States Have Tightened Election Integrity Laws, but Conservative Group Says More Remains to Be Done

States Have Tightened Election Integrity Laws, but Conservative Group Says More Remains to Be Done
People vote at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, on Nov. 3, 2020. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)
Dan M. Berger

With widespread worries about election integrity prompted by the controversy that followed the 2020 election, some states have reformed their laws and procedures, although much more remains to be done, according to an analysis by a conservative nonprofit.

States across the nation made major adjustments to the voting process in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, including a massive expansion to mail-in voting. Republicans argued that the expansion created loopholes for voter fraud due to a lack of safeguards and voter identification rules.

States have come a long way since 2020, says Hans von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow and manager of its election law reform initiative. But they still have more to do.

The Heritage Foundation scored and ranked the states for election integrity. The foundation looked at 12 areas, with more than two-thirds of the score weighted for three: voter ID implementation, the accuracy of voter registration lists, and absentee ballot management.

 Stacey Abrams, Democratic nominee for Georgia governor this year, has been prominent among those charging that the state's Election Integrity Act was discriminatory "voter suppression." Here she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Stacey Abrams, Democratic nominee for Georgia governor this year, has been prominent among those charging that the state's Election Integrity Act was discriminatory "voter suppression." Here she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

States could score a maximum of 100 points. None do. If this were school, the best scores were only B's. Tennessee had the best election integrity procedures in the country with a score of 84, followed closely by Georgia at 83, Alabama at 82, and Missouri with 80.

Ranked 51st on the list—50 states plus the District of Columbia—was Hawaii, with 26. Only marginally better were Nevada at 28, California at 30, and Oregon at 38.

Fourteen states improved their scores from the previous year, while only two worsened, von Spakovsky and co-author Jack Fitzhenry wrote in The Daily Signal in August.

 The Heritage Foundation's elections expert Hans von Spakovsky says states have come a long way firming up their practices from 2020. He's pictured here at a Washington event in October 2017. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)
The Heritage Foundation's elections expert Hans von Spakovsky says states have come a long way firming up their practices from 2020. He's pictured here at a Washington event in October 2017. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

"Tennessee is No. 1, but it only got 84 out of 100," von Spakovsky told The Epoch Times. "Even the best state in the country needs to make improvements."

The top three things they need to do, he said, are to require voter ID for both in-person and absentee balloting, do a better job of maintaining and verifying accurate voter rolls, and strengthen rules for handling absentee ballots.

Von Spakovsky praised some of the states' reforms: Texas and Florida followed Georgia in adding identification requirements for absentee balloting. Those applying for absentee ballots must provide a photocopy of their driver's license or other identification, or its serial number, on the application form.

"This requirement is easily met," he said. "It won't stop all fraud, but it will make it significantly more difficult."

Tennessee's new laws authorize officials to use commercial databases such as those of credit agencies to check and verify registration information, von Spakovsky said.

"This is a good change, one I've long been recommending. Credit agencies keep pretty good data, and it's usually much more current than the government databases," he said.

A Gallup poll showed that even before the 2020 presidential election, voter confidence in the integrity of elections was down:

"Although their faith has been shaken for some time, Americans are heading into their next presidential election with relatively little confidence in the honesty of the process. Four in 10 Americans (40 percent) interviewed in 2019 said they are confident in the honesty of elections in the country, while the majority (59 percent) said they are not," the venerable polling company wrote in February 2020.

And confidence had dropped even more by early this year.

Rigging Versus Suppression

An ABC/Ipsos poll found only 20 percent of the public saying it was very confident about the election system, down from 37 percent a year before in an ABC News/Washington Post poll. ABC attributed the drop to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, without explaining why election confidence had dropped even prior to that.

Election integrity means different things to different people. Those on the right often fear voter fraud and election rigging, while those on the left worry about voter suppression.

The Electoral Integrity Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government studied the issue by seeking the views of more than 1,000 academic political scientists and received 789 responses in the weeks following the November 2020 election.

Summarizing the study's key findings, Pippa Norris, a professor and director of the Electoral Integrity Project, writes:

"Election experts overwhelmingly rejected claims of widespread fraud occurring in their state during the balloting and vote tabulation stages of the 2020 U.S. elections.

"At the same time, this does not imply that experts believe that the performance of all stages in the 2020 American elections should be given a clean bill of health."

The study cites problems such as gerrymandering favoring incumbents, unfair press and TV news coverage, lack of transparency for campaign finance, difficulties for minorities in voting, and barriers to female and minority candidates.

"Finally, expert assessments also indicate that compared with 2016, the performance of this contest displays several warning flags, namely worsening confidence in the integrity of American elections and falling public trust, challenges to legitimacy arising from threats of campaign violence, legal disputes about the process and results, and public protests about the outcome, as well as growing attempts at voter suppression," she writes.

Norris's study surveyed experts but didn't look directly at elections or fraud data.

It cited "right-wing misinformation and conspiracy theories" and the Trump campaign's extended challenges to the election results for the fact that about 4 in 5 Trump voters had little or no confidence in the election result, thought Trump shouldn't concede, and thought Joe Biden had legitimately won the 2020 election.

Norris's office didn't respond to requests for comment from The Epoch Times.

No Investigations

Von Spakovsky pointed to contrasting studies, both by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, that suggest that fears of election fraud do have a basis.

The Safe Harbor study requested state records or made Freedom of Information Act requests to the 10 biggest counties in Florida following the 2020 election, asking for all criminal referrals to local prosecutors. They followed up by seeking from the relevant Florida state attorney offices the records of prosecutions in those cases.

