Commentary

GOP operative’s screed against voting practices isn’t based on facts

Problems do exist for voters, but not the ones Cleta Mitchell is hammering. Her motivation is to keep left-leaning people from the polls.  

April 27, 2023 12:09 am

Voters wait in line at an early voting center in Henrico County on Oct. 20, 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

There are two primary ways to win elections:  

You can encourage citizens to turn out en masse for your party’s candidate. Or you can install barriers for people who want to choose the other side’s nominee.

Cleta Mitchell, a top Republican Party operative, just proved again her side is much too dependent on the latter. Nor is the GOP’s rationale for erecting hurdles to voting, including here in Virginia, based on facts.  

Mitchell is a longtime GOP lawyer and fundraiser who worked with Donald Trump to attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. This month, she used a presentation to Republican donors to urge limits on voting at college campuses, same-day voter registration and automatic mailing of ballots to voters, The Washington Post reported.  

“A Level Playing Field for 2024,” Mitchell’s presentation, had more than 50 slides and was designed to reduce voter access and turnout among certain groups, including students and people who vote by mail. Both groups tend to skew toward Democrats.  

That tells you a lot about Mitchell’s motivation and that of Republican leaders.  

Mitchell said the nation’s electoral systems, according to The Post, must be saved “for any candidate other than a leftist to have a chance to WIN in 2024.”  

That’s risible, given the Republican presidential nominee has won the popular vote just once this century. Voting systems aren’t the problem for GOP candidates; it’s what they’re selling.  

As one example, U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and fellow Republican members of Congress  this week threatened huge budget cuts through a bill to raise the debt ceiling. The crisis could upend the U.S. economy; the gambit is insane. 

The Post wasn’t at the voter presentation in Nashville, but it was given a copy of the slides. It also listened to audio of the event obtained by a liberal journalist.  

I sent email and Facebook messages to Mitchell through her organization, the Election Integrity Network, but got no response. (Among my questions, I’d asked for the PowerPoint presentation and whether Mitchell had ever voted by mail.)  

Mitchell told the Tennessee gathering she’s optimistic the Virginia Senate will flip to the GOP this fall and then eliminate early voting. She complained about the state’s current 45-day early voting period as being too long. 

That stance puzzled Deb Wake, president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Virginia. She said the 45-day total is reasonable.  

“That’s when the ballots go out to military voters and overseas voters,” Wake told me in an interview.  

Nor is there runaway voter fraud in the commonwealth, as Mitchell and others have suggested. “There are lots of claims, but no support” to back them up, Wake added.  

Or, as The Post noted, experts say voter fraud doesn’t happen often. When it does, the numbers are usually minuscule given the size of the overall electorate. 

Regarding another of Mitchell’s claims, same-day voter registration is not an anomaly around the country. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes Washington, D.C., and 22 states – including Virginia – use it. Nearly all of those states allow people to register and vote on Election Day.  

NCSL also noted common security measures, such as proof of identity and assessing criminal penalties for fraudulent voting, help keep the totals legitimate. 

Virginia passed legislation in 2020 allowing same-day voting, and the practice became effective last year. A 2022 election report, released by the Virginia Department of Elections last month, noted some hiccups the first time it was used. That’s to be expected. 

“While challenges existed,” the report said, “it is important to note that some general registrars did express positive observations regarding same-day registration or, at least, some optimism about the ability to administer same-day registration in the future.”  

So, what’s really going on here with Mitchell’s bombast? Chalk it up to a nation undergoing changing demographics, and a Republican Party that depends on huge numbers of white voters but does poorly with other racial groups.  

Instead of devoting more time to broadening its base and re-examining its platform, the GOP has raised phantom claims of illegal voting and denied that Democrats won close contests – often putting democracy at risk.  

In 2017, Trump formed a bogus commission to study reputed fraud, falsely claiming without proof that as many 5 million undocumented immigrants voted in 2016. It wasn’t enough that he won the Electoral College; his fragile feelings were hurt that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a few million.  

Trump shut the panel down in early 2018 after it met just twice and after states opposed voter data requests. As I wrote back then about the panel, “Civil rights groups had railed against the true intent, too – calling the commission a vehicle to suppress voting.” 

Trump’s repeated lies in 2020 helped stoke the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. During the midterm elections in 2022, the Republican Party didn’t experience the red wave that pundits had predicted beforehand.  

I’m not surprised by Mitchell’s current tack. It’s part of a pattern in which straightforward facts are discounted, and partisan anecdotes – often of questionable veracity – are extrapolated. 

I met Mitchell in 2013, when she participated in a forum at the College of William & Mary about long lines and other obstacles during presidential elections. She questioned whether a presidential commission set up then was right to study those problems.

Reports by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others showed otherwise. In fact, wait times in 2012 at some polling places around Virginia reached four hours.   

Problems do exist for voters, but not the ones Mitchell is hammering. Her motivation is to keep left-leaning people from the polls.  

It’s yet another assault on democracy, by a party desperate to find enough support in some contests.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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