Impeachment is behind us, but not The Big Lie about a “rigged election” that Donald Of Orange deployed to incite that homicidal mob of insurrectionists to attack the U.S. Capitol. As a result of The Big Lie—the latest variation on the always-false story about “voter fraud” that Republicans have been shouting at their voters for decades—voting-rights advocates are going to have to work even harder for the next several years so that all eligible voters who want to vote can do so easily and safely.
Voter suppression efforts well underway
- The good news from 2020 for voting-rights -- Improvements to voting processes and hardware and software systems enabled huge increases in raw numbers and percentages of voters who cast ballots in the 2020 elections. Some of these voting reforms were pandemic-driven, but others have developed over decades, chiefly since the infamous “hanging-chad” presidential election of 2000. The reforms include clearer ballot-design, machines that produce paper-ballot trails, better IT-security for voting systems to prevent hacking, and wider availability of no-excuse voting-by-mail options. Together, they created a voting environment that produced, according to election-security experts, the most secure election in U.S. history.
- The bad news from 2020 for voting rights -- These same 2020 numbers, coupled with longstanding myths about voter fraud and The Big Lie have induced many States (mostly Red but also a few Purple States, where the legislatures are controlled by Republicans) to tee up a range of bills to make voting harder, ostensibly to prevent “voter fraud” that almost never happens and did not happen in 2020.
As of February 8, according to the Brennan Center, the reliably informative clearinghouse for information and action on voting rights, state legislative sessions have started, and, in numerous States they’re already working, again, on restricting voting-rights: "In a backlash to historic voter turnout in the 2020 general election, and grounded in a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, legislators have introduced well over four times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to roughly this time last year. Thirty-three States have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 165 restrictive bills this year (as compared to 35 such bills in fifteen States on February 3, 2020)." (Emphasis added.)
Per the Brennan Center, voter suppression initiatives fall into four broad categories: “[t]hese proposals primarily seek to: (1) limit mail voting access; (2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; (3) slash voter registration opportunities; and (4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges.” Details on these initiatives are here.
All of these anti-voting legislative initiatives serve a central federal- and state-level Republican political goal: obstructing voting by Blue constituencies in state and federal elections so that Republicans can continue to run as much of local and federal government as they can, despite losing the popular vote in the last 7 of 8 presidential elections, and despite again losing the popular vote for House seats in 2020.
Enter partisan gerrymandering
But wait, there’s more! Add new and improved partisan gerrymandering to the mix in 2020!
In addition to legislative changes in election laws to prevent eligible citizens from voting, legislatures around the country (and a few independent commissions in States like Arizona, for example) will be re-districting States’ internal legislative boundaries on the basis of the 2020 Census. These redistricting processes will focus on the state legislatures’ seat-boundaries and U.S. House seat-boundaries. (Additionally, some States will gain or lose House seats based on population changes since the last Census.)
Unfortunately for small-d democracy, it’s a safe bet that redistricting this year will lead, in many Red and some Purple States, to more partisan gerrymandering—an activity that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided it’s not legally or quantitatively competent to prevent. (Spoiler: SCOTUS could prohibit partisan gerrymandering if it wanted to. The math is not hard.)
In Red States, partisan gerrymandering (“packing and cracking”) will aim to prevent Blue voters from winning as many state legislative and House races as their raw numbers of voters would indicate. For example, if a State’s voters are equally divided between Red and Blue voters, hypothetically and ideally, each party should win approximately half the House and state-legislative seats in their State. But, in States with partisan-gerrymanders by Republicans, Democrats don't win a proportionate share of seats. (In fairness, the same result occurs in States with Democrats running partisan gerrymanders.)
Gerrymandering is highly effective for controlling state and federal legislative seats, but it doesn’t work for statewide elections for President, Senators, and statewide political officers, like Governor, Attorney General, or Secretary of State (the office that in many States oversees all elections). For that kind of voter control, you need the “voter fraud” legislation.
“Voter fraud” legislative initiatives and partisan gerrymandering are complementary, amounting to a Unified Theory of Voter-Suppression. Partisan gerrymandering can perpetuate a minority party’s control of a State’s legislature and House seats. And, a partisan-gerrymandered legislature can pass voting-suppression laws that make it harder for the more numerous voters of one party to win statewide elections for President, Senator, governor, attorney general, and secretary of state.
So how does this play out in election cycles over time?
Until very recently, Blue voters in Red States tended to concentrate in urban areas and in segregated and impoverished rural areas populated by POC. So, Red-State gerrymandering and voter suppression focused on making it harder to vote impactfully in cities and poor rural areas dominated numerically by POC.
For example, urban and areas with super-majorities of poor people of color have less political power than more affluent areas. They’ve been gerrymandered into irrelevance, and they have less money to contribute to political campaigns. They have very limited resources to cope with reductions in voting locations, voting days, voting hours, staff, etc: they tend to work longer days for less pay, with less flexibility in their hours and fewer child-care options; they can’t afford to take a day off to vote, and often don’t have cars or mass transportation to get them to remote voting locations. And there are other voting laws in many States that can and do disenfranchise voters of color, like those laws that prevent ex-felons from voting even after they’re completed all terms of their parole or probation.
Most recently, however, in 2018 and 2020, the Blue Wave spread to suburban areas around cities, which are often more affluent than cities and rural areas and, importantly, are becoming more demographically diverse, making their voting populations more like cities. (See 2020 voting in Georgia for evidence of this.) These areas might swing back to the Red column, but that’s unlikely if the GOP insists on nominating national and statewide candidates from the Orange and/or QAnon Wings of what was once The Party Of Lincoln.
So, the new challenge for anti-voting Republicans is to figure out how to suppress Blue voting in affluent swing-suburban areas. And this will be a challenge. For the reasons noted above, it's relatively easy for Republicans who legislatively control Red and Purple States (e.g., GA, PA, WI) to suppress/dilute voting in poor urban/rural areas.
On the other hand, suburban areas (increasingly diverse and usually, but not invariably, more affluent) can push back via political contributions. They often have more work-flexibility and better child-care and better access to transportation resources (cars, etc.) and thus can more easily find ways and places to vote. (And, of course, the pandemic also has shifted a lot of the middle-working-class to remote work, probably permanently, which can make it even easier to find time and a place to vote.)
If the GOP continues to make itself more and more repugnant to suburban areas (which shifted toward Blue in the 2020 elections at the national/federal level), the GOP burdens its ability to compensate for shrinkage of its core demographic cohort (older and whiter).
Voting rights needs YOU
What can progressives and moderates do to fight the vote suppressing anti-democratic/racist/misogynist/QAnon-friendly GOP? Five things come to mind.
- Advance broadly popular policies, as the administration is doing with its Covid-19 rescue bill.
- Invest in voting infrastructure in poor urban and rural communities. (E.g., fund voting equipment and staff through federal grants to cooperative local governments).
- Support successful political organizing/voter registration movements and GOTV operations and replicate them in jurisdictions that don't already have them (knowing they will have to be locally grown and managed, and centered on local issues). Understand that this requires a long-term, perhaps decade-long commitment, as Stacey Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo explain here.
- Litigate to block voter suppression. See, e.g., the very successful 2020 litigation by state attorneys general and allies like Democracy Docket.
- Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, stat. (Summary here; full text here.)
The progressive commitment to voting rights will be one of our most important priorities over the next ten years. 2020 showed us why this commitment matters and the results we can achieve.