vision 2020

Trump’s Voter-Suppression Strategy Is a Crisis (Even If It Backfires)

Block the vote? Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The president is trying to win reelection by disenfranchising as many Democrats as he can. As of this writing, 78 million Americans have already voted, putting the U.S. on pace to witness its highest-turnout election in more than a century.

Some have cited the latter fact as evidence that concerns over the former one have been irrational and overblown. They are wrong. Before getting into that, though, let’s review precisely how Donald Trump and his party are trying to win the 2020 election.

The president entered office with the disapproval of most Americans. Instead of attempting to broaden his appeal by governing with an eye toward majoritarian opinion, Trump deferred to Paul Ryan on policy — and stayed true to his far-right conspiracist roots on rhetoric. During the 2020 campaign itself, the president has not only refused to bring his positions on health care, taxes, and immigration into closer alignment with majority opinion — he has also run against the preference of a supermajority of the public on the year’s defining issue, arguing that the coronavirus is no “big deal” at a time when 68 percent of voters are worried that they or their loved ones will contract the pandemic bug.

As a result, 53 percent of voters disapprove of the job that Trump has done. With third-party candidates attracting minuscule support, this leaves the president with one narrow path to reelection: eke out an Electoral College majority by deterring or disqualifying as many Democratic voters as possible in key battleground states.

As Politico reports:

The president’s inability to capture a majority of support sheds light on his extraordinary attempts to limit the number of votes cast across the battleground state map — a massive campaign-within-a-campaign to maximize Trump’s chances of winning a contest in which he’s all but certain to earn less than 50 percent of the vote.

In Philadelphia, his campaign is videotaping voters as they return ballots. In Nevada, it’s suing to force elections officials in Nevada’s Democratic-heavy Clark County to more rigorously examine ballot signatures for discrepancies that could disqualify them. The Trump campaign has sued to prevent the expanded use of ballot drop boxes in Ohio, sought to shoot down an attempt to expand absentee ballot access in New Hampshire and tried to intervene against a lawsuit brought by members of the Navajo Nation in Arizona which sought to allow ballots received from reservations after Election Day because of mail delays. And that’s just a few of its efforts.

… In swing state Florida, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature slapped additional restrictions on felons trying to register to vote after voters in 2018 approved a measure designed to restore most felons’ voting rights.


In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott limited ballot drop-off sites to one in each county, a measure with outsized effects on the most heavily populated — and more Democratic — areas like Harris County, which includes Houston.

The Republican Party has rationalizations for almost all of these actions. Videotaping voters as they use ballot drop-off boxes — and encouraging far-right militias to patrol polling places while heavily armed — is about “transparency,” not voter intimidation. Pushing for aggressive signature matching is about ensuring election integrity, not exploiting Democrats’ greater propensity for mail-in voting — and the dearth of objective criteria for signature matching — to disenfranchise Biden supporters. Distributing ballot drop-off sites by county instead of population size is intended to enhance election “security,” not to make voting harder in left-leaning urban areas than it is in right-leaning rural ones.

These claims seem absurd on their face. Every attempt to establish the existence of mass voter fraud in the United States has come up empty. And contra Republican talking points, there is no reason to believe that Democratic efforts to make mail voting easier are motivated by a desire to create opportunities for fraud, rather than, you know, opportunities for vulnerable people to safely vote amid a raging pandemic. The president has publicly argued that he believes high turnout will hurt him. And his team’s public statements on the matter brim with bad faith. The Trump campaign’s director of battleground strategy told Politico that it is “the height of hypocrisy that Democrats call our election transparency efforts ‘voter suppression’ — they’re the ones who scared voters away from the polls for months,” apparently referencing the fact that the Democratic Party has encouraged the public to abide by the Trump administration’s own public-health guidelines.

But there is one demonstrably fraudulent excuse the GOP has made for voting restrictions. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have opposed a state Supreme Court ruling that would allow for the counting of mail-in ballots postmarked before Election Day but which arrive up to three days after, as a result of pandemic-induced delays in mail delivery. The GOP has claimed that it opposes counting these ballots because the party believes that it’s vitally important to determine the election’s winner on Election Night — or as soon as possible thereafter — so as to ensure confidence in the vote’s integrity. As Brett Kavanaugh wrote when blocking a similar grace period for mail-in ballots in Wisconsin, “States want to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election.”

Never mind that it is the Republican Party and its affiliated media outlets who have been propagating the suspicions of impropriety that Kavanaugh cites. Never mind that it is a routine occurrence in U.S. politics for absentee ballots counted after Election Night to determine the outcome of a competitive federal race. There’s a larger hole in the GOP’s fig leaf: The Republican Party is actively trying to slow the counting of ballots in Pennsylvania. As the New York Times reports:

Mail-in votes in Pennsylvania and other swing states are expected to skew heavily toward Democrats. The state is one of a handful in which, by law, mail-in votes cannot be counted until Election Day, and the Trump campaign has leaned on Republican allies who control the Legislature to prevent state election officials from bending those rules to accommodate a pandemic-driven avalanche of absentee ballots, as many other states have already done.

