If you go by the headlines, you may think that we have a big problem with voter fraud in this country. We don’t.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, which has studied voter fraud for years, has found rates of fraud to be between 0.0003 and 0.0025%. That means an American is more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate another person at the polls.
Still, many of the elections-related laws recently enacted in places like Texas, Georgia and Florida have focused on restrictions to prevent voter fraud. We tend to hear about these more than the many new laws that have actually expanded voting access.
To learn more about the current state of voting access in the U.S., NBCLX sat down with Amanda Harrington, vice president of communications at Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan organization that supports equal voting rights for all Americans. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
NBCLX: This past legislative session, we saw more than 3,000 elections-related bills introduced. What's causing this influx in voting legislation?
Harrington: In the year 2020, facing the pandemic, our local election administrators and election officials across the states really did tremendous work to make sure that Americans could still participate fully in our democracy. As a result of, we saw many states revisit their laws in 2021. In some cases, they worked to make the laws unfortunately more stringent for American voters. But what's really important is despite all the headlines and despite the serious setbacks that many voters are facing in their states, many states took great action on behalf of voters. In fact, 70 million eligible American voters are living in a state that improved their election laws in 2021.
What does some of the new legislation that expanded voting rights look like?
Fifteen states expanded their early vote period, which is a good thing for voters. Ballot cure — this is about allowing voters to fix small mistakes on their ballots before they're tossed out — 13 states improved their ballot care policies last year, which is really important. Nine states moved toward an automatic voter registration model last year, so that's being able to automatically enroll as a voter when you're encountering the state in other contexts, such as at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Eight states took action last year to restoring the right to vote for people who have had past felony convictions.
There's been increased national attention to bills and laws restricting voting rights recently, but has there actually been an uptick in legislation restricting rights? If so, what does this mean for our democracy?
2021 was concerning in terms of the volume of legislation. We saw tens of millions of American voters impacted. Restrictions on elections are no longer just going at an ability of certain voting populations to access the polls or not. They're going at the very heart of the system, which is the nonpartisan administration of elections in this country. We saw a polarization in a group of states moving in the right direction for voters and a group of states really moving in the wrong direction when it comes to access for voters. This creates is a fault line in our democracy, where your ability as an equal citizen to participate in our democracy is actually unequal because it depends on where you happen to live. That is a really concerning trend.
Voting access has become a partisan issue. Why do you think it has, and should it be?
No one party really owns an advantage when we're talking about greater access to our democracy. What we see instead is that Americans as a whole benefit from greater access to our democracy. This is not the time to erect new barriers for voters trying to make their voice heard. This is certainly not the time to inject politics in a place where it never belongs, which is in the voting booth itself.