‘Election marshals’ and runoff rules: States eye new round of voting changes before 2024

Texas will consider adding a new election police force. Ohio has moved forward on photo ID requirements for voting. And Georgia could overhaul its controversial general-election runoff system.

Two years after the 2020 election and the pandemic put a spotlight on how elections are run, legislators around the country are signaling they aren’t finished yet with big changes to election administration and could implement new rules ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.

“Since the 2020 election, we’ve just seen this onslaught of new election laws coming through the states,” said Liz Avore, a senior policy adviser with the Voting Rights Lab, a group working to expand ballot access that is tracking the election bills. “It’s time to brace for another prolific year for election-related legislation.”

The renewed activity comes as the nation’s highest court weighs whether the US Constitution grants state legislators powers to set the ground rules for federal elections without oversight by state courts. An expansive ruling by the US Supreme Court would give state legislatures largely unchecked authority over election procedures, including the drawing of congressional maps.

Texas-size changes

Some of the efforts have already begun.

During a recent lame-duck session, the Republican-controlled legislature in Ohio approved a photo ID requirement to vote and shortened the window to return absentee ballots.

But much of the action could come in Texas, where lawmakers have pre-filed 66 election bills ahead of next year’s legislative session — the highest number so far in any state, according to the Voting Rights Lab’s tally.

The Texas legislature meets only in odd-numbered years, so next year’s session would mark the first opportunity for the GOP-led body to weigh election changes since the passage of sweeping voting changes in 2021 after Democratic lawmakers staged dramatic defections in a failed bid to stop the legislation from becoming law.

Some parts of the new law contributed to voters seeing their mail ballots rejected at higher-than-normal rates during this year’s primaries.

Among the proposals Texas lawmakers will weigh next year: establishing a system of “election marshals” to enforce the state’s voting laws — akin to election police forces established in Florida and elsewhere after the 2020 election, following rampant — and largely unsubstantiated — claims of voter fraud.

One Texas bill, authored by Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would create a network of election marshals around the state empowered to investigate election violations and impound election records and equipment. A “state election marshal,” reporting to the Texas secretary of state, would appoint the individual marshals.

In an interview with CNN, Bettencourt said he drafted the bill to address problems that have arisen in Harris County — a Democratic stronghold that’s home to Houston.

Election Day problems in the county included paper ballot shortages, machine malfunctions and delays in opening polling places. “It’s preposterous for the nation’s third-largest county to even look like a Third World operation,” he said.

(State and local officials are investigating what went wrong during the general election; some local officials say Harris County has been targeted because it has trended blue in a red state.)

Another Texas proposal would reinstate felony charges for voting illegally, after state lawmakers reduced the charge to a misdemeanor in 2021. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. David Spiller, said he believes the change was the result of an inadvertent drafting error and his proposal simply seeks to restore the longstanding penalty, which includes two to 10 years in the state penitentiary if convicted.

“We just need to have some laws that have teeth into them, so they can act as a deterrent,” Spiller told CNN.

Voting rights groups have begun to sound alarms about the renewed efforts by Lone Star State legislators.

“Texas is prioritizing bills that up the criminality around voting, and that’s a concern,” said Jasleen Singh, counsel in the democracy program of the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.

The power to prosecute election crimes has been the subject of intense legal battles in Texas.

In September, the state’s highest criminal court reiterated that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who sought to overturn former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020, must obtain permission from local prosecutors to pursue voter fraud cases.

A separate bill pre-filed in Texas would give the attorney general more authority in those cases — including the ability to appoint a special prosecutor from a county that borders the jurisdiction where the alleged election violation occurred.

Georgia runoff reconsidered

Georgia, another Republican-led state that made big changes to its election practices in 2021, could reconsider its controversial runoff law when the General Assembly convenes next year.

The law, rooted in the state’s segregationist past, requires candidates to win more than 50% of the votes cast in the general election to avoid a runoff between the top two finishers.

In an omnibus election measure enacted last year — following 2020 Democratic wins in federal races — state lawmakers shortened the time between the general election and the runoff from nine weeks in the 2020 cycle to four weeks for the just-completed midterms.

Georgians casting ballots in the December 6 runoff won by Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock endured long lines during early voting. And, only after court battles were voters in some counties allowed to vote on the Saturday before Election Day.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, is now calling on state lawmakers to eliminate general election runoffs.

“Georgia is one of the only states in country with a General Election Runoff,” he said in a recent statement. “We’re also one of the only states that always seems to have a runoff. I’m calling on the General Assembly to visit the topic of the General Election Runoff and consider reforms.”

Earlier this month, in a post-runoff interview with CNN, Raffensperger floated several possible changes, including reducing to 45% the threshold needed to win outright in the general election or establishing a ranked choice “instant runoff” system that would eliminate the need for voters to return to the polls a second time for a runoff election.

Democrats also want changes.

The shortened runoff window “really left a lot of voters without a choice on being able to vote,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat who represents parts of Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta.

She’s pre-filed a bill that would allow a six-week runoff and would mandate at least one Saturday of early, in-person voting. Clark said she believes it can win bipartisan support because election administrators from “ruby-red and bright-blue counties” alike are complaining they “could not handle the volume” of work created by a four-week runoff.

“I would love to find a way to never do a runoff,” she added. “But until we figure out exactly what we are going to do in Georgia, we need a solution.”

Push to expand access

Other proposals lawmakers might take up next year would make it easier to vote. In Missouri, for example, a Republican lawmaker has pre-filed a bill that would restore the voting rights for most people convicted of felonies as soon as they are released from prison. Currently, under Missouri law, those rights are regained only after formerly incarcerated people complete the terms of their parole and probation.

And progressive activists say a recent round of midterm victories demonstrates that there’s a pathway for legislative efforts to expand ballot access.

In the battleground state of Michigan, for instance, a voting rights coalition successfully passed a constitutional amendment that, among other things, would require state-funded absentee voting and nine days of in-person early voting.

“There are these green shoots that are beginning to show we are moving the pendulum in the right direction,” said David Donnelly, who served as lead strategist for two organizations — Pro-Democracy Center and Pro-Democracy Campaign. Those groups pumped $32 million into efforts to expand voting rights and push back on election denialism in the midterm elections.

The Pro-Democracy Campaign provided financial support to the group backing the Michigan initiative, Promote the Vote. The Donnelly-aligned groups now are looking ahead to other states as part of a long-term campaign to promote voting access.

In Minnesota, for instance, they plan to work with local groups on a series of election proposals, including an effort to institute automatic voter registration.

“The challenges to our democracy aren’t going to be solved in an election cycle,” Donnelly said.

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