Not since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was pushed through Congress by the call for racial justice during the civil rights movement has the U.S. witnessed such a furious debate over how states conduct elections.
Many states adopted new rules making it easier to vote in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including mail-in voting without an excuse, early voting and same-day voter registration, that were praised by leaders of both parties.
A day after the 2020 election, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, praised his state’s handling of 11 million ballots.
But in the wake of that race, the results were stained by false claims of voter fraud by former President Donald Trump, who lost the contest to Joe Biden.
While many Democratic-led states worked to make permanent those pandemic-era changes, the legislatures controlled by Republicans in swing states began to champion election security measures that enacted stricter rules on mail-in ballots, voting hours and administrative oversight.
DeSantis, for example, has signed new laws making it tougher to vote by mail, limiting the use of ballot drop boxes and creating a new Election Crimes and Security investigative force, which recently boasted about making nearly two dozen arrests for people suspected of committing voter fraud.
Yolanda Ogle, who lives in West Palm Beach, said the law, which for the first time requires Florida voters applying for a mail ballot to include their driver's license, identification card number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, will hurt some voters more than others.
"I have elderly parents," Ogle, a 50-year-old independent, said. "Everyone doesn’t have the luxury to get to a ballot place, or have the health conditions that will actually allow them to kind of stand in a long line. So, I think that’s very unfortunate."
Hundreds of miles away in Texas, GOP lawmakers banned 24-hour and drive-thru voting, putting in place ID requirements for mail-in ballots and establishing new crimes for vote harvesting and denying access to poll watchers.
Texas Democrats, who fled the state capital for Washington in an attempt to stop the changes and draw national attention, did block provisions making it easier for a judge to overturn election results based on allegations of fraud and a measure keeping early voting sites from opening before 1 p.m. on Sundays.
Meanwhile, with Congress failing to pass new voting rights legislation, even Democrat-controlled states are taking matters into their own hands.
New York, for example, passed its own version of the John R. Lewis Rights Act.
Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP, called the law a "historical" act giving voters the protections that Congress failed to implement at the federal level.
“It’s a signal to people that do not have goodwill and don’t want people to vote that we’ll not stand for that sort of thing in New York,” Dukes said.
As the country heads into a crucial midterm election, the USA TODAY Network, with newsrooms in nearly every state, has gathered information from across the country that has reviewed those changes.
The result is a voting rights guide aimed at helping voters navigate how laws in their state are changing ahead of the fall contests.
The examination follows a USA TODAY report in 2021 that examined more than 245 state laws and found that while some states expanded voting access, the cumulative result was 55 million eligible voters are in states that have limited ballot access.
Americans overall lost more than 160 days in absentee-voting availability because of the changes largely followed by partisan divides among the states.
New study finds alarming parallel
A new analysis of U.S. voting laws by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy group, found the country’s most racially diverse states are the ones being submerged by the deluge of stiffer laws more than predominately white states.
It illuminates how these changes are fueled by a combination of lies and conspiracy theories about the last presidential contest – in addition to a rising "racial resentment" toward voters of color, who flexed their electoral power during that same election.
“This wave of restrictive voting laws is very much driven by and in response to the 2020 election, and that response came in part due to the lie that was spread that it was rigged or stolen,” Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights division, told USA TODAY.
“But I think what our most recent research demonstrates is that the story is very much a story about race as well.”
While many of the attempted and successful changes in battlegrounds such as Michigan, Arizona and Florida are typically pursued by Republican-controlled legislatures, the Brennan Center's analysis reveals the voting rights fight that has gripped the country for the past 18 months cannot be viewed solely through partisan lenses.
States under total Republican control, for example, were not more likely to introduce or pass tougher voting rules in the wake of the 2020 election, the study found.
Rather, the Brennan analysis, released Aug. 3, shows how legislatures sliced into access for millions of Americans at an intersection of hyperpartisanship and growing racial diversity.
Specifically, the Brennan researchers found that predominantly white states under GOP control, such as Wyoming, saw fewer new election provisions.
But in racially diverse states where Republicans were also in power, such as Georgia, voters were far more likely to see stricter rules introduced and passed.
