There have been so many lawsuits about the logistics of voting—the deadlines, the locations, the paperwork—leading up to the pandemic election that it is nearly impossible to keep up. Democrats have accused the Trump campaign and Republicans around the country of politically motivated attempts to suppress the vote. And as they have since the days of Bush v. Gore, Republicans have said their efforts ensure the integrity of the election, even as no evidence has materialized to support their claims of substantial voter fraud.
Some GOP leaders have expressed concern that Democrats are committed to manipulating election laws in their favor. Others, including President Donald Trump, haven’t been subtle about their motivation for the slew of lawsuits. Trump said that if early voting and absentee voting were expanded as Democrats wanted, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
If you aren’t steeped in the talking points of the right-wing media ecosystem and can’t follow the obscure references the president makes to stoke fear about nefarious ballot manipulations, you may be confused how GOP leaders justify their numerous and expensive lawsuits. Here is a rundown of the various efforts to make voting easier and why Republicans have opposed them.
Mail Ballots That Arrive After Election Day
This has become Trump’s biggest target on the campaign trail. “It would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on Nov. 3, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate, and I don’t believe that’s by our laws,” Trump said in late October. The day before, he warned his Twitter followers, “Big problems and discrepancies with Mail In Ballots all over the USA. Must have final total on November 3rd.” (None of this is true.)
The lawsuits themselves lean on a different rationale: A number have argued that it is in the public interest to avoid last-minute changes to the election proceedings for the sake of consistency and to avoid confusion, even if those changes are intended to make it easier to vote. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court ruled against Republicans and declared that county election boards should count ballots received up to three days after Nov. 3. (Republican congressional candidates have recently filed a similar lawsuit in the U.S. district court.) Democrats and election officials have said that because of known delays with the Postal Service, an extension to the deadline would be necessary to stop votes from being unfairly thrown out. Republicans have indicated that they believe that these extensions would violate the Constitution.
As part of the effort to make voting easier, Harris County, Texas, began offering drive-thru voting this year. It was part of an effort to expand accommodations for voters during the COVID-19 pandemic. In October, Texas Republican candidates filed a lawsuit asking a judge to throw out all 127,000 drive-thru ballots that had been cast, citing a technicality in Texas voter law. Their argument wasn’t about voter fraud—after all, these voters were still following the same steps as other in-person voters, just voting from an electronic tablet in their cars. In this case, the Republican plaintiffs argued that the drive-thru voting clearly benefited Democrats, as it provided extra accommodations in a Democrat-leaning county. “If Harris County goes against Trump in large enough numbers, then we could lose Texas,” one of the plaintiffs said, according to the Associated Press. But the timing of the lawsuit alarmed voting rights groups: By waiting until after most of the drive-thru voting was done, the Republicans sought to throw out many legally cast votes. A federal judge rejected the attempt on Monday. Harris County, out of fear of further legal challenges, shut down most drive-thru voting sites for Election Day.
Automatically Mailed Ballots or Ballot Applications
The Trump campaign sued Nevada over its plan to send absentee ballots to all active voters. “So right there, it’s no good; it’s defective,” Trump said of Nevada’s system while speaking with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. “Two votes in an envelope—in a single envelope. This is a thing that will be a disaster like never before. So we’ll see what the court has to say about it.”
At the same time, Trump suggested that Florida—where the president himself voted by mail—and Arizona were OK to use mail-in voting because they had “refined” the process, while Nevada was facing “millions of ballots, all of a sudden, coming out of nowhere.” In other cases, lawsuits have sought to prevent states from automatically mailing voters absentee ballot applications.
According to the Trump lawsuit, “Major or hasty changes confuse voters, undermine confidence in the electoral process, and create incentive to remain away from the polls.” Republicans have complained that the mail-in system creates confusing deadlines and procedures that vary by county. More importantly, they argued, it made it easier to commit voter fraud by using the names of voters who are dead, who have moved out of state, or who choose not to vote. In the Nevada case, the judge dismissed the lawsuit, and registered voters received their mail-in ballots.