“Pennsylvania did nothing” to prepare, said Amber McReynolds, chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute and the former head of Denver’s election system. “The Legislature has completely failed the counties.”

As a result, Ms. Almeida said, “We’re certainly not at a place where we’re going to have results on election night.”

“There’s just no physical way,” she continued. “There’s three million people who have requested a mail-in ballot.”

It’s clear then that the Republicans’ attempts to restrict the counting of mail-in ballots that arrive late through no fault of the voter are not motivated by a commitment to producing election results as expeditiously as possible. Rather, the idea appears to be to minimize the number of mail-in votes that get counted by Election Night and then try to block the counting of as many of those ballots as possible after Election Night.

As usual, Trump hasn’t even bothered to conceal his anti-Democratic intentions, telling reporters Wednesday, “We’ll see what happens at the end of [Election Day]. Hopefully, the few states remaining that want to take a lot of time after November 3 to count ballots, that won’t be allowed by the various courts.”

None of this is likely to work. Polls suggest Biden’s lead is large enough to survive a Supreme Court decision invalidating mail ballots that arrive late (and only three of the conservative justices have evinced openness to handing down such a decision) or disqualifying timely mail ballots en masse due to supposed signature mismatches or other pretenses. Meanwhile, it’s quite plausible that GOP voter-suppression efforts are backfiring, both by inspiring higher Democratic turnout and alienating swing voters. Despite myriad voter restrictions, Texas has already surpassed 95 percent of its 2016 vote total.

Republican commentators have pointed to such high turnout figures to portray Democratic outrage about voter suppression as histrionic, if not delusional. And some centrist and anti-Trump contrarian thinkers have done the same, in more measured tones. But this perspective is misguided for two reasons.

The first is that there is no contradiction between acknowledging that the 2020 election is likely to witness historically high turnout and believing that the election will be tainted by voter suppression. What qualifies as a historically high turnout rate in the United States is just mediocre by international standards. Official data on U.S. voter participation paints a misleading picture, as the most commonly cited turnout figure is the percentage of registered voters who show up at the polls. Yet voter registration itself is the most pervasive form of suppression in the U.S.: In many foreign nations, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that voters are registered to vote. Here, the Republican Party has blocked many policies that would make it easier for individuals to register themselves. As a result, when measured as the percentage of the voting-age population, America has one of the lowest voter-turnout rates in the developed world.

Graphic: Pew Research

Some of the voting-age adults who will not be voting in the U.S. this year are former felons that Florida Republicans chose to disenfranchise in defiance of a referendum that had restored their voting rights. They are not included in the denominators of the turnout rates being trumpeted in headlines. And then, of course, obstacles to voting can significantly reduce the turnout rate among registered voters, even if they are inadequate to stop that turnout rate from being unusually high.

Those downplaying the significance of Republican voter-suppression efforts do have a scintilla of a point: The impact of formal voting restrictions like voter-ID laws appears to be relatively weak. And it has likely gotten weaker as Democrats have gained strength among affluent whites, and Republicans, with non-college-educated voters (a decent number of white working-class Trump supporters will be disenfranchised by Florida’s rules for former felons).

But the fact that one of America’s two major parties has made voter suppression integral to its electoral strategy is a crisis for our democracy even if that strategy backfires.

This is the second point that those dismissing Democratic alarm over GOP voter suppression miss. Trump’s reelection strategy is ominous less for what it is likely to achieve this year than what it reveals about the nature of the Republican Party. The GOP is now an institution that has no normative commitment to even the thinnest definition of democracy. It is a coalition dominated by interest groups that recognize that their core aims are anti-majoritarian: In an increasingly secular America, the Christian right can find no mass constituency for fetal personhood or LGBT discrimination; in an increasingly unequal nation, libertarian billionaires can’t buy much enthusiasm for “supply side” tax cuts; and in an increasingly diverse and progressive nation, the nativist right can call itself “populist” but not popular.

The fact that virtually all of the anti-majoritarian features of America’s constitutional framework — from the Senate, to the Electoral College, to the apportionment of state legislatures — are now biased in favor of the Republican Party, enabling it to win power with a minority of voter support, has made its latent hostility toward democracy conscious and manifest.

Thus, the GOP is now a party that has no compunction about nullifying the voting rights of its opposition to retain power. And once a party has liberated itself from the shackles of respecting its detractors’ rights, much else becomes permissible. The Trump administration isn’t just comfortable denying Democratic voters the franchise — it’s also happy to deny Democratic-leaning states and territories a fair share of disaster aid and pandemic relief, or to deny Democratic-leaning constituencies their fair share of representation by sabotaging the Census, or to deny the American people politically independent federal law enforcement. The GOP may fail to disenfranchise mail-in voters en masse this year. But the impulse behind its efforts could easily gain more effective expression in the future, especially with a six-vote majority on the Supreme Court. There are cracks in our constitutional framework that Republicans have yet to exploit, and which the Trump campaign has reportedly contemplated.

This by itself is enough to render the president’s open embrace of voter suppression cause for alarm — and support for his reelection cause for shame for any self-respecting small-r republican.

Trump’s Voter Suppression Is a Crisis (Even If It Backfires)