America, as we all know, is a deeply divided nation, split along lines of class and race and culture and politics. And in this most polarized time, the two parties are pulling the places where they dominate further apart, creating a red and blue America that can be profoundly different depending on what side of a state line you stand on.
In few areas is this more evident than in the way the parties treat the ballot.
Consider the following. Yesterday, the