"It is clear that the laws that were introduced to restrict access to voting in 2021 were targeted at methods of voting that were used increasingly by voters of color in 2020," Morales-Doyle said. "They were, in some cases, very clearly a response to voters of color exercising political power in ways that they hadn't before."
Race and place matters
The Brennan Center study doesn’t mean Republican-controlled legislatures in predominantly white states did not take any election reform action.
During its 2021 legislative session, for example, Wyoming Republicans muscled through a voter ID law that requires voters to show accepted forms of identification before they can cast their ballots.
The state, which is the fifth-whitest state in the country, according to Census data, is accepting a wide variety of options, from tribal ID cards to valid passports and public school student identifications.
But when Brennan researchers compared the activity of different legislatures during their 2021 sessions, it found a pattern when it came to stricter election rules.
Its study showed that in Republican states that were politically uncompetitive and the least diverse – such as Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and West Virginia – lawmakers introduced less than half the number of voting rights restrictions compared with equally uncompetitive states – such as Mississippi, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska – that were more racially diverse.
Those first four states collectively introduced 28 restrictive provisions, for example; the latter four proposed 63 stricter measures.
“It is the interaction between race and partisanship that matters,” the analysis said.
One of the places where the country saw enormous demographic changes was Georgia, where Census data released last year showed its white population shrank to 50.1%, the lowest on record.
The Peach State’s trajectory to a majority-minority state coincided with a major political shift in 2020, in which the historically conservative state flipped for the Democrats at the presidential and U.S. Senate level.
What followed was one of the more closely watched election overhaul efforts in the nation during the 2021 legislative session.
Georgia legislators clamped down on several portions of the state’s voting laws in the name of "election integrity" in a state on which Trump had focused his ire and misleading comments.
Lawmakers there narrowed the window to request and return absentee ballots; limited COVID-19-born measures like absentee ballot drop boxes; and gave the state elections board the power to take over “failing” county elections boards.
Georgia Republicans sought additional changes during the 2022 session but ultimately ushered in just one, which gave the Georgia Bureau of Investigation original jurisdiction over suspected election law violations and subpoena power in those investigations.
“The states with unified GOP control are not uniformly likely to introduce or pass restrictive provisions,” the Brenna study said.
“In fact, predominantly white states are unlikely to introduce or pass restrictive provisions, regardless of which party controls the legislature. But racially diverse states controlled by Republicans are far more likely to introduce and pass restrictive provisions.”
Voting rights battle a challenge to America's changing face
Morales-Doyle, the Brennan official, said it wasn't a coincidence in the aftermath of the 2020 election that those who challenged the outcome pointed to the country's urban centers and voters of color as the source of their misleading statements.
"Race is very much a part of the response that we saw and the conspiracy theories that we heard about the 2020 election," he said.
"The former president, when he was talking about the election being stolen, his focus was on Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Atlanta. He said those were the places where the fraud, which never happened, was taking place."
One of the things the Brennan used as a yardstick in its study to explain why more diverse states saw stricter election rules is something called "racial resentment," an academic theory developed in the 1980s that measures how race plays out in public opinion.
Specifically, it used various survey scorecards to calculate how racially conservative or liberal certain areas are.
At the state legislative level, for instance, the Brennan analysis discovered those who sponsored restrictive election rules came from “the whitest districts in the most racially diverse states.”
Those areas, according to the study, had higher levels of racial resentment compared with others and were areas of a diverse state where resident were "more likely to feel threatened by America’s growing racial diversity."
Morales-Doyle said the report does not look to determine what's in a lawmaker's heart or what caused a specific legislator in a particular district to sponsor a proposal, however.
Rather, he said, the analysis is meant to draw out how the battle over voting rights is not entirely a party-line joust but a challenge to America's changing face.
"What we're seeing cannot be explained by party alone. Race has an effect, even after we hold party constant," Morales-Doyle said.
"Republicans are not introducing these bills at the same rate everywhere in the country, and the difference between where they are introducing it and where they aren't seems to have a lot to do with race and with racial resentment."
Contributing: USA TODAY Network reporters Will Peebles, Chuck Lindell, Lianna Norman and Gregory Svirnovskiy