The national debate over voting rights is now getting more than a little off-kilter, with Republicans infuriated by criticism of Georgia’s new election law complaining about “woke corporations” and whining about the persecution of those in their own ranks who just want to “address concerns” about the 2020 elections (which is code for Trumpian conspiracy theories). No voting system is perfect, and there are legitimate reasons to question some Democratic prescriptions (as reflected in the congressional For the People proposal). But Republicans need to come clean about the assumptions they bring to the discussion. The GOP’s current election-reform agenda relies on a set of basic premises, outlined below, which are either based on questionable facts or rooted in a disreputable if unacknowledged desire to suppress Democratic votes. If the Republican Party would abandon these ideas, we could have a civil conversation about how to manage elections without disenfranchising voters.
Assumption No. 1: Voting is a privilege, not a right
It’s not a sufficiently respectable position to be uttered plainly, but Republican voter-suppression schemes almost invariably reflect the belief that voting is a revocable privilege, which in turn means anyone unwilling to go to considerable trouble to exercise it should forfeit it. This is evident in, for example, voter-ID requirements: Shouldn’t anyone wanting the weighty prerogative to choose elected officials get themselves a driver’s license, and make multiple copies of it, and be willing to offer or mail in evidence repeatedly to verify their eligibility? Similarly, shouldn’t anyone who wants the convenience of voting by mail proactively apply for a ballot, and take the trouble to fill it out according to the exact instructions, and buy a stamp and mail in back, carefully counting off the days to make absolutely sure the Postal Service gets more than enough time to deliver it before Election Day? What’s the problem with those people who struggle with such requirements? If they don’t want to vote all that badly, why go to any extra trouble to count their votes? That’s the attitude.
Now, it’s true there’s no single constitutional right to vote. But the Constitution has been amended on four occasions to ban specific restrictions on voting, and one of them (the 15th Amendment, banning racial discrimination in voting rights) is the most common basis for contemporary challenges to Republican voting and election provisions that somehow just happen to disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning minority racial and ethnic groups.
In evaluating voting procedures, the burden should be placed on authorities to justify voting restrictions and requirements, not on voters to prove themselves nimble enough to avoid the one and meet the other. A ballot is not a prize to be won or lost; it’s a right, and lawmakers or election officials who do not treat it as one cannot expect much respect from voters or their advocates.
Assumption No. 2: Making voting more convenient cheapens it and invites fraud
You have to really step back and consider the absurdity of forcing citizens to self-govern via an election held in the middle of the work week and mostly during working hours, often at inconvenient or even distant locales. So long as that is the assumed idea, offering alternative voting times and places may seem like some sort of borderline-shady enterprise designed to relax rigorous standards, as evidenced by the 2020 election’s high turnout levels.
Actually, before 2020, and before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, 34 states offered no-excuse voting by mail, five allowed voters who registered to do so the opportunity to cast ballots by mail without ever sending in an application, and five voted only by mail. While there was some scattered opposition to “convenience voting,” Republicans were as likely to support it — and perhaps more likely to take advantage of it — as Democrats. And in places where Election Day in-person voting had become less and less common, convenient ways to drop off mail ballots (e.g., via drop boxes or by third-party collection) became more common.
Did voting without an election official staring at you involve some loss of “security?” Perhaps, though that’s why ballot tracking and the sealing of ballots with external signatures verifiable against voter-registration records became ubiquitous, along with criminal penalties — often felonies with jail time — for ballot-tampering. The idea Donald Trump promoted of mail ballots being wafted into space, captured by party operatives, and then filled out and returned en masse once Democrats knew how many votes they needed, is entirely an evil fantasy.
Assumption No. 3: Inequities in election resources are just the product of federalism
As many military veterans like to point out, “Freedom isn’t free.” Nor, I would add, is democracy. Yet as New America’s Lee Drutman observed last year, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit: “America’s elections are critically underfunded — and have been for decades.” They are most underfunded, of course, in low-income urban areas, particularly those where minority voting populations are at the mercy of hostile state legislators and election administrators. There is a one-word reason that long voting lines are common in many major urban centers: money. Underfunding produces fewer precincts, outdated registration data, poor staffing of county and precinct election operations, and inadequate voter education.
