on an inactive voter list if they have not voted, made changes to their registration, or participated in a nursing home program in the past 10 years.

Joel Watson, spokesperson for Landry, called the bill "merely another tool to ensure that Louisiana’s voter rolls remain accurate, a key to maintaining safe and secure elections."

McClanahan, from the state’s NAACP, said one vote can make a difference, and if enough people voted, they would be able to elect governors who safeguard their right to vote.

“We have to, at some point in time, use the same process that is being used to kick us out of voting to make a strong push to make sure that everyone has the unfettered right to vote."