"They discovered not a single one of those criminal referrals had been investigated and prosecuted by local district attorneys," von Spakovsky said.

He said the Critical Condition study before the 2020 election obtained voter registration lists from 42 states and compared them with other records such as the Social Security master death index. The investigators found more than 144,000 potential cases of fraud, including people registered in two states and voting in both, people shown to be dead who voted after they died, and people registered twice in the same state and casting two ballots.

"There were a whole bunch of cases showing possible fraud. Not a single law enforcement official in any state contacted them after their report came out to say, 'Send us the data,' or to offer to investigate double registrations," he said.

In a nation of 340 million people, would 144,000 such discrepancies constitute a severe problem?

"Our database could be much, much larger if, in fact, states did a better job investigating these problems and if prosecutors did, in fact, investigate and prosecute them," von Spakovsky said.

"Some are isolated cases, one voter taking advantage of the system and voting twice. But others are organized efforts, which result in elections later being overturned."

Georgia passed the Election Integrity Act of 2021, which tightened up on absentee ballot voting. State officials have continued their push—begun when the current governor, Brian Kemp, was the state's secretary of state—to purge problematic registrations from the voter rolls.

Kemp's Democratic opponent in 2018 and again this year, Stacey Abrams, labeled bill provisions as "racist" in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April 2021.

Abrams backed the pressure on Major League Baseball to move the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta to punish the state for the new law. The game was then played in Denver.

"Like many Georgians, I am disappointed that the MLB is relocating the All-Star Game; however, I commend the players, owners, and League commissioner for speaking out," Abrams posted on Twitter on April 2, 2021.

"I urge others in positions of leadership to do so as well. As I have stated, I respect boycotts, although I don't want to see Georgia families hurt by lost events and jobs. Georgians targeted by voter suppression will be hurt as opportunities go to other states. We should not abandon the victims of GOP malice and lies—we must stand together."

Abrams and her allies have since tried to walk back her position.

Working Together

How elections run can be as much a grassroots matter as a state one.

Marci McCarthy, the Republican chairwoman for the heavily Democratic DeKalb County in the Atlanta metro area, said the county had made much progress through its elections board and a broader stakeholders' committee to improve election transparency and integrity.

Republicans appoint two of the five members, Democrats two more, and the fifth is an at-large seat appointed by a judge. McCarthy said the fifth usually votes with the Democrats, and many votes split on party lines, 3 to 2.

McCarthy sits on the stakeholders' committee, which includes representatives of both parties and party-aligned groups and leaders of both the elections board and the elections office. The body, which she describes as a "working group," sits down for a few hours before an election to air concerns and head off problems before they occur.

"It's truly extraordinary," she said. "We have a strong working relationship. We have the process to resolve all incidents overall. The Election Integrity Network has used DeKalb as an example of how it can be done right in a county that's 70 percent Democrat."

One victory she cited was the board's handling of discrepancies in the May 24 Democratic primary for the DeKalb County Commission District 2 race.

Michelle Long Spears, the candidate who ran third and was eliminated from the runoff, started examining returns precinct by precinct. She found she had received zero votes in 14 precincts—including her own, where she and her husband, at the very least, had voted for her.

The elections board didn't split along party lines, voting promptly and unanimously not to certify the election, and instead doing a full hand recount over Memorial Day weekend. The hand recount showed Spears gaining 3,299 votes and now in first place, while the previous leader, Marshall Orson, dropped to third place. Spears later won the runoff.

The discrepancy was traced to a single process error, McCarthy said. A fourth candidate had withdrawn late in the race. While a standard elections audit had earlier confirmed the DeKalb ballots' accuracy, the audit—a lengthy and tedious process—wasn't redone after the candidate's withdrawal.

So a glitch wasn't spotted: Some ballots still listed the fourth candidate. In those precincts, Spears's name alphabetically was listed fourth, McCarthy said. But the system now had only three buckets, so to speak, into which to place votes. In those cases, votes for Spears were just dropped.

In Georgia, a voter uses a touch screen to select candidates and, when finished, receives a paper printout showing his or her votes, confirming those cast. The paper ballot, with a QR code, is deposited into a separate machine reading the QR code. That system had nowhere to go with votes for Spears when she was listed fourth on the ballot, and those votes just vanished. But they were picked up during the hand recount.

"We're not adversarial," McCarthy said. "We're all on the same team. We all want fair and transparent elections. Ultimately, we want to have elections we can stand by. It's hard to look at when there's such distrust between Republicans and Democrats across the board.

"I'm not saying cheating can't happen, but if you have a working relationship, you have conversations before you start shooting arrows out the gate."

McCarthy was one who questioned the 2020 election results and integrity. Even before that election, she was registering her complaints about sudden new COVID-related changes in procedure between the primary and general elections of that year.

"I saw it done one way [during the primary] in alignment with the law, and in the general election, a different set of procedures, with no blocks and controls and checks and balances. It was completely disturbing. I saw something and said something," she said.

"I reported to the elections board the irregularities and things I saw. No one wanted to examine them.

"We're not friends. There's still a great distrust. But there's a common ground where we come together with an agenda and a list of items we're going to agree on."

Dan M. Berger mostly covers issues around Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for The Epoch Times. He also closely followed the 2022 midterm elections. He is a veteran of print newspapers in Florida and upstate New York and now lives in the Atlanta area.