Loading already poorly staffed and resourced areas with new “election security” requirements without significant additional funding is a recipe — or perhaps in some places a deliberate prescription — for chaos and voter discouragement. Yet Republicans rarely support stronger state funding and typically oppose compensatory federal funding altogether — even during a pandemic.
Assumption No. 4: We can stop worrying about states with a history of racist voting-rights practices
Until a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted the formula for figuring out which jurisdictions deserved extra scrutiny for past Jim Crow practices as obsolete, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required a Justice Department pre-clearance for the kinds of voting-law changes Georgia has enacted and other Republican-controlled states are considering. That was the situation as recently as 2006 when Congress (by a unanimous vote in the Senate and a near-unanimous vote in the House) passed and George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension of the VRA. Unfortunately, since 2013 there has been very little GOP support for updating the VRA formula, which means states (like Georgia) with a rich history of racist voter administration aren’t facing federal scrutiny on grounds that the bad old ways have gone away.
Now, obviously, most Republicans reject the idea the they and their elected officials are racist. But given racially driven voting patterns, it’s possible to favor racist election laws as a matter of practical politics.
So even if the states of the former Confederacy no longer have formal obstacles to overcome in changing voting laws in ways that typically have a discriminatory effect, that doesn’t mean their good faith should go unquestioned. To put it simply, Georgia Republicans and those following the same patterns of “voting reforms” aren’t entitled to a presumption of fairness and innocence, particularly when their “reforms” are explicitly motivated by Trump-campaign slurs about fraud in urban minority areas.
Assumption No. 5: There’s nothing wrong with partisan election administration
The Georgia Republicans who enacted a controversial election law must not see a problem with partisan elected officials being in charge of elections. In 2018, Republican Brian Kemp insisted on holding a tight grip over election administration as secretary of state even though he was running for governor at the time. So even as he was claiming to be an impartial arbiter of voting laws and procedures, he was cavorting around the state calling himself a “politically incorrect conservative” determined to own the libs and defy respectable opinion. And he was fresh from a massive purge of voter rolls that arguably made the difference in his narrow win over voting-rights champion Stacey Abrams.
As it happens, Kemp and his Republican successor as secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, certified Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia, earning the wrath of Donald Trump and a likely Trump-inspired primary purge effort in 2022 (Raffensperger already has multiple primary opponents). While they may have stored up treasure in heaven by resisting Trump’s threats and bribes, here on earth you have to assume both men may be backing voter-suppression efforts to mitigate the damage and appeal to the MAGA base. They certainly have the pedigree for it.
More generally, if Republicans want to be taken at their word in professing a desire to protect voting rights even as they “address” those bogus concerns about fraud, they should begin by supporting a shift to nonpartisan administration of election systems — and, for that matter, of redistricting.
Assumption No. 6: 2020 proves that voter fraud is a real threat to democracy
To come full circle, Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere need to acknowledge this whole “election integrity” drive in the states they control is wholly the product of Trump’s lies, whether or not they profess to share them. And it’s not as though we didn’t all see the lies and their poisonous fruit on January 6 coming from a great distance. Trump began setting up his attempted election coup early in 2020, when he began demonizing voting by mail and convincing his voters to insist on Election Day voting, knowing those votes would be counted first. As many of us predicted, he began claiming all mail ballots were fraudulent on Election Night, when he demanded the counting be stopped. And his eventual “stolen election” claims were dependent on the idea that his votes were legitimate while Biden’s — which took longer to count — were not.
All the “fraud” talk was a product of this series of falsehoods, which is why it had no traction in the federal courts and was only kept alive by MAGA agitation that fed on wild conspiracy theories. Even on January 6, most Republican members of Congress who supported challenges to Biden’s electoral votes hid behind the idea that they were “addressing concerns” expressed by their party’s rank and file without acknowledging the concerns were entirely, well, fraudulent.
Perhaps if more Republicans are forthright about Trump’s lies and their implications, they will not only be more credible as election “reformers” but will help rid themselves of his domination of their party going forward.