Before Donald Trump came along, Republican states frequently passed laws to restrict ballot access. Reporters didn’t always pay these laws much attention, and corporations never even considered anything like the retaliatory step announced by Major League Baseball, which has moved the All-Star Game from vote-suppression ground zero in Georgia.
But Trump’s crass, frequently euphemism-free style stripped away a lot of illusions. The corporate backlash against Georgia is a template for a broader response to the party’s ongoing effort to curtail the franchise.
Conservatives are furious that the latest raft of voting restrictions is being described as “vote suppression.” After all, they point out, voting remains legal. “You know what voter suppression is?” sneered Ben Shapiro. “Voter suppression is when you don’t get to vote.”
By this definition, large swaths of the Jim Crow South also did not engage in “vote suppression.” The Black voter-registration rate in the South in 1965 ranged from 6.7 percent in Mississippi to 46.8 percent in North Carolina. There was no “Black people can’t vote” law on the books because of the 15th Amendment’s requirement that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race.” Instead, conservative white-controlled state governments had to get around the Constitution by enacting ostensibly race-neutral voting restrictions. Some of those measures were farcical (like requirements to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar), but others were real tests of education or civic knowledge that had the desired effect of winnowing out Black voters.
President Biden has contributed to the confusion by describing Georgia’s vote suppression as akin to, or even worse than, Jim Crow. Contrary to the president’s hyperbole, it is more like Jim Crow Lite than “Jim Crow on steroids.”
But Jim Crow Lite is still very bad.
Georgia’s vote-suppression regimen, which is being copied by Republican-controlled states across the country, consists of two main elements. First, the law erects new bureaucratic hurdles for voters to navigate in order to cast a ballot. Second, it wrests control over voting disputes from nonpartisan officials and gives it to Republican-controlled bodies, usually legislatures (which, in many states, are based on district maps that all but guarantee Republican control for the foreseeable future).
The New York Times has a thorough rundown of the law’s major provisions. To take the most egregious example, in the last election cycle, voters who went to the wrong precinct — a common problem, compounded by recent moves by the state’s GOP leadership to close more than 200 precincts — could still cast a provisional ballot. The new law forbids this, requiring voters to travel to the correct precinct before 5 p.m.
The law’s notorious ban on volunteers handing out snacks and water to people waiting in long lines adds to the dilemma. (Conservatives insist poll workers are still allowed to give out water, but the whole reason volunteers have to handle these tasks themselves is that poll workers typically don’t.) And the bill shuts down remedies by imposing limits on courts extending voting times in response to long lines or delays and giving the Republican legislature final say in the almost certain event of a dispute.
The right-wing defenses of these measures almost universally ignore the main dynamic that inspires them. Voting is not an activity that confers a direct benefit; it is something people do out of civic obligation. Increasing the hassle required to carry it out obviously deters people from doing it. And people with less money, more chaotic or stressful lives, and less education are systematically less equipped to overcome the hassle of acquiring the proper paperwork, finding the correct polling location, and arriving at the polls within the allotted time.
“Voter suppression doesn’t involve long lines, any more than long lines at Disneyland are ride suppression,” argues Shapiro. This is a bizarre comparison. If you’ve ever visited a theme park, you know that long lines actually are ride suppressors. When my kids were young, I took them to Disney World; if the lines were too long when they asked to go on certain rides, sometimes we wouldn’t go.
I don’t think I’m the only person who has made that calculation. And when the reward for your wait is not a roller-coaster ride your kids are begging to take but an “I voted” sticker and the statistically indistinguishable-from-zero chance of casting a deciding vote, then standing in a long line to vote is a fairly imposing deterrent. That’s all the more true when you’re not on holiday and you may be getting home from a long shift or rushing to make it to work or to pick up your kids from day care.
National Review editor Rich Lowry, parroting the official line from Georgia Republicans, insists, “It’s hard to believe that one real voter is going to be kept from voting by the new rules.” Really? Not one? In the 2020 election, nearly half of the 11,000 provisional ballots in Georgia were cast in the wrong precincts. (And that was with unusually high levels of mail voting, which the new law also curtails.) Presumably, at least some of those voters will be deterred by the requirement that, after waiting in line to vote and being told they have visited the wrong precinct, they go to find another precinct and stand in line again.
What makes the pious argument by the likes of Shapiro and Lowry so odd is that conservatives historically support the notion of using restrictive voting laws to winnow the electorate. This view dates back at least to the early 1960s, when William F. Buckley famously quipped, “What is wrong in Mississippi, sir, is not that not enough Negroes are voting but that too many white people are.”
Even after National Review had to cease its opposition to the Voting Rights Act and then lost essentially the same argument again 20 years later when it defended white minority rule in South Africa, its writers have continued to periodically insist that the main problem with American elections is that too many people are voting. “Instead of making it easier to vote, maybe we should be making it harder,” argued Jonah Goldberg in 2007. “Why not test people about the basic functions of government? Immigrants have to pass a test to vote; why not all citizens?” In 2016, David Harsanyi complained, “We encourage Americans to vote as if it is the only right of a citizen, without any corresponding expectations.”
Lowry claims Georgia’s law won’t stop any voter from casting a ballot, but on what basis would he object to such an outcome? It’s what his magazine has been demanding for decades.
The notion that election laws should weed out the feebleminded is something close to Republican dogma. The party’s elected officials don’t usually say it aloud, but sometimes they slip up and admit it. “Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote — but everybody shouldn’t be voting,” the Republican who is pushing through Arizona’s vote-suppression bill recently blurted out.
The Republican Party’s enthusiasm for vote suppression predates Trump, and it has become a core tenet of the party’s post-Trump-presidency identity. Vote suppression is an issue that brings together the Trump-adoring base and the elites who tolerated him as a necessary evil — if they don’t agree that Joe Biden stole the last election, they do agree on passing laws that will make it harder for Democrats to win the next one.
The fight over vote suppression also brings to the fore the party Establishment’s belief that whatever bad odor they acquired during the Trump years should immediately be dispelled. It was intolerable enough that large sectors of respectable corporate opinion shunned them over their support for a racist, authoritarian president. Now they expect to be treated as respectable again, not as a party still teeming with racist, authoritarian elements.
The problem is, this is exactly what they are.