Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Don’t Congratulate Republicans If Voter Suppression Fails

The only way to defeat these laws is to make a big deal out of them.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

After their shocking defeat in the 2020 elections, Georgia Republicans enacted voting restrictions in the hopes they could prevent another defeat. (“I was as frustrated as anyone else with the results, especially at the federal level,” explained Governor Brian Kemp at a debate this year. “And we did something about it with Senate Bill 202.”) And yet early voting numbers indicate the law has not so far curtailed voter turnout.

Conservatives have responded to this news by insisting the law was never intended to restrict voter participation, and anybody who claimed it was should apologize. “Georgia Exposes the ‘Jim Crow 2.0’ Lie,” writes Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel. “Where Does Georgia Go to Get Its Reputation Back?” asks National Review’s Rich Lowry. “Where Do Georgia Republicans Go to Get Their Apology?” repeats the same magazine’s Nate Hochman.

Republicans do have a point here that Democrats exaggerated the effects of the Georgia voting restrictions. It was not, as President Biden hyperbolically labeled it, “Jim Crow on steroids.” Modern voter-suppression laws are far less onerous than the restrictions in place before 1965, and even by modern standards, Georgia’s law is relatively mild.

The early results in Georgia are consistent with the outcomes of other voting restrictions. Evidence suggests voter suppression has little effect on turnout, because Democrats mobilize in response to restrictions, canceling out much or all of the suppressive effect.

But this dynamic reveals a paradox at the heart of the defense of voting restrictions. The reason voting restrictions are failing to restrict the vote is that Democrats are making a big deal of the fact that Republicans are trying to make it hard for their voters to cast ballots. (Some studies have found that Democratic messaging that mobilizes voters in response to vote suppression can roughly cancel out the effect.*) Republicans wish to not only defend the laws but to stop the criticism. The only way to defeat these laws is to loudly attack them, yet the very act of doing so allows conservatives to turn around and claim the attacks were lies.

The same dynamic shaped the contours of Georgia’s law. One reason Georgia’s law is mild is that the pushback against it was so fierce. After locally based firms like Delta and Coca-Cola pushed back on voting restrictions, Republicans stripped out some of the most noxious provisions (like those targeting Sunday voting, an important element of block-voter mobilization).

There is also an irony in conservatives pointing to high voter turnout as vindication: This is exactly the outcome they have tried to prevent. The American conservative movement has believed consistently that voting should be made more difficult in order to shrink the electorate.

National Review, in particular, has made this case consistently since the Jim Crow era. The magazine believed “the great bulk of Southern Negroes have been genuinely unqualified for the franchise” and that the Voting Rights Act was “perverting the Constitution.” After Jim Crow restrictions disappeared, the magazine has continued to insist regularly that voting should be more inconvenient so that fewer of the wrong kinds of people participate in elections.

A few examples: “We must weed out ignorant Americans from the electorate” (David Harsanyi). “The republic would be better served by having fewer — but better — voters” (Kevin Williamson). “Perhaps cheapening the vote by requiring little more than an active pulse (Chicago famously waives this rule) has turned it into something many people don’t value … Instead of making it easier to vote, maybe we should be making it harder.” (Jonah Goldberg).

After decades of insisting Americans in general, and Black Americans in particular, had too easy a time casting a ballot, and openly hoping to create elections with fewer voters, conservatives are now pointing to high voter turnout as vindication. It would be nice if this indicated they are happy about high voter turnout. What seems more likely is that they are using this result to defang the backlash against voter restrictions, so that next time they can go further.

Update: I added a more direct reference to this research after the original column only alluded to it.

Don’t Congratulate Republicans If Voter Suppression Fails