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Voting Reforms May Look Very Different Between Republican And Democratic States

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We have all just lived through an election in which the way many of us voted changed. A lot of Americans voted early in 2020. A lot of Americans voted by mail because of the pandemic. Now, across the country, state lawmakers are weighing what our elections should look like going forward. Hundreds of bills have been proposed that would restrict voting access. Hundreds of others would expand access. And this is mostly happening along party lines. Republican-led states are broadly looking to add voting restrictions, while many Democratic legislatures are exploring expanding access.

Well, we have got reporters from three states with us to give us a glimpse of what is going on in their patch. Let me welcome Ben Giles from KJZZ in Phoenix, Katarina Sostaric from Iowa Public Radio and Anthony Brooks of WBUR in Boston.

Welcome, all three of you.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Hello.

KATARINA SOSTARIC, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Ben, I'm going to let you start. Let's go to Arizona, which, along with Georgia, are maybe the state getting the most attention - those two, certainly. Both swing states, both with total GOP control at the state level and all kinds of bills that have been proposed. What is standing out to you in Arizona?

GILES: So the biggest proposed changes I see are to what's called Arizona's Permanent Early Voting List. That's our super-popular mail ballot system that a clear majority of voters here use and have increasingly been using in years and years and years.

KELLY: So not new in 2020 is what you're saying.

GILES: Definitely not new, no. This is a very long-standing system here. You sign up for it, and you regularly get sent your ballot. So one change would make it so that that's not permanent anymore. If you don't actually use the early ballot you get sent before an election for two straight election cycles, you get a notice that you're getting kicked off the list, and you have to respond to that if you don't want to be removed. Democrats here say there were 126,000 voters in that situation who cast a ballot in 2020 after not voting in 2016 or 2018.

Arizona is, of course, a very competitive state now. So that margin - you know, 126,000 voters could matter. There's also another bill that would shrink the amount of time voters have to cast that early ballot. And then new voter ID requirements when you mail the ballot back are being considered.

KELLY: Katarina, is any of this sounding familiar? Let's talk about what's going on in Iowa, another Republican-controlled state.

SOSTARIC: New restrictions have already been signed into law here. The governor did that on Monday. A big change is that early in-person voting and absentee voting will start 20 days before Election Day instead of 29. And it was 40 days just four years ago. And then deadlines for requesting a mail-in ballot have been moved up. And those ballots have to be returned earlier, so it's really shrinking that timeframe. And then in-person polls will close at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., as they had been before for state and federal elections.

KELLY: OK. And why do supporters of these changes, who, we should note, are overwhelmingly Republican - why do they say this is needed?

SOSTARIC: Unlike in Arizona, where Democrats won big races, Republicans in Iowa won pretty much everything and retained full control of the state government. But they've said that these changes are going to help restore Iowans' confidence and trust in elections. Here's Representative Bobby Kaufmann speaking about the new law.

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BOBBY KAUFMANN: This protects Iowans' right to vote, and it adds certainty and security to it. This bill does not suppress one single vote.

SOSTARIC: Of course, we should say that it was Republicans themselves who created this distrust by questioning election results with false claims of widespread voter fraud. This is something - these false claims have been repeated in debates in Iowa over this election bill. And I'd also add that a lawsuit challenging these changes has already been filed.

GILES: Mary Louise, I'm hearing similar claims from Republicans in Arizona. Broadly speaking, they're justifying these bills by arguing that voter confidence in the election must be restored. But they don't acknowledge that some of them are responsible for sowing that distrust in the first place. Democrats are quick to point that out and are lining up in opposition to these bills. Here's Senator Martin Quezada speaking about the voter ID legislation.

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MARTIN QUEZADA: We hear communities tell us that, this will hurt my community, my neighborhood, my vote, and the people that look like me and the people that vote like me. This is going to hurt us.

KELLY: OK, so a taste of the conversation underway there in Arizona and in Iowa. Anthony Brooks, let's turn to Massachusetts, where you have got a very different story unfolding.

BROOKS: Yeah. It's really different, Mary Louise. So last summer - here's a bit of the background. Because of the pandemic, lawmakers approved a temporary vote-by-mail law. And as in other states, Massachusetts saw a huge jump in voter turnout in the presidential primary and general election with relatively few problems. So now there's a push by Democrats who control the state legislature by big numbers to make vote by mail permanent. So here's Bill Galvin, the Democratic secretary of state, who's a big proponent of this.

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BILL GALVIN: Last year tested us in many ways. It was a very challenging year. But at the same time, it showed us what we can do. And I think the result was - is that we had a very successful election cycle, and we want to make sure that progress is not lost.

KELLY: Is this controversial in Massachusetts? Are Republicans there fired up in opposition and saying similar things as we were hearing from Republicans in other states?

BROOKS: Well, there are concerns. I mean, one concern is that any law to make mail-in voting permanent will have to include significant new funding for cities and town clerks to do training and to process the big increase in mail ballots. But in terms of pushback, Republicans have questioned why mail-in voting is necessary now that it appears that the pandemic is lessening with vaccines being distributed. But even the moderate Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has said that he would favor making the law permanent. So I think chances are very good that vote by mail is going to become permanent in Massachusetts in the months ahead.

KELLY: I do want to note this debate is playing out at the national level, of course, as well - big fight looming in Congress over H.R.1, this huge bill backed by Democrats that would expand voting access, would curtail gerrymandering, would have something to say about some of these changes that are being proposed at the state level. A quick lightning round for each of you - maybe, Anthony, you first. How much attention is H.R.1 getting? Is this part of the conversation in Massachusetts?

BROOKS: It's part of the conversation because our congressional delegation is all Democratic. It's very much behind H.R.1. But my sense is that no matter what happens in Washington, Massachusetts' move toward a permanent vote-by-mail legislation is coming no matter what.

KELLY: And, Ben or Katarina, where you are?

GILES: So in Arizona, I think, Democrats are going to make a big push for our U.S. senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, to get H.R.1 through to undo a lot of what's happening at the state level. That means there's going to be pressure on Sinema to abolish the filibuster if that's what it takes because H.R.1 might be the only way to get around some of the state laws that Republicans are certainly going to pass here and are expected to be signed into law by the governor.

SOSTARIC: And in Iowa, Republicans are going to be more focused on this pending lawsuit that they are facing.

KELLY: All right. Katarina Sostaric from Iowa Public Radio, Ben Giles from KJZZ in Phoenix and Anthony Brooks of WBUR in Boston giving us the view from states going in what it sounds like very different directions when it comes to voting going forward.

Thank you to all three of you.

SOSTARIC: Thank you.

BROOKS: My pleasure.

GILES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.