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How G.O.P. and Conservative Groups Are Guiding States on Voter Laws
March 23, 2021
In late January, a small group of dedicated volunteers from the conservative Heritage Action for America met with Republican legislators in Georgia, delivering a letter containing detailed proposals for rolling back access to voting. Within days, bills to restrict voting access in Georgia began flooding the Legislature.
Of the 68 bills pertaining to voting, at least 23 had similar language or were firmly rooted in the principles laid out in the Heritage group’s letter and in an extensive report it published two days later, according to a review of the bills by The New York Times.
The alignment was not coincidental. As Republican legislatures across the country seek to usher in a raft of new restrictions on voting, they are being prodded by an array of party leaders and outside groups working to establish a set of guiding principles to the efforts to claw back access to voting.
Heritage, for instance, has claimed credit for a new Arizona law, signed last week by Gov. Doug Ducey, that requires the secretary of state to compare death records with voter registrations. The state representative who sponsored the bill thanked one of the Heritage volunteers in a Facebook post after it passed.
Party leaders and their conservative allies are planning to export successful statutory language from one state to others, like the text of Alabama’s voter ID law. They are also drafting what they describe as “best practices” principles for completely new legislation, with the impetus often coming from outside groups like the Heritage Foundation.
And the Republican National Committee has created an “election integrity’’ committee, a group of 24 R.N.C. members tasked with developing legislative proposals on voting systems. The committee is populated with officials who were deeply involved in the “stop the steal” effort to overturn former President Donald J. Trump’s election loss last year and who have refused, more than two months after President Biden’s inauguration, to admit publicly that his victory was legitimate.
The widespread coordination underscores the extent to which the dogma of voter fraud is embedded in the Republican Party, following Mr. Trump’s campaign of falsehoods about the 2020 election. Out of power in both Congress and the White House, the party views its path to regaining a foothold in Washington not solely through animated opposition to Mr. Biden’s agenda, but rather through an intense focus on re-engineering the voting system in states where it holds control.
To head its election integrity committee, the Republican National Committee tapped Joe Gruters, the Florida Republican Party chairman who in January used a #stopthesteal hashtag and advertised ways for Republicans to attend the Jan. 6 rally that ended with a riot at the Capitol.
“No matter where I go as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, it’s basically the only thing everybody is talking about among the base,” Mr. Gruters said. Like nearly all of the Republicans involved in the party’s voter integrity efforts, Mr. Gruters declined to characterize Mr. Biden’s victory as legitimate, despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud and multiple state audits reaffirming the results. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of questions about the 2020 race.”
The national committee is coordinating with the Republican State Leadership Committee, the organization that works to elect Republican state legislators and secretaries of state. The Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative organization in Washington, is teaming up with grass-roots social conservative outfits, like the Susan B. Anthony List, to mobilize supporters and lobbyists in state capitals to enact new restrictions on voting access.
Heritage, through its politics arm Heritage Action for America, is planning to spend $24 million across eight states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin. An internal document described a “two-year effort” to work closely with allies like American Legislative Exchange Council (known as ALEC) and the libertarian State Policy Network to “produce model legislation for state legislatures to adopt” and hire lobbyists in “crucial states.” (A copy of the plan was obtained by Documented, a watchdog group, and reviewed by The New York Times.)
Much of the Heritage goals are laid out in a report published to their website earlier this year, ticking off a host of proposals including limiting who can vote by mail, preventing ballot collection, banning drop boxes, enacting stricter voter identification laws, restricting early voting and providing greater access to partisan election observers. Last week, the group began a $600,000 television ad campaign in Georgia, urging citizens to support the effort to roll back voting access.
The policies, according to Jessica Anderson, the Heritage Action executive director, are largely rooted in the work of Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer who has worked on voting battles for decades, including a voter identification law in Georgia that was ruled discriminatory in 2005. He also helped to run the now-defunct voter-fraud commission that Mr. Trump created after the 2016 election. Other Heritage officials, such as John Malcolm, have helped craft the proposals.