Absentee Ballot Drop-Off Sites
In many states, election officials have tried to enable contact-free voting for minimal COVID-19 risk by setting up boxes around the county for voters to simply deposit their ballots, without a person present. Republicans have protested loudly against the measure. Iowa’s secretary of state instructed county elections commissioners to only set up absentee ballot drop boxes outside their offices so that a poll worker would be present—a limitation a judge later backed. Some conservatives have said they fear that people will seize the opportunity to vote without witnesses to drop multiple forged ballots in the boxes. There are additional election security measures in place to detect fraudulent ballots, but the thinking here appears to be that if enough forgeries are attempted, some number will make it through.
In some states, there are no drop boxes, but there are sites, where voters must show their identification to a poll worker. The Texas Supreme Court upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandate limiting each county to just one absentee ballot drop-off location. Critics have complained that the order doesn’t just make it harder for the elderly and those with disabilities to vote; it also guarantees increased congestion at the locations, which could mean a very real COVID-19 risk in densely populated counties. The GOP’s reasoning for the limitations aren’t abundantly clear, but it seems that there’s a concern that without such limitations, counties would be unable to provide “adequate election security” at the sites and poll watchers would be deterred.
The Supreme Court has said it will review a law in Arizona that bans voters from having someone who is not a family member or caregiver deliver their completed ballots. This practice, known to critics as “ballot harvesting,” allows people who are busy or sick or who otherwise have difficulty getting around to have a neighbor or friend or even voter advocacy organization deliver their ballot for them. (Democrats often refer to it as “community ballot collection.”) For the defenders of the practice, such forms of ballot collection are meant to help the marginalized and disadvantaged, such as elderly voters in nursing homes. But many conservatives have insisted that the practice opens the voting process up to mass fraud, should a person or organization turn in forged ballots they claim to be on another voter’s behalf. Ironically, Trump, who has tweeted of the “rampant fraud” of the practice, submitted his ballot to a third party to have it turned in in Florida.
There was a legal dispute in Iowa over the decision by auditors in three counties to send out absentee ballot request forms with voters’ information already partially filled out, pulled from the state’s voter registration database. They had argued that voters regularly left out their (often unknown) voter identification numbers, and the country would then have to contact the voter via telephone or email to correct the error—a time-consuming process. Republicans immediately challenged the effort, arguing that a blank form provided extra assurance that the person filling it out is actually the voter.
The Iowa Supreme Court put it this way: “For example, to do many debit card or credit card transactions, it is necessary for the consumer to enter personal information such as the person’s address, zip code, or PIN. The card company already has this information; the only reason to ask for it is to ensure that the person doing the transaction is the actual cardholder.” The secretary of state in the Iowa case also contended that the vendor who processed the mailing list should not have had access to the voters’ identification numbers for personal security reasons. But in early October, a district court judge sided with the Democrats and cleared the prefilled forms to be sent to voters, writing that “it completely escapes this court how the fairness and uniformity of the absentee ballot-application process could possibly be threatened by allowing county auditors to simply continue practices they had been following for some time.”
Problems With Signatures
In many states, the validity of an absentee ballot hinges on the ballot’s signature matching up with the voter’s signature on file. With little evidence, Republicans have complained that the process of matching them has been too lenient. In Nevada, Trump’s campaign sued to demand that Clark County stop counting ballots until observers could examine the process by which voters’ signatures were being compared. The suit worried election officials in Nevada, who hoped to count the absentee ballots quickly to give voters enough time to address any issues (this process is known as “curing” a ballot). The Trump lawsuit also called for better accommodation for their poll watchers during the curing process. (The case was thrown out on Monday). Republicans have called into question the reliability of signature verification machines and have suggested that the relatively low rate of ballot rejection is an indication that the machines are too generous. (There is no evidence that the process lets through fraudulent ballots; rather, signature mismatch notoriously kicks out large numbers of valid ballots.)
There were other lawsuits about the curing process (which is only available in fewer than half of all states). A federal appeals court in Arizona ruled that missing signatures must be corrected by Election Day in order for an absentee ballot to count. (The lawsuit dealt with missing signatures, which Republicans argue are fully the fault of the voter, rather than mismatched signatures, which could be a subjective matter. Voters will have five days after Election Day to fix mismatched signatures.) Cases that sought to limit voters’ opportunity to cure their ballot typically have less to do with the specter of voter fraud than the idea that an election should be “orderly,” easy, and quick.