The 2020 presidential election resulted in record-breaking voter turnout, with an estimated 66.7% of the eligible U.S. voting population casting ballots. This trend was especially strong in the South, where an increasingly diverse electorate will continue to play an important role in shaping regional and national politics. For example, overall voter turnout in Georgia last year increased by nearly 9 percentage points over 2016, from 59.1% to 67.6%, thanks to years of grassroots organizing and efforts by voting rights groups to combat voter suppression.

But in the wake of historic turnout and a surge in political engagement, Republican lawmakers across the region are working to establish new barriers to the voting process with bills that would restrict access to the ballot and give the GOP an advantage in future elections.

For more than a decade, the Republican Party has used exaggerated and false claims of voter fraud to stoke distrust in the U.S. electoral system and to sell policies that suppress the vote. Since the 2010 Republican wave strengthened the party's control over legislatures across the South, the GOP cited has the claims to justify passing legislation such as voter ID laws, which have been shown to curb voting and have a disparate suppressive impact on African Americans, Latinos, women, and young people. Now Republican lawmakers are taking new steps to restrict voter access and curb voter participation.

So far this year, state legislators nationwide have introduced over four times the number of bills to curb voter access as compared to this time last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In all, Republican lawmakers in 33 states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 bills to restrict voting access, including in the Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The proposals aim to implement stricter voter ID requirements, make voter registration more difficult, and permit aggressive voter roll purges.

The Brennan Center calls it a "backlash to historic voter turnout in the 2020 general election, and grounded in a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities."

Nearly half of the bills would place new restrictions on voting by mail, which many states took steps to encourage amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while others would limit early voting. In last year's general election, nearly 70% of all ballots nationwide were cast prior to Election Day, with an estimated 108 million people voting by mail, by dropping off absentee ballots, or early in person.

For instance, Republican lawmakers in South Carolina and Virginia have introduced legislation to make it harder for voters to meet existing witness requirements for absentee ballots. In Arkansas, Republican state Rep. Mark Lowery's HB 1112 would eliminate signature verification and require a photo ID to vote either in person or by mail. And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has said that one of his top priorities for this year's legislative session would be to tighten restrictions on mail-in ballots, citing concerns about fraud — even though elections experts say widespread fraud involving mail-in ballots is a myth.

Other bills expand voting

In Georgia, where Democrats flipped two U.S. Senate seats last month, Republican lawmakers are seeking to drastically roll back voting options. So far they've introduced nine bills that target policies which have been proven to boost participation, according to Fair Fight Action, a Georgia voting rights group.

Senate Bill 67, for example, would require absentee voters to provide an ID to apply for an absentee ballot. Senate Bill 71 would reduce the categories for which a voter can apply for an absentee ballot. Another measure would end the state's automatic voter-registration system by no longer updating voters' registration whenever they obtain, renew, or change their driver's license. And playing into the concerns of conspiracy theorists who have made false claims of dead people voting, Senate Bill 72 requires county registrars to obtain lists of deaths from coroners and funeral homes, presumably to identify deceased people for removal from the voter rolls.

"This unhinged set of voter suppression legislation from a radical Senate Republican leadership appears intended to appease conspiracy theorists like those who stormed the Capitol last month," tweeted Fair Fight spokesperson Seth Bringman. "Their desperation to hold onto power at the expense of Georgians' constitutional right to access the ballot has never been clearer."

But while Republican state lawmakers try to limit voting by an increasingly diverse electorate, voting rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers are calling for reforms at the national and state levels to make the voting process freer, fairer, and more accessible. Voting rights expert Ari Berman recently wrote in the Washington Post, "As the GOP becomes increasingly radicalized and doubles down on anti-democratic tactics, Democrats have to be as aggressive in expanding voting rights as Republicans are in suppressing voting rights."

At the federal level, congressional Democrats are working to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act  (S. 4263), which would serve as an antidote to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling out of Alabama that effectively ended the federal preclearance requirement for election changes in states with a history of voter discrimination. They're also championing the For the People Act  (H.R.1), a broad political reform bill that would strengthen the country's election systems.

And in 37 states, lawmakers have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 541 bills that would expand voting access. That compares to just 188 pro-voting bills filed in 29 states by this time last year. The measures focus primarily on mail-in voting, early voting periods, voter registration, and restoring voting rights to those with past felony convictions.

Many of the proposals are coming out of states with a long history of voter suppression. In Mississippi, for example, lawmakers have introduced 12 bills to expand or restore voting rights. In Texas, they've introduced 67. And in Virginia, they've introduced House Bill 1890 — the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, which is modeled after the groundbreaking Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"Though the original Voting Rights Act was passed on the federal level in 1965, there are still attacks on voting rights today that can result in voter suppression, discrimination and intimidation," said Del. Cia Price, the Newport News Democrat sponsoring the bill. "We need to be clear that this is not welcome in our great commonwealth."