vision 2020

Is Republican Voter Suppression Starting to Backfire?

Back in April, Wisconsin Democrats defied Republican voter-suppression efforts and produced an upset for a progressive State Supreme Court candidate. Photo: Sara Stathas/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A week ago I wrote about the big surge of early voting around the country, which had already reached an amazing 21 million! Now that number is up to an estimated 52.7 million and is continuing to climb.

In my earlier piece I echoed many political analysts in warning against too-hasty interpretations of the total numbers or the heavy Democratic tilt of early voting in places where that can be determined or at least estimated. Yes, the surge could mean massive overall turnout — or it could simply reflect fears of health risks for in-person voting on Election Day, or unusually early mail-in or in-person voting based on concerns about postal delivery or long lines. And the Democratic skew could mean a big sweep, or simply the partisanship in voting methods resulting from the president’s endless and false attacks on voting by mail.

But journalist Ari Berman has a different theory based on what he’s seen in Texas:

In the last week of September, Chris Rollins, the county clerk of Harris County, Texas, sent out mail ballots to voters in the Houston area who had requested them and set up 12 locations where voters concerned about delays with the US Postal Service could drop their ballots off. Then, on October 1, just as voters had started to return their mail ballots, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an emergency declaration limiting mail ballot drop-off sites to one per county. The move appeared designed specifically to make voting harder in Harris County, the largest county in the state, which has 2.4 million registered voters and a larger landmass than Rhode Island …

Yet when early voting began in Texas on October 13, Abbott’s plan to limit Democratic participation appeared to backfire, as voters in Harris County, where voters of color make up a majority and where Hillary Clinton won by 12 points in 2016, surged to the polls.

The numbers in Harris County have been astonishing. A record 128,000 people voted on the first day of early voting, up from 68,000 in 2016 and a higher turnout than the entire state of Georgia on the same day. Turnout has barely dropped since then. On Friday, Harris County surpassed 1 million early votes, exceeding its total from 2016 with a week of early voting still left, and nearly equaling the 1.3 million people who voted overall in 2016.

Berman quotes local Democrats who suggest that the unusual visibility of Abbott’s moves to make it harder to vote really galvanized the voters he was trying to discourage.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top executive and a 29-year-old Latina, says that “voters in Texas are used to the steady drumbeat of suppression,” which has often kept turnout among voters of color and young voters low. But she called Abbott’s declaration limiting mail drop-off locations “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It’s the sort of thing that is hard to document other than anecdotally, at least until the returns are in. But there is one 2020 precedent: the infamous Wisconsin primary in April, when the COVID-19 pandemic had reached its first terrifying levels amid blatant Republican efforts to discourage voting by mail and make in-person voting more difficult and dangerous in Democratic-leaning urban areas. There was one very important nonpartisan but very ideologically charged election on the ballot in that intensely polarized state, and all the voter-suppression measures led most observers to expect a comfortable win for a conservative State Supreme Court judge. But it all went wrong, as I explained at the time:

There may have never been in living memory a more blatant voter suppression scheme outside the former Confederacy than the one Wisconsin Republicans and their federal and state judicial allies attempted this month. With the connivance of the legislature and the Wisconsin Supreme Court they controlled, the Badger State GOP insisted on holding an in-person election at the height of the coronavirus pandemic that was sure to disenfranchise many Democratic-leaning minority voters in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a federal judge from extending time for voters forced to vote by mail to receive and return their absentee ballots.

The big prize for Republicans in this maneuvering was a ten-year term on the state Supreme Court that would have ensured its judicial agents a majority on that powerful tribune until well into the next decade, making a Republican gerrymander of the legislature and the congressional delegation much more likely, along with a voter purge. The intended beneficiary was incumbent judge Daniel Kelly. But in a big upset delayed by slow-arriving absentee ballots (SCOTUS would not allow an extension of the April 7 voting deadline but left in place a ban on the announcement of results until April 13), Kelly’s progressive rival Jill Karofsky won the nonpartisan election.

It wasn’t close, and it was pretty clear Democrats were driven to the polls by anger at what the GOP was doing to the franchise. It could happen again in jurisdictions controlled by Republicans who are cooperating with Trump’s battle to discourage and intimidate voters likely to favor Democrats.

My colleague Eric Levitz recently speculated that Trump’s devious tactics might backfire if ongoing spikes in COVID-19 cases keep Republicans the president has convinced to vote in person instead of voting by mail to stay home on November 3. So it’s possible the GOP effort to shape an electorate in its own image could backfire twice, by scaring away Republicans and turbocharging angry Democrats. What goes around comes around, for sure.

Is Republican Voter Suppression Starting to Backfire?