Commentary

Voting need not be a gauntlet. So why is the GOP doing all it can to make it that way?

June 7, 2021 12:01 am

About 100 Trump supporters rallied outside the Virginia Department of Elections in November for a “Stop the Steal” event. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Voting shouldn’t be an obstacle course, but several states — all run by Republicans — want to make it that way.

It’s not that there’s a national outcry from people upset at the convenience of casting ballots in the largest-turnout election in American history in November. In fact, sizable majorities favor ease-of-voting policies, a Pew Research Center survey in April found.

Even majorities of Republicans favor many of the steps that states took to accommodate voters amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 600,000 Americans. Among Republicans, however, Pew found that support has slipped for some measures such as no-excuse absentee or early voting and automatic registration for all eligible voters.

This year, GOP-ruled states, particularly Texas, Georgia and Florida, have embraced new policies to make voting more burdensome, aligning themselves with former President Donald Trump’s fallacy that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Trump’s Big Lie has animated nearly 400 new pieces of restrictive election legislation in 48 states since Jan. 1, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

They seek to roll back no-excuse early and absentee voting, Sunday voting, drive-thru voting precincts that worked well in Texas and was praised as an innovative way to avoid the coronavirus spread, and to require that voters display  government-issued photo IDs to exercise their foundational right — not a privilege, a right — to vote.

“It is beyond obvious what they are trying to do. If we have close elections in 2022 and especially 2024, the GOP and their allied far-right groups may very well achieve what they tried and failed to do in 2020 and again on Jan. 6 — steal the election on the basis of completely phony allegations of fraud,” said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia and founding director of its Center for Politics.

“This time, of course, they’ll do it ‘legally’ since they’ve written the laws,” Sabato said.

As the Pew survey shows, Republicans were far more accepting of convenient election rules in 2016 when Trump himself voted absentee in his surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The complaints, fearmongering, interference and lies ramped up when it became clear that the president’s strategy of mean-tweeting at critics, his delusional dismissals of the pandemic and its toll, and implying violence against adversaries wasn’t playing well among independents, moderates and even erstwhile Republicans.

As if to inoculate himself in advance from his looming defeat, the former president decreed that the only way he could lose was through a massive campaign of election fraud. In an unprecedented jump in voting by mail, the U.S. Postal Service under the direction of Louis DeJoy, a Trump political donor, experienced delays in handling mail ballots.

When the votes were tallied and Democrat Joe Biden emerged victorious, the lame duck president dispatched armies of lawyers to file lawsuits in swing states to create chaos over unfavorable outcomes. In some states where he was losing ground, Trump’s lawyers demanded that the count stop. In others where he seemed to be gaining, they argued that the count go ahead.

His attorneys filed scores of specious legal challenges in courts across the country and failed in all of them. That included judges the president himself had appointed, including an adverse ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court where he had secured a sympathetic 6-3 conservative majority.

In state after state, top election officials — Republicans and Democrats — reexamined contested outcomes and certified them free of fraud sufficient to overturn the outcome. The president along with senior advisers tried unsuccessfully to sandbag Georgia’s Republican top election official into finding him the “11,780 votes” needed to reverse Biden’s victory there.

As his legal efforts — and those undertaking them — lost all credibility and became a national laughingstock, he stepped up his baseless and incendiary assertion that he had been robbed. Fueled by social media and allied loony conspiracy traffickers such as QAnon, it culminated violently on Jan. 6 after he and his loyalists exhorted a seething crowd to do exactly what it had gathered in Washington to accomplish: keep Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duty to formally count and validate the Election College vote that would make Biden the president.

An outlaw crowd loyal to a “president of law and order,” used an arsenal that included flagpoles, pipes, baseball bats and bear spray to batter outnumbered police officers in one of the worst days for U.S. law enforcement since 9/11. More than 500 people have been arrested in the five months since on a variety of federal charges. Attorneys for some defendants plan a “blame Trump” argument that their deluded clients believed his stolen-election lie and thought they acted under presidential orders.

Rather than stand up to Trump’s madness, GOP legislatures and governors fearful of angering him and his worshipful followers are dutifully making it harder to vote, especially for people with physical, economic, logistical or social disadvantages.

This year through mid-May, a dozen states have enacted laws that tighten requirements for voting by mail, a method that more than doubled in use in 2020 over 2016, according to the Brennan Center. Eight states have new laws making in-person voting harder, including those that make flawed voter roll purges more likely, limit the number of polling places and that reduce early voting opportunities.

In addition to laws already passed, dozens more are pending in at least 18 state legislatures, the Brennan Center found. They would impose obstacles to voter registration, expand voter roll purges, compel stricter ID requirements for either in-person or mail voting and make it harder for absentee voters to get help in submitting their ballots.

It’s a tactic that might deliver for the GOP in some places, but not so much in urban and suburban areas, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at Mary Washington University.

“People are accustomed to ever-increasing convenience in their lives, whether it’s ordering groceries or a pair of pants,” Farnsworth said. “The only place where you’re seeing a dramatic increase in inconvenience is the central role citizens have in our democracy casting a ballot.”

Trump’s defeat offered the GOP an opportunity to learn from the loss, retool its message and broaden its appeal among cautious, moderate and educated suburban voters, he said. “Instead, the Republicans have done nothing of the sort. In fact, they’ve punished truth-tellers like (GOP Rep.) Liz Cheney.”

“In some states, the Republican base wins. In some congressional districts, the Republican base wins. But in the suburbs, restricting voting, believing that the election was stolen and endorsing Trump above all — that’s a losing strategy,” Farnsworth said.

Some states, including Virginia, are expanding ballot access, the Brennan Center reports. The commonwealth is among a handful of states expanding early voting, easing registration, making mail voting easier and making the ballot more accessible to people with disabilities.

At the federal level, many such restrictive state voting measures would have been precluded by the 1965 Voting Rights Act before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.

Don’t bet on relief from Congress. In March, the House passed a new national voting rights bill which has stalled in the evenly divided Senate where Democrats can’t find the 10 Republicans to join them for the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster that blocks the measure from a vote.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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