WASHINGTON — Just weeks into an era of a new Democratic White House and Congress pushing through their priorities, Republicans appear to have settled on an agenda of their own.
No, not Dr. Seuss or “cancel culture” or breaking up Big Tech or any of the culture war topics that dominate their fundraising appeals and the Fox News evening programming, but the singular issue on which they seem to believe their future success will depend: making it harder for poorer people and communities to vote.
From Juneau, Alaska, to Tallahassee, Florida, and dozens of statehouses in between, Republicans are pushing legislation to cut early voting, eliminate ballot collection boxes, end “no-excuse” absentee voting and undo laws designed to make voting easier, particularly for voters who historically have not engaged in elections. According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, there are already 253 such bills in 43 states and counting.
“We’re in the second great disenfranchisement in American history,” said David Schultz, a professor of election law at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, ranking our current times just below the Jim Crow years that followed the failure of Reconstruction.
The new term of art for the GOP’s efforts is “election integrity” — a phrase that dovetails with former President Donald Trump’s repeated lie that the Nov. 3 election had been “stolen” from him, which ultimately fueled the Jan. 6 violent insurrection at the Capitol.
Both Trump’s attorney general and top elections security officials refuted Trump’s falsehoods about the election and said there was no significant fraud. Nevertheless, most Republican leaders have not made such a declaration.
Just two days after the deadly attack on the Capitol, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel promised that she would visit state capitols and lobby for new laws to “make sure that what we saw in this election never happens again.”
At a gathering of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, last month, a poll of attendees found that “election integrity” was their top concern. Much of the programming for the three-day event, in fact, was built around the issue. “There was widespread voter fraud in way too many states, most especially in big cities run by the Democrat machine,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosted the event.
And Trump himself repeated many of his familiar lies about the election during his CPAC speech. “This election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and the other courts did not want to do anything about it,” Trump said in his first public appearance since leaving the White House on Jan. 20.
The ACU did not respond to HuffPost’s requests asking for clarification or evidence for Schlapp’s claims. Asked about McDaniel’s remarks, RNC press secretary Mandi Merritt responded: “The reality is that we want all eligible voters to be able to vote and vote easily, but voters must also have confidence that our elections systems have safeguards to prevent fraud and ensure accuracy.”
Those claims, though, were contradicted by the RNC’s own lawyer arguing an Arizona voting rights case before the Supreme Court last week. When Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked the attorney, Michael Carvin, what the RNC’s interest was in restrictive rules, he responded: “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game.”
Schultz said that admission made it pretty clear what Republicans hoped to accomplish with these laws: “You’ve got the smoking gun here,” he said. “At some point, the Republicans shifted strategy from voter mobilization to voter suppression.”
‘The Second Great Disenfranchisement’
Trying to prevent people entitled to vote from doing so goes back more than a century, to the end of Reconstruction following the Civil War.
The disputed presidential election of 1876 brought the deal that put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in exchange for an end to Reconstruction and its efforts to enforce civil rights, including the right to vote, for recently freed Black people.
Almost immediately, white terror squads began threatening and intimidating Black residents who tried to exercise their rights — efforts that became formalized in the “Jim Crow” laws that effectively enforced second-class citizenship on Blacks and made voting nearly impossible for them.
Ironically, reformers pushing for civil rights laws in the decades to come had as some of their strongest allies Republicans in Congress. Indeed, as Democrat Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, the arms he had to twist most were those of Southern Democrats, not Republicans.
But within four years, that alignment began flipping on its head, as GOP nominee Richard Nixon actively wooed disaffected Democrats to win in 1968. All over the country, but particularly in the South, Democrats motivated by racial resentment began switching parties. White grievance became a core GOP issue, and eventually a consuming one with the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president, in 2008.
“It started when the segregationist Democrats became Republicans, but really ramped up with Obama’s election,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
When he signed the Civil Rights Act, Johnson is said to have quipped that he was also signing over the South to the Republicans for a generation. Republicans used their new hold on the states of the former Confederacy to dominate presidential elections for two decades.
But as changing demographics meant a dramatic increase in nonwhite Americans’ vote share, Republicans responded with laws that disproportionately made it harder for them to cast ballots.
Starting with a backlash to former President Bill Clinton’s 1993 Motor Voter Act, which required states to offer voter registration at driver’s license and public assistance offices, Republicans have now spent decades pushing laws requiring photo IDs at polling places and other provisions that have been most burdensome to groups they believe to be the most likely to support Democrats.
“Now every effort to expand voting is under siege by Republicans,” Ornstein said. “They decided not to compete for a majority of votes in the country, but instead to suppress the votes of non-supporters.”
Added Joe Walsh, a former GOP congressman from Illinois: “Republicans know that when fewer people vote, they have a better shot at winning. After 2020, they’re no longer afraid to say this truth publicly.”
‘Letting The Wrong People Vote’
That open acknowledgment to the Supreme Court in the Arizona case was not the first time Republicans have belied their own talking points about the necessity of “election integrity” laws.
In March 2020, Trump told Fox News that he opposed the House’s version of a COVID-19 relief bill because of the money it contained to help elections officials set up mail voting. “The things they had in there were crazy,” he said. “They had things, levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Days later, the Republican speaker of Georgia’s House was even more explicit. “The president said it best: This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia,” David Ralston told the news site FetchYourNews. “Every registered voter is going to get one of these. Now I ask you ... what was turnout in the primary back in 2018 or 2016. Was it 100%? No. No. It’s way, way, way lower. This will certainly drive up turnout.”
And just Wednesday, the Arizona state lawmaker who chairs a key elections committee explained that some people really should not be voting to start with.
“We don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote ― but everybody shouldn’t be voting,” John Kavanagh said. “Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues. ... Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”
“What we’re seeing is Jim Crow 2.0, plain and simple.”
Schultz said a statement like Carvin’s in a voting rights case in years past would have resulted in a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling against Republicans, but with the court’s GOP-appointed majority demonstrating a history of hostility to the Voting Rights Act, there were no guarantees about the pending case.
“Here’s clear proof of intentionality,” he said, adding that the GOP position is essentially: “We’re letting the wrong people vote.”
In response to the flood of state-level legislation aimed at restricting the ability to vote, Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing H.R. 1, a comprehensive elections bill that would preempt much of what Republicans are hoping to do in state capitals by, among many other things, imposing minimum standards for early and absentee voting.
Republicans, unsurprisingly, have been united in their opposition, accusing Democrats of trying to rig the system in their favor and calling the proposal a massive federal takeover of responsibilities that belong to the states.
Sen. Mike Lee, in an interview with Fox News, suggested the bill was actually satanic. “I think I disagree with every single word in H.R. 1, including the words ‘but,’ ‘and,’ and ‘the.’ Everything about this bill is rotten to the core,” the Utah Republican said. “This is a bill as if written in hell by the devil himself.”
Democrats said responses of that ilk are to be expected. “What we’re seeing is Jim Crow 2.0, plain and simple. Republicans know that the only way they can win is to cheat, and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison said. “We will continue to utilize every tool in our toolbox to fight Republican efforts to suppress or restrict voting in this country.”