Party First: How State Legislatures Are Injecting Partisanship Into Our Elections

by Abigail Field

July 26, 2021

This year, we’ve spotted a new trend taking hold at the state level with many states introducing bills that give partisan actors more power to shape and control election outcomes.

The most extreme legislation would move the power to choose the president from the people to the state legislatures, empowering partisan state legislators to override the electorate. Some bills strip authority from local election officials or make them beholden to partisan state legislators, while others give partisan poll watchers the ability to intimidate and harass voters.

And, of course, several states are conducting, or considering conducting, highly partisan and unnecessary reviews of election results – some of which only apply to, or specifically target, certain counties.

Taken together, these actions – legislative and otherwise – mean injecting partisanship where it never belongs: into our election systems themselves.

Below we have a rundown on some of what we are seeing this year.

Arizona: Explicitly shifting control over elections to Republican elected officials and empowering the legislature to overrule the electorate

Arizona has garnered headlines for its highly partisan review of the 2020 election results, but less attention has been paid to state legislative efforts to concentrate power over election results with the state’s Republican electeds.

For example, the state budget bill enacted in June shifts control of election litigation from the secretary of state (currently a Democrat) to the attorney general (currently a Republican). The provision is designed to sunset on January 2, 2023, when a new attorney general potentially takes office. 

The budget bill is the most extreme injection of partisanship into election litigation to date. Florida, Georgia, and Kansas have enacted similarly problematic, but less sweeping, legislation giving the legislature a role in settling or pursuing election litigation.

Meanwhile, legislation introduced in the Arizona House would have empowered the legislature to override the electorate and simply reject the voters’ choice for president. And at least four bills would have granted the legislature direct access to voting records so it could pursue future partisan reviews of election results without litigation or evidence.

Texas: Standardless, targeted reviews of election results and empowering partisan poll workers to intimidate and harass voters

A July 2021 poll found that 90% of Texas voters want lawmakers to take steps to reduce partisanship in elections. Yet, several bills currently pending in the state’s special session do just the opposite.

One bill introduced this special session would create a standardless review of election results that only applied to large counties because, as the sponsor told the Washington Post when asked if he considered including smaller counties, “What’s the point? I mean, all the small counties are red.” Indeed, of the 13 counties large enough to be subject to the standardless review, 10 went for President Biden in the 2020 election.

This focus on large, blue counties parallels the legislature’s ongoing efforts to prohibit 24-hour voting and drive-through voting, which Harris County, home to Houston, innovated in 2020. Indeed, H.B. 101 would prevent any county from innovating ways to increase voting access going forward.

In addition, pending omnibus legislation would empower partisan poll workers to intimidate and harass voters. Unlike election officials, who are nonpartisan and trained in their roles, poll watchers are affiliated with a political party and receive no required training. S.B. 1, which passed the Senate on July 13, would allow partisan poll watchers to invade voter’s privacy and get into their car to observe them while they are voting curbside. Meanwhile, under H.B. 3, nonpartisan election judges could be powerless to remove a poll watcher even after multiple voters reported them as interfering with their freedom to vote.

Georgia: Making election administrators beholden to partisan legislators

Georgia enacted major legislation earlier this year that restricts voter access and paves a path for partisan intervention in future election outcomes.

One provision of the new law enables partisan state officials to remove and replace local election officials. Under the new law, a partisan majority of the State Election Board can remove a local official and install its own replacement. Moreover, the law newly empowers the legislature to appoint the chair of the State Election Board, making this position beholden to partisan state legislators who have a clear interest in the outcome of elections and how they are administered.

The new law also explicitly allows partisan actors to make unlimited frivolous challenges to voter qualifications, forcing counties to allow hundreds of thousands of voters’ registrations to be challenged wholesale.

Michigan: Empowering partisan challengers to disrupt election tabulating and targeting Detroit in a warrantless review of 2020 election results

Although partisan challengers posed a problem for election officials working to tabulate results in the 2020 general election, a number of bills introduced this session would further expand the ability of these challengers to disrupt elections:

  • H.B. 4897 would expand the number of challengers and the scope of what they are allowed to challenge,
  • H.B. 4963 would expand the rights and responsibilities for challengers and punishes clerks for impeding challengers’ rights, and
  • S.B. 309 would expand and define the rights of challengers.

Despite 250 legitimate audits around the state that revealed no problems, the legislature is also considering creating a new, partisan review of the 2020 results via H.B. 5091. The bill singles out Detroit and subjects it to higher scrutiny than anywhere else in the state.


When Voting Rights Lab launched a few years ago, we knew we’d be busy tracking many disturbing, and oftentimes veiled efforts to suppress the vote of historically excluded Americans. What we couldn’t have anticipated at that time was that current officeholders would warp the election process itself, opening the door to partisan interference while ballots are cast and counted. Unchecked, this trend could destroy the credibility of our election system as a whole.

You can follow this trend in real time using the shifts in election authority, observation process and observer qualifications, and reviews of certified 2020 election results sections of our State Voting Rights Tracker, which separates pro-voter and neutral bills in this regard from outright undemocratic measures.