the national interest

Why the Republican War on Democracy Is Moving to the States

Photo: Handout/VIA REUTERS

After Georgia Republicans experienced the shocking setback of losing the state’s presidential election, the party descended into bitter internal recriminations. President Trump blamed Republican officials for allowing massive voter fraud to steal the state; many state Republicans blamed Trump’s rhetoric for losing a winnable race.

But both Republican factions heartily agree on the proper corrective steps: a sweeping bill curtailing voting rights and handing new powers to Republican legislators to prevent the unfortunate events of 2020–21 from happening again. After the state’s governor, Brian Kemp, a target of Trump’s rage, signed the measure, the former president offered his hearty congratulations. “They learned from the travesty of the 2020 Presidential Election, which can never be allowed to happen again,” the former President wrote in an official statement. “Too bad these changes could not have been done sooner!”

If you want to understand why this is happening, a timely new paper by University of Washington political scientist Jacob Grumbach helps explain. Grumbach surveys the performance of every state government across a broad array of measures of democratic health, such as indices of voting access like wait times and same-day and automatic voter-registration policies, felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and civil rights. His paper finds that the states that backslid on democratization over the past 16 years were shared a single characteristic: Republicans gained full control of their state government.

In other words, states that are rolling back democratic protections are not responding to demographic change nor to any change internal to their state. They are following the agenda of the national Republican Party. That agenda is spreading throughout the states, which are imposing voter restrictions almost everywhere their party has the power to do so. Restricting the franchise has become perhaps the party’s core policy objective.

Some Republicans frame that agenda in explicitly Trumpist terms: They are acting to stop the next stolen election, having failed to prevent the last one. Those GOP officials who are too embarrassed to openly endorse Trump’s election lies instead offer superficially plausible rationales.

First, they insist they are acting to protect states’ rights to run their own elections. Overlooking the awkward historical resonance of using the exact same justification once put forward to justify Jim Crow–era restrictions, they insist states’ rights are all about preserving local variation. Elections should be run by those “closest to the people, elected by the people, most responsive to the people,” argues one leading Republican. “State legislators are the closest to those we represent,” insists another. “States have long experience running elections, and different states have taken different approaches suited to their own locales and populations,” pleads National Review.

And yet this mania for geographic proximity in election administration evaporates completely when they move from the state to the local level. Indeed, the most damaging provision in Georgia’s vote-suppression law removes power from local election boards and concentrates it in the hands of the states. If anybody actually does have local knowledge of election administration, it is the nice librarian who has been volunteering to organize the polls for many years.

But that form of localism has been crushed — because, of course, the whole point is that the state government is run by Republicans. Democrats control the federal government. They also control many local governments where Democrats live and vote. They don’t control many state governments, though, which are beholden to legislatures whose district maps give Republicans an insurmountable advantage. And so the right-wing intelligentsia has discovered a “principle”: The state is the only level of government neither too big nor too small to administer elections.

Second, they claim they seek merely to restore “confidence” in election integrity. And it is true that many Republicans voters lack confidence in the fairness of elections. What is the reason for their lack of confidence? It’s that Democrats won a fair, clean, high-turnout election. (Indeed, they won it in spite of an electoral college system that forced them to beat Trump by four percentage points in order to gain a narrow majority.) It follows that restoring confidence means eliminating the conditions that gave rise to this concern: Democrats winning a clean election.

What gives the game away is that Republican vote-suppression maneuvers include a purge of Republican officials who worked in states Trump lost. The Michigan Republican Party removed Republican Aaron Van Langeveldefrom the Board of State Canvassers after he infuriated Trump and his fans by certifying the state’s electoral votes, thwarting Trump’s attempt to override the election and secure an unelected second term.

In Georgia, Republicans stripped Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of his authority over state elections. Sterling’s chief operating officer, a Republican, told CNN the move was retribution for Raffensperger’s refusal to submit to Trump’s demand to disregard the election results and hand the state’s electoral votes to him.

The next time a Republican attempts to subvert an election result, there won’t be any inconvenient law-bound officials standing in the way. The power to act on Trump’s farrago of lies will rest in the hands of elected officials accountable to the party’s constituents. Rather than arresting the Republican party’s long slide into authoritarianism, Trump’s departure has accelerated it.

Why the Republican War on Democracy Is Moving to the States