91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Legal Fight Over Voting Rights During The Pandemic Is Getting Hotter

An Ohio voter drops off her ballot at the Board of Elections in Dayton earlier this week. Legal fights around mail-in voting are heating up as states turn to the practice amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Megan Jelinger
AFP via Getty Images
An Ohio voter drops off her ballot at the Board of Elections in Dayton earlier this week. Legal fights around mail-in voting are heating up as states turn to the practice amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The legal fight over how Americans will vote this year is rapidly turning into a war.

That's according to conservative "election integrity" advocates who accuse Democrats of using the current pandemic to push through changes that these groups say will undermine U.S. elections.

"We are watching as the Democrats and radicalized special interest groups are using this fog of COVID to fundamentally remake American elections," said Catherine Engelbrecht, the president of True the Vote, a group that says it is trying to protect against voter fraud. She spoke on Thursday during a webinar sponsored by a conservative nonprofit, the Committee for Justice.

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups say that they're actually trying to protect voters' rights and to eliminate obstacles they believe are intended to suppress the votes of minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic.

Of immediate concern to both sides are efforts to expand mail-in voting in response to the pandemic. A number of states are loosening restrictions on absentee ballots so people can vote without having to go to the polls in person. More than a dozen court cases have been filed in recent weeks either challenging those changes or calling for states to do even more to make mail-in voting accessible.

On Thursday, a federal judge denied a request by True the Vote to block a Nevada plan to send absentee ballots to all active voters for the state's June 9 primary. U.S. District Judge Miranda Du dismissed as "speculative" and "without any factual basis" the group's claim that the plan would expose the election to fraud and thereby dilute the votes of legitimate voters.

Marc Elias, an attorney leading the Democratic effort to expand voting options, called the decision "yet another example of how Republican lies about voter fraud don't hold up in court."

Still, True the Vote's attorney, James Bopp Jr., who also spoke on the webinar, said that getting rid of protections against fraud is the Democrats' "game plan." He said it is part of a decades-long scheme by Democrats to weaken the electoral process by fighting efforts to remove inactive voters from registration rolls and to impose strict photo ID requirements.

Some Republicans, including President Trump, have echoed those claims. On Thursday, the president tweeted about the need to stop Democrats from "stealing the election." Trump has repeatedly said that voter fraud is rampant, although there is no evidence that is the case. There is some evidence that absentee voting is more vulnerable to fraud, but even so, such cases are rare.

The issue will certainly be a recurring theme in the upcoming campaign. Both sides are aware that court decisions affecting voting rules could shape the outcome in November.

Democrats have intensified their push for states to implement changes they have long wanted, such as allowing same-day voter registration and eliminating the need for voters to provide an excuse to vote absentee. Elias has filed a separate suit in Nevada arguing that the state should allow third parties to collect and deliver absentee ballots for voters who might not be able to do so on their own.

Elias has also revised a lawsuit calling on Wisconsin to eliminate requirements that voters provide a photo ID when requesting an absentee ballot and have a witness sign their completed ballot. Efforts by Democrats to loosen the state's mail-in voting rules for the April 7 primary were blocked by Republicans, and tens of thousands of voters ended up going to the polls in person despite the health threat.

"While this is the latest lawsuit seeking to protect the right to vote during the COVID crisis, it won't be the last," Elias said in a statement. "The hard work of fighting voter suppression in 2020 is far from finished. Indeed, in many ways, the fight has just begun."

Also this week, voting rights groups were in court challenging an Oklahoma law that voters have their absentee ballots notarized and a Florida requirement that felons pay all fines and fees before regaining their right to vote.

Virginia Republicans also went to court to stop that state from removing its absentee ballot witness requirement. And Arizona's Republican attorney general asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule a lower court finding that a law prohibiting the collection of ballots by third parties is unconstitutional.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler
Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.