After President Joe Biden delivered a speech imploring the Senate to pass a voting-rights bill, an angry Mitt Romney took to the Senate floor to denounce him. Biden “accused a number of my good and principled colleagues in the Senate of having sinister, even racist inclinations,” he complained. (Imagine! Racists! In the Republican Party! In this day and age!)
But “more troubling,” Romney continued, was Biden’s description of Republican voting restrictions as part of a scheme to “turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion.” Here Romney unsheathed his sharpest insult, comparing Biden to Donald Trump: “And so, President Biden goes down the same tragic road taken by President Trump — casting doubt on the reliability of American elections.”
Romney speaks for an important faction of Republican elites who may abhor Trump’s naked authoritarianism (either openly, like Romney, or more often in private) but also believe fervently in their party’s policy of voter suppression. Romney’s position holds the pivotal point in the U.S. Senate: Anti-Trump, pro-voter-suppression Republicans like him are the key impediment to passing any voting-rights bills.
The Trump strain and the Romney strain have crucial differences. Trump is willing to support almost any measure, legal or extralegal, in order to maintain power. Romney abhors violence and venerates rule-following — but shares Trump’s belief that the franchise is more privilege than a right, and supports his party’s blizzard of voting impediments to keep the Democratic hordes at bay.
Romney’s allies in the Republican party’s non-insurrectionary wing see their stance as the antithesis of Trumpism. What they seem unable to grasp is the degree to which his crude and even violent brand of authoritarianism is a product of their refined elitist version.
Traditional Republicans generally subscribe to some or all of the following three propositions:
First, Democrats habitually engage in wide-scale, undetected vote fraud, especially in large cities. (A leading congressional Republican once confided at an off-the-record event that he doubted the legitimacy of Bill Clinton’s 1996 election, which Clinton won by 8.5 percent of the vote, owing to presumptive vote-padding.)
Second, even if the votes are technically legal, the geographically concentrated nature of Democratic voting reduces its legitimacy. This is a belief expressed by the ubiquitous conflation of maps showing red occupying most land space with Republican “majorities.” This belief is the only way to make sense of otherwise bizarre comments, like Robin Vos, the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, casually asserting, “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state-election formula, we would have a clear majority.”
And third, elections would be better if the electorate was refined by winnowing out uninformed or unmotivated voters. Conservative pundits proudly and openly write lines like this, from National Review in 2016: “We must weed out ignorant Americans from the electorate.” And Republicans occasionally blurt out comments like this, by the Republican chair of Arizona’s Government and Elections Committee: “Everybody shouldn’t be voting … Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues. Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”
These convictions inspire voting restrictions that bring together pro-Trump and Trump-skeptical Republicans alike. Republicans, with little to no intraparty dissent, have passed laws to winnow the electorate of voters who are either illegal or, in Republican eyes, undeserving. These measures include reducing the hours of voting or the locations where votes can be cast, requiring voters to jump through bureaucratic hoops (separate registration and acquiring papers or identification, often at different buildings open only during working hours), or even (in Florida) to pay back fines in order to vote.
One indication of the depth of Republican unanimity on voting restriction is their complete unwillingness to entertain any protections against abusive voter suppression. In November, Senator Joe Manchin proposed a compromise voting-rights bill. His plan would have allowed voter identification requirements, but required states to allow an array of legitimate acceptable identification, including utility bills. (States like Texas recognize gun permits, but not student identification, as legitimate ID.) It would combine automatic vote registration with measures to clean up voting rolls, make Election Day a national holiday, let volunteers provide water and snacks to voters waiting in long lines, accept provisional ballots from registered voters who appear at the wrong precinct, and other modest proposals to make voting less burdensome.
The only Senate Republican to show any interest in Manchin’s compromise is barely-a-Republican Lisa Murkowski. The rest of the caucus has taken the view that restricting the electorate as it sees fit is a matter of states’ rights.
It is important to understand that many Republican advocates of voter suppression hold Trump in at least equal contempt as advocates of voting rights. Georgia governor Brian Kemp may represent the archetype of the anti-Trump vote suppressor. In 2018, while simultaneously running for his office and serving in a job overseeing elections as secretary of State, Kemp closed 200 polling locations, primarily in minority neighborhoods, and purged hundreds of thousands of people from the voting rolls, many of the victims merely for failing to cast a vote in the previous election.
It’s impossible to tell whether these restrictions played a decisive role in his narrow win. (Precisely how many people were deterred from voting, and how many of them would have voted for his opponent, is a matter of conjecture.) But Kemp was perfectly clear beforehand that he saw minority turnout as a primary threat to his success, telling supporters, “You know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”
Yet Kemp also bravely defied Trump’s efforts to undo the 2020 election results in the state, making himself a target of a Trump-backed primary that threatens to end his career. It’s important to understand that many advocates of these laws hold Trump and liberal supporters of voting rights in at least equal contempt. From their standpoint, they occupy the midpoint between two equally noxious populist threats: to their left, Democrats who would open the floodgates to illegal or “unqualified” voters and delegitimize any outcome those restrictions produced, and to their right, Trump supporters who push to overturn elections Democrats win in spite of Republican-designed voting restrictions.
None of these Republicans seem to have contemplated how their assumptions about Democratic perfidy directly inspired Trump’s response. Trump’s most powerful appeal to the Republican base has always been to cast the party’s leadership as weak losers who passively accept defeat.
If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat is the title of a book by conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. The book is not dedicated to uncovering Democratic vote fraud — it provides barely a wisp of evidence for any — but, rather, assumes its pervasive existence as a starting point. Hewitt reasoned that, since Republicans can’t stop Democrats from cheating at the polls, their best recourse is to win elections by overwhelming margins. That book came out in 2004, before Republicans responded to Barack Obama’s election by emphasizing vote-suppression measures. Two years later, he wrote a book making the case for Romney as the party’s presidential nominee.
Trumpism offers a more intuitive response to the assumptions Republicans like Hewitt have long held. If it is true that Democrats always cheat, why should Republicans have to win by huge margins every time? Why not fight fire with fire?
The approach to elections of a Romney or a Kemp is not as dangerous as Trump’s, not by a long shot. It is, at least, peaceful and stable, lacking the reckless Trump lurch into total systemic collapse — virtues we cannot take for granted. But it also falls far short of the democratic ideal Americans have taught themselves as a shared creed. You might even call it sinister.