As the election comes into view, Republicans are preparing to do what they do best: attempt to suppress votes. Recent reports indicate that conservative activists are preparing a wave of nationwide efforts to try to make voting more difficult for people, especially in Democratic strongholds. According to The New York Times, a program led by Republican operatives is preparing to send 50,000 volunteers to polling stations in 15 battleground states, where they will serve effectively as poll watchers who can “challenge ballots they deem suspicious.” The program is just one part of a $20 million GOP effort that will seek to fight lawsuits filed by voting rights activists trying to loosen voting restrictions. Central to this program is a 2018 federal court ruling, which will allow the GOP to agitate against supposed voter fraud without a court order for the first time in decades. In 1982, Republicans were banned from doing so because a court found that the party was using the phantom threat of voter fraud as an excuse to prevent minorities from voting. Courts held Republicans responsible for violating this order again in 2004.
Now, though, right-wing operatives are unleashed. In a statement to the Times, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee said that the 2018 ruling “allows the RNC to play by the same rules as Democrats,” referring to the fact that Democrats were not bound by the same court ruling, since they hadn’t been found to be suppressing minority voters. “Now the RNC can work more closely with state parties and campaigns to do what we do best — ensure that more people vote through our unmatched field program,” she added.
Outside of official party efforts, the Times mentions a constellation of outside conservative groups attempting to influence voting through lawsuits and poll monitor programs. Chief among these is something called the Honest Elections Project, which was created by the influential right-wing judicial activist Leonard Leo.
It’s important to underline here that voter fraud is exceedingly rare — in a study of the phenomenon, the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice found that “it is more likely that an American will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” In 2017, The New York Times wrote that “dubious charges of fraud have become a staple of Republican crusades for laws tightening the rules for registering and casting votes.”
“They don’t have to successfully keep any particular person from voting on Election Day; they just need to throw sand in the gears.”
Republicans have used the specter of fraud, however, to try and make voting more difficult, whether through restrictive voter ID laws — which disproportionately affect minorities — or through challenging ballots directly on Election Day. Keep in mind, too, that the reason these voter ID laws are allowed to crop up again at all is because the conservative-leaning Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
Challenging ballots at the polls isn’t about disqualifying voters who have already showed up to vote. Rather, by asking people to show their ID and harassing them as they try to vote, these poll watchers can drastically slow down the process, creating huge lines at polling places. “They don’t have to successfully keep any particular person from voting on Election Day; they just need to throw sand in the gears,” wrote columnist Paul Waldman at The Washington Post. The effect is enhanced by the Republican strategy of limiting polling places in dense urban neighborhoods, which are often home to larger numbers of Democrat-leaning minority voters. The result is that lower-income voters, who are disproportionately minorities, who may not have the flexibility to stand in line indefinitely to cast their ballots, are more likely to be disenfranchised indirectly by the poll-watching efforts.
The Times noted that in February, key Republican activists attended a meeting held by a conservative activist group that focused on “ballot security,” focusing on inner cities and Native American populations. One of the groups at the meeting, a Texas organization called True the Vote, plans to use veterans as poll monitors. It’s hard to imagine that a volunteer force of paramilitary operatives harassing voters for their papers in urban neighborhoods is going to help anyone safely vote — but that, of course, is not really what Republicans are trying to do.
At the same time as Republicans are playing offense by challenging voters, they are playing aggressive defense when it comes to fighting attempts to expand suffrage. In Florida, in 2018, former felons led a successful attempt to roll back the state’s draconian limits on felons regaining the right to vote. A ballot measure enacted a new law called Amendment 4, which automatically expanded the franchise to felons who had completed their sentences. More than a million Floridians who had lost the right to vote due to felony convictions were suddenly given the opportunity to register.
But led by newly elected governor Ron DeSantis, state Republicans promptly set about challenging this movement by enacting a law that required all felons to pay back outstanding court fines before they could regain the right to vote. Very few ex-felons can actually afford to immediately pay back the thousands of dollars they rack up in fees. The payback law is currently being challenged in court by ex-felons who allege that it serves as a form of poll tax, forcing them to pay for the right to vote.
While this legal challenge is ongoing, though, any success it has may be too little too late. Republicans have effectively muddied the waters when it comes to felon re-enfranchisement in the state, leaving many unsure if they are legally allowed to vote or not because of the complex and ongoing battles over the law.
In court last month, a Florida resident and ex-felon named Curtis Bryant told a judge that even though he registered to vote last year, he’s now afraid to vote because he owes thousands of dollars in unpaid court fees due to a felony conviction. “I can’t afford any more charges and neither do I want any more charges,” he told a judge.
At the least, Floridian ex-felons were mostly barred from voting in Florida’s presidential primary because the case is still winding its way through the courts — at least one election that was affected by Republican efforts to strip back voting rights.
Another area where Republicans are fighting back against attempts to make voting easier is voting by mail. In Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, voting by mail is already the norm for all elections and has been for years. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, many voting rights activists are seeking to expand the practice to give people a safer option for voting in November. Republicans, however, are claiming without evidence that the practice opens the door to voter fraud. This strategy comes from the top.
“Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of primaries and the general election,” President Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue secretary of state. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this voter fraud path!” In another post, he made similar threats to Nevada.
Threatening funding for a key swing state six months before an election doesn’t seem like an especially smart strategy. Furthermore, the tweet’s premise is false: Michigan did not actually send absentee ballots, it sent applications for absentee ballots to voters, which is common practice. Still, Trump’s tweet plays directly into his — and his party’s — broader strategy of demonizing vote-by-mail as ripe for voter fraud. “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting,” Trump tweeted last month, arguing that mail-in voting “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
In fact, this is not borne out by evidence. Vote by mail generally increases turnout for both Democrats and Republicans, without giving either a built-in advantage. On Wednesday, New York Times pollster Nate Cohn tweeted, “It's totally conceivable to me that higher turnout would help [Trump] in these Midwestern states, where the kind of lower turnout and less educated voters who sat out the midterms probably tilt GOP.”
Republicans, though, seem to care about one thing, and one thing only: limiting the franchise, even if it ends up coming at their own expense. (For the record, Trump himself votes absentee.)
Yet another ongoing GOP tactic to influence the vote is gerrymandering, the practice by which state lawmakers in power draw legislative districts in a way that dilutes the votes of their opponents. The result is usually a series of oddly shaped districts that bend around and cut through urban areas. This tactic is often used to limit minority voting power.
Last year, Slate published a bombshell of leaked audio from an annual right-wing gathering called the American Legislative Exchange Council. In the audio, politicians and operatives spoke at a panel called “How to Survive Redistricting,” which featured four conservative experts: the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, North Carolina election lawyer Thomas Farr, former Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, and Texas state Rep. Phil King (R). Slate described these individuals as “architects and defenders of some of the most notorious gerrymanders and voter suppression plans of this decade.”
On the panel, the experts discussed how best to practice gerrymandering, which they called “adult political bloodsport,” in districts around the country. “You are going to be sued,” said Mitchell, advising her audience. “If you don’t want it turned over in discovery, you probably ought to get rid of it before you go home.”
Among other tactics, von Spakovsky encouraged state legislators to follow the advice of late Republican gerrymandering expert Thomas Hofeller and count districts based on citizens instead of total population. “Liberals do not want you doing this,” von Spakofsky said, arguing that “the higher the number of noncitizens in a district, the greater the chances they’re going to vote for a liberal.” He noted that “states with large numbers of aliens, particularly illegal aliens, are getting more political power.”
In a major 2019 decision, the Supreme Court decided that it would not rule against partisan gerrymanders, giving the GOP a clear runway to continue the practice in the 2021 redistricting process. It's another example of how, beneath the surface, voting has become yet another asymmetric partisan battlefield in America.