The Heritage planning document also calls for Republicans to recruit their own army of poll workers, and not just partisan observers, to take jobs working local elections. The document calls for placing 800 poll workers “in key states and precincts” for the 2022 midterm elections.
Ms. Anderson said Heritage’s role in passing the Arizona bill would serve as a template for other efforts. “We will have that same sort of playbook for Texas and Florida,” she said. “So I would put Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Florida as kind of the first wave of seats. And then we’ll turn to looking at Wisconsin, Michigan and potentially Nevada.”
She called the volunteer who was thanked by the bill’s sponsors “one of our sentinels.’’
The election committee housed within the Republican State Leadership Committee, comprising secretaries of state and state lawmakers, meets roughly once a week by phone, according to John Merrill, the secretary of state of Alabama and one of the group’s presidents. Smaller subgroups are in more frequent contact.
The goal, he said, is to provide a clearinghouse for best practices in amending voting laws, and for the transporting of the “statutory language” of current voting policies to other states, if they are deemed a good fit.
Referring to Alabama’s requirement that in-person voters present a photo ID, a law that critics claim disproportionately affects Black voters, Mr. Merrill said: “This is the only voter ID law that I’m aware of has been challenged in court that is still the same today as it was when we’ve passed it in 2011. And so we have it prepared, so that if people wanted to adopt that language, then they could adopt it.”
Mr. Merrill’s group has been compiling an e-notebook of more “gold standard” policies, he said, including vote-by-mail statutes from Washington and Colorado.
Mr. Gruters boasted about Florida’s election system, which provides ample opportunities for voting by mail and in-person early voting, and said other states should seek to emulate it. But other members of the Republican election committees said explicitly that it should be more difficult for people to vote.
Both “integrity committees” at the R.N.C. and the R.S.L.C. are filled with members who backed the false conspiracies about the 2020 election and have publicly called for some of the most severe voting restrictions.
On the R.N.C. committee, Drew McKissick, the Republican chair in South Carolina, tweeted false accusations by the Trump campaign in November about dead voters and vans full of Biden ballots. Lenar Whitney, a R.N.C. committee member from Louisiana, repeated conspiracies about Dominion voting machines at a party meeting.
Among the R.S.L.C. committee members, Karen Fann, an Arizona legislator, had issued calls for an audit of Dominion voting systems and shared a false conspiracy theory that the Postal Service was throwing away Trump ballots. Mike Shirkey, a Michigan legislator, said in a leaked audio clip that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a hoax, claiming that Mitch McConnell was in on it, then apologized and then was caught on a hot mic saying he meant it. Bryan Cutler, the speaker of the Pennsylvania House, was one of the signatories of the letter sent to members of Congress urging them to reject the election results from Pennsylvania and reject the slate of electors.
But several of the members of the R.S.L.C. committee were publicly critical of efforts to undermine faith in the 2020 election, and have been proponents of vote by mail and other forms of expanding voter enfranchisement. Michael Adams, the secretary of state of Kentucky, worked earlier this year with Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, to further expand access to the ballot box.
Kim Wyman, the Republican secretary of state of Washington, joined the group to make sure that an election official with deep experience with vote by mail would have a voice in shaping the eventual recommendations from the group.
“I just thought my perspective in that organization’s probably a little different, because my state is so progressive in the laws that we’ve enacted for voter registration and elections,” Ms. Wyman said. “And I’m really proud of the way we’ve enacted them, and how we’ve put in the security measures that I do think address some of the concerns a lot of conservatives have about things like same day registration. So I wanted to be part of that discussion.”
But a majority of the R.N.C. and R.S.L.C. members have sown doubts about the 2020 election. Jason Thompson, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia, praised efforts in his state to end no-excuse absentee voting and curtail early-voting on Sundays, which has been used for decades to help Black voters get to the polls after church services.
Opposition to the Georgia proposals, Mr. Thompson said in an interview, was a fund-raising technique for the state’s voting rights organizations.
“Most Black folks are probably in church on Sunday,” he said. “Why would this hurt them for voting?”