There is rising unease among some conservatives about the increasing aggressiveness of Republicans in state legislatures to tighten election laws and erect obstacles to voting.
Many GOP lawmakers have doubled down on the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and are using that false narrative as a pretext for restricting or eliminating early voting and vote-by-mail in the name of preventing future cheating. In Georgia, for example, the Republican-controlled Legislature is looking to eliminate early voting on Sundays, which critics say is a clear effort to stymie the ability of Black churches to get congregants to the polls after services.
But some Republicans believe making it harder to vote will actually backfire at a time when the GOP base is becoming more diverse and dependent on working-class voters. Although Donald Trump lost the presidential election by some 7 million votes, Republicans note that he overperformed among people of color — including immigrants and their immediate descendants. He also did surprisingly well among Black men, in addition to the working-class white voters who powered him to victory in 2016.
“The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” the progressive voting analyst David Shor told Politico after the election.
But people of color and working-class Americans are the demographic groups most likely to feel the sting of onerous voting restrictions. And that fact is convincing some conservatives that new restrictions won’t be the boon to the GOP’s electoral fortunes that they have been in the past.
“Restricting who can vote by absentee ballot will actually detrimentally impact Republicans,” Erick Erickson, a conservative talk radio host in Georgia, told Yahoo News. “Take, for example, north Georgia. Republicans there love to vote by absentee, which is why the Georgia GOP pushed to get rid of excuses back in the mid-2000s.”
David Kochel, a Republican consultant who ran Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s successful reelection campaign last year, expressed reservations as well.
“That’s my fear. The problem is, we don’t have the data to know. I think these restrictions could come back to haunt the party, but we just don’t know enough,” he said.
Other dissident conservatives want to persuade the GOP that making it harder to vote gives it no partisan advantage, erodes its credibility and is inconsistent with conservative principles.
“Republicans are in a bad place, because I think they find themselves arguing, in essence, that there ought to be fewer voters, which is, in my view, wrong, and also the wrong place to be as a political matter,” said Yuval Levin, the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It’s not good for the party to think that way. It should think, 'How do we win more votes in a more diverse society?' rather than, 'How do we let fewer people vote in a more diverse society?'” he said. “And it’s not good for our democracy.”
Experts on democracy from academia have also warned against the GOP’s push for new voting restrictions, which has accelerated over the last decade as state legislatures moved to create new challenges for voters and used advances in technology to draw increasingly unfair boundaries for congressional districts. A host of new restrictions came at the state level after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, in a decision known as Shelby v. Holder.
“When a ruling party bends the rules to suppress opposition votes or rig the political playing field, a country can no longer be said to be a democracy, no matter how much it may allow freedom of the press and association,” said a January letter signed by over 80 expert analysts of democracy, including a few notable conservative authors and academics.
Levin said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast, that he is making election reform a focus this year of his department at AEI, which will encourage the GOP to see more participation both as the right democratic approach and as politically desirable.
“We are gearing up for a major effort to bring the right to the table on election reform issues, and to help conservatives see the case for some experimentation with ideas like ranked-choice voting and for an approach to election administration that combines a desire to have more secure elections with a desire to have more Americans voting,” Levin said. “That will include scholarly work, popular publications and private and public convenings to help such arguments get heard and considered.”
Levin has most recently hired scholars John Fortier and Kevin Kosar, who are focused on election-system design and election administration.
“We’ve got to pursue both greater access to the ballot — especially for the sake of more equal access to the ballot, and Republicans have to see that this is not against their interests, and that in any case it’s right — and greater election integrity, and a feeling of greater security that the votes that are being counted are legitimate votes,” Levin said.
However, like many conservatives, Levin is opposed to the Democratic election reform bill recently passed by the House, the For the People Act, or H.R. 1. His discomfort revolves mostly around the nationalization of voting laws, rather than leaving it up to individual states.
“Taking over the state's definitions of what ID requirements look like, of what absentee voting looks like, of the length of time that you can do early voting, the reasons why, and the ways in which you can remove names from the voter rolls, the question of whether people who've been incarcerated should be voting, I think on all those individual questions, on quite a number of them, I myself would come down on the same side as H.R. 1,” Levin said. “But I don't think they should be decided by Congress.”
He also said he thinks that if Democrats abolish the filibuster to pass H.R. 1, as many activists and intellectuals and even issue experts are now urging them to do, it would do more harm than good.
“To impose these national standards in a partisan way, where only Democrats in Washington have voted for this, but now, in your Republican majority state, these are the rules, is a recipe for a massive loss of public trust in elections, way beyond anything that we've seen in the last few cycles. And that worries me more than anything,” Levin said.
His concern is similar to the one expressed by Sarah Repucci, vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernmental human rights organization.
Repucci oversaw the publication of the 2021 “Freedom in the World” report that was released last week, which found grave declines in democratic freedoms around the globe, including here in the U.S.
The Freedom House report endorsed many of the individual ideas contained in H.R. 1, such as expanding no-excuse vote-by-mail and early voting, getting rid of gerrymandered congressional districts, enacting same-day registration or universal automatic registration, creating more places to vote and restoring voting rights to felons once they have served their time and been released. But Repucci also said Freedom House believes it is essential that election and democracy reform proposals get passed with bipartisan support.
“Politicizing democracy itself is one of the most damaging things we can do,” she said.
This is a bitter pill to swallow for many Democrats, who say they’ve been forced to move forward unilaterally on expanding voting rights by decades of Republican intransigence on the issue. They note that Republicans have often used claims of fraud as justification for voting restrictions, even after the GOP’s most authoritative experts on voting unequivocally concluded last year that two decades of searching for cheating had yielded very little evidence.
“The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud. At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged,” wrote Benjamin Ginsberg, who for more than 20 years was one of the GOP’s fiercest election attorneys and led attempts to root out cheating.
And then if there were any doubt that claims of fraud were being abused, Trump fueled his reelection effort with a campaign of baseless lies about cheating for months before the election, and then used the confusion he had created to justify an attempt to overturn the results.
The fact that many Republicans around the country continue to propagate Trump’s fabricated narrative as they crack down on voting makes it very difficult for Democratic lawmakers to accept that reforms should be pursued on a bipartisan basis. And some Republicans say they understand the Democrats’ reluctance to work with them on the issue.
The GOP “is hemorrhaging credibility by perpetuating the mythology that there was rampant fraud” in the 2020 election, said Josh Penry, a Colorado Republican consultant who was Senate minority leader in the state Legislature. “You lose all your credibility tilting at windmills, which undermines your ability to make the case on large issues.”
Colorado runs its elections entirely by mail, and Penry was in the Legislature when the state enacted this innovation. “The whole argument about mail ballots was really an effort to set up a narrative by Trump for the loss. The fact that some are still on it is terribly misguided,” he said.
Penry recommended that the GOP focus on election security efforts that would bolster confidence in the system like “more audits, more sunshine and transparency, more rigor.”
“Those are good policies, and they’re good fights to pick,” he said. “Getting rid of voting on Sundays? Are you kidding me?”
And yet Republicans are already denouncing H.R.1 in the strongest terms. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said it was “written in hell by the devil himself.”
Democrats say voting restrictions are clearly intended to have a partisan effect — even if they hurt the GOP in the long run.
“The bluntness of the Republicans’ voter suppression agenda may backfire on them in a few key areas, but there is no doubt that their policies are designed to overwhelmingly make it harder for voters who typically support Democrats, especially in communities of color. They have publicly admitted as much several times, and the data bears that out,” said Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for End Citizens United, an advocacy group fighting for campaign finance and election reform.
“It says a lot about the lack of faith they have in their party's ideas and the lack of regard they have for American democracy that they are willing to force through these discriminatory, antidemocratic laws in an effort to hold onto their waning political power,” he said.
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