3 Good Signs of Progress in the Voting Rights Fight

State legislatures are passing new restrictive voting laws, but there are silver linings too

With some of the country’s largest swing states passing new laws that restrict how voters can cast ballots - and Texas potentially on the verge of joining them - good government watchdogs and voting rights groups have sounded alarms about partisan “solutions in search of problems.”

Significant voting restrictions signed into law - or currently advancing through legislatures - in dozens of states include making it more onerous to obtain mail ballots, less convenient to submit mail ballots, and easier for partisan groups to both have a presence at the polls and challenge election counts.

Most of the proposed restrictions poll poorly across the general electorate, but the news isn’t ubiquitously bad, either, for those who want it to be easier to cast a ballot.

Efforts to stop proposed restrictions and advocate for new voter conveniences have yielded positive results that may have flown under your radar:

More Bills Would Expand Voting Than Restrict It

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, 843 election bills with expansive provisions had been introduced in state legislatures between the end of the 2020 election and March 24, 2021, compared to just 361 bills with restrictive provisions.

A number of 2021’s proposed expansions have already been signed into law, including legislation that will make some of last year’s pandemic-related conveniences – like no-excuse absentee voting, and more early voting days – permanent.  New York, New Jersey, and Virginia were among the first states to pass bills that expand voter access after the 2020 election.

“We are seeing evidence of there being something like two Americas,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. “We see some states trying to make our elections more free, fair, and accessible, and some states that are putting as many barriers in front of the ballot box as possible.”

Dozens of other states are advancing measures that would expand voter registration opportunities, restore voting rights to felons, or give voters a chance to fix minor mistakes on mail ballots.

Advocates lament how the majority of the more than 800 proposed expansion bills will never see the light of day in their respective statehouses.  But they’ve also been successful at stalling or killing most of the 300-plus proposed restrictive measures too.

Even in Georgia and Florida, pushback from voters and advocates alike likely helped strip some of the most controversial proposals from the election bills that were ultimately passed. 

“Most Americans want convenient access and protected access to the ballot box,” said Andrea Haley, CEO of voter engagement organization Vote.org.  “The politicians are, for the most part, having to react to the fact that public sentiment just isn't there when it comes to restricting access.”

No Evidence of Fraud = Weaker Arguments for Reform

Even with unprecedented voter access last year and an unprecedented number of investigations into alleged wrongdoing, there has yet to be any evidence uncovered suggesting any impactful fraud in 2020’s elections.

That’s deflated many of the arguments that making it easier for Americans to register to vote or cast a ballot would produce unprecedented cheating.

In addition to numerous legal challenges and Republican allegations of fraud - that were rejected by nearly every Republican election official and Republican-appointed judge - a Georgia Bureau of Investigations forensic audit into mail ballot signatures found zero cases of forged signatures among 15,000 inspected ballots in Cobb Co.

Georgia also performed multiple recounts of the record 5 million paper ballots it collected from last fall’s election without turning up any indication of fraud.

That shows that we run safe and secure elections in this country and that expanding access and expanding convenience for voters does not mean it's at-odds with election security,” Hailey said.

New Restrictions May Have Limited Effects

The outrage over some of the new voter restrictions may be much greater than the laws’ actual effects, according to the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, who recently wrote how Georgia’s new restrictions will make voting less convenient for hundreds of thousands of voters, but most will cast ballots anyway.  He speculated some may be even more motivated to vote following the passage of the Republican-sponsored legislation.

“The law’s voting provisions are unlikely to significantly affect turnout or Democratic chances,” Cohn wrote.  “It could plausibly even increase turnout. In the final account, it will probably be hard to say whether it had any effect on turnout at all.”

In most states, including Georgia, access to mail ballots, early voting, and other conveniences will still be much greater in 2022 than they were in 2012.

Yet, America still lags behind most other developed countries when it comes to voter turnout.  Even with a record 66% of eligible U.S. adults casting a ballot in the 2020 election, one third of the country (78 million Americans) did not.

Voting rights advocates say politicians should work harder on inclusive voting reforms, rather than exclusive ones - especially when cheating an election is so hard to do in America.

“This strategy of trying to carve out certain people from the electorate is very shortsighted and very short lived, because at some point the voters are going to make very clear that they're the ones that should be choosing the politicians and not the other way around,” Pérez said.

Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at noah.pransky@nbcuni.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.