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THE BATTLE FOR THE GOP

To show loyalty to Trump, Republican state officials nationwide push new voting restrictions

Jared Gibbs, John Bazant, and Madison Morgan encouraged residents to vote in Missoula, Mont., on Nov. 3.
Jared Gibbs, John Bazant, and Madison Morgan encouraged residents to vote in Missoula, Mont., on Nov. 3.Tommy Martino/Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Christi Jacobsen, Montana’s newly elected secretary of state, has not publicly identified any glaring problems or examples of fraud in her state’s election last November. Nor should she have any partisan reason to cry foul, since voters delivered every statewide office to Republicans like her and the state’s three electoral votes overwhelmingly to then-President Trump.

But Jacobsen, a Trump supporter, has swiftly called for a raft of “election integrity” measures that add restrictions, including shaving voter registration hours and increasing voter identification requirements.

“It is on everybody’s minds,” Jacobsen said during a recent interview on the pro-Trump cable network Newsmax, “and we have to be ready in 2022 to have a phenomenal election.”

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For months before and after November’s election, Trump made allegations about voter fraud a centerpiece of his message. He claimed without evidence that longstanding elements of the nation’s election machinery, including absentee ballots and voting machines, were part of an elaborate plot to steal the election, and most Republicans believed him.

Now, Republican elected officials in Montana and more than 40 other states are proposing real voting restrictions to respond to those myths and the distrust they stoked. That has led Democrats to accuse them of trying to change the rules to favor their side next time — but also to charge that they are playing politics with people’s voting rights, even in solidly red states like Montana, to curry favor with Trump’s base and display their loyalty to the former president.

“They are being proposed because they are trying to show fealty to the big lie and the big lie coalition that has resulted,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who led his party’s efforts to fight Republican lawsuits in the last election. “It is both a play to the electoral motivations of Republicans, but it is also motivated by an effort to show fealty to Trumpism.”

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As Democrats seek to respond with sweeping federal legislation intended to expand ballot access — a measure that narrowly passed the House on Wednesday largely along partisan lines — Trump has made it clear that promoting voting restrictions under the guise of “election integrity” will be a major focus of his post-presidential life.

Any Republican who has publicly doubted his lies about a fraudulent election was branded disloyal. Now, Trump may well be setting a new bar for loyalty: supporting restrictive voting measures that he claims would have helped him win in 2020.

“We have a very sick and corrupt electoral process that must be fixed immediately. The election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and other courts didn’t want to do anything about it,” Trump said Feb. 28 at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, where the crowd broke into chants of “You won! You won!”

Trump, who typically does not dwell on specific policy recommendations, used the speech to call for voting to take place on a single day with sharply reduced use of mail-in ballots, more voter ID laws, “universal signature matching,” citizenship checks, and “chain of custody protections for every ballot.”

Trey Grayson, a Republican and the former Kentucky secretary of state, said candidates in his party performed well in the 2020 election, which had high turnout and expanded mail-in voting — but that is not stopping lawmakers from trying to curry favor with their Trump-supporting base with tough bills.

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“People believe it’s good politics,” Grayson said. “Trump is still popular inside the party … that’s what’s driving some of this.’'

If CPAC laid out the marching orders, Republicans around the country were already carrying them out. Voting rights advocates warn that a tidal wave of restrictions could crash on state houses as a result and disproportionately harm people of color.

“What we’re seeing this year feels different in both the volume, just the sheer number of proposals, and the brazenness of attacks on voting rights,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, who is voting rights and elections counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

“I think you can draw a very straight line,” she added, “between the lies that the former president told about mail voting, about the results of last year’s elections, to the efforts now.”

In some instances, lawmakers who believe Trump’s claims of a stolen election are exercising their power to rewrite their state’s election laws. That is the case for state Representative Mark Lowery of Arkansas, who has posted on his Facebook page in support of Trump’s claims and who said in an interview that many of his constituents believe the 2020 election “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

It’s not a new issue for Lowery -- he has previously sponsored voter identification legislation -- but he said more people are concerned with it now. Since January, he has been meeting with about a dozen other Republicans to work on more restrictions.

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“We would really be remiss if we did not address this issue that is right at the forefront of everybody’s attention,” Lowery said.

As of Feb. 19, the Brennan Center had identified 43 states where 253 bills with restrictive provisions have been proposed this year. That dwarfs the number of restrictive bills that had been put forth by February 2020; they also identified 704 bills that would expand voting rights.

The bills include onerous identification requirements; limitations on voting by mail, which was expanded in many states last year as elections officials scrambled to offer safe alternatives to in-person voting during the pandemic; limitations on voter registration; and efforts to trim voter rolls.

“There’s a moment here that states are rising to meet,” said Jason Snead, the executive director of a conservative group called Honest Elections that has run ads against mail-in voting. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of movement, a tremendous amount of energy.”

Snead says his group has been focused on such states as Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan that backed Trump in 2016 but swung to Biden in 2020, and are likely to be crucial battlegrounds in 2024. Democrats see that as an effort by Republicans to rig the system in their favor.

In Georgia, where voters narrowly backed Biden and then sent two Republican senators packing in January runoff elections, the Republican-controlled House passed a sweeping bill that would cut some weekend early voting hours, curb access to ballot boxes, and make it more difficult for voters to request an absentee ballot. It would also make it illegal to give food or water to people standing in line to vote.

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“They have the power to do it, and they would rather try to limit access to the ballot than compete fairly on politics and ideas,” said Andrea Young, the executive director of Georgia’s ACLU.

The measures are also advancing in states where Republicans’ electoral advantage was already assured. In Iowa, which Trump won and where Republicans control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers, lawmakers last month passed a bill that will cut the number of early voting days from 29 to 20; require polls to close at 8 p.m., instead of 9 p.m.; and create an earlier cutoff for turning in absentee ballots.

Republicans often describe this year’s bills as a response to voters’ concerns about election fraud rather than a response to documented instances of fraud.

“It’s what we’re being asked from citizens and we’re fulfilling these obligations,” said state Senator Jason Ellsworth, of Montana, a Republican. “A lot of people have a lot of questions.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.