Stopping the Vote

The Republican assault on voting rights
Demonstrators in Atlanta gather outside the Georgia State Capitol, March 1, 2021, to protest legislation that would restrict voting access (CNS photo/Dustin Chambers, Reuters).

After losing a presidential election, political parties typically engage in a certain amount of reflection over what went wrong: their candidate’s strategy is debated; their messaging gets revamped; their national leadership is replaced. But that’s not what Republicans have done following Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump and their party’s failure to keep control of the Senate. Instead, they’ve undertaken a fierce assault on voting rights, an effort the Washington Post describes as “potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republican lawmakers have “carried over, prefiled, or introduced 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states” since the beginning of the year. Many of these measures take aim at the temporary expansion of early and mail-in voting during the pandemic, which helped drive the largest voter turnout in more than a century. (The Washington Post estimated that an astonishing 73 percent of the 2020 electorate voted before Election Day.) In Georgia, for example, Republicans are seeking to repeal no-excuse absentee voting and reduce Sunday voting—the latter move obviously made with African-American churchgoers in mind. Florida and Arizona are trying to curtail absentee voting. Other states might require photocopies of driver’s licenses as verification for mail-in ballots, limit voting hours, and kick people off of voting rolls.

Rather than trying to win over more of the electorate, Republicans are trying to create the electorate they want.

While many of these laws have been proposed in key battleground states, Republicans are pushing for them even in parts of the country they firmly control. The New York Times reports that the Iowa state legislature recently passed a bill “to cut early voting by nine days, close polls an hour earlier and tighten rules on absentee voting, as well as strip the authority of county auditors to decide how election rules can best serve voters.” Why? State Sen. Jim Carlin put it forthrightly: “Most of us in my caucus and the Republican caucus believe the election was stolen.”

Absurd as it might seem, Republicans are supporting these laws in the name of election security, driven by the deranged belief that Trump actually had a “landslide” victory stolen from him. There is no evidence for this; in fact, the 2020 elections went remarkably smoothly given the circumstances. Time and again, courts rejected the Trump campaign’s lawsuits alleging election fraud. Those clinging to such a ridiculous belief have been reduced to pathetic conspiracy theories—about rigged voting machines, say, or stacks of ballots suddenly appearing or disappearing. None of it is true.

Rather than trying to win over more of the electorate, Republicans are trying to create the electorate they want—a part of their strategy of minority rule. That makes it essential for Senate Democrats to join the House in passing the “For the People Act.” The sweeping federal legislation would override state laws that attack voting rights, increasing access to the ballot and mandating that congressional districts be redrawn by independent commissions. During a recent speech, Trump called the bill a “disaster” and a “monster.” His acknowledgement of the threat it poses to Republican schemes was, for once, no lie.

Published in the April 2021 issue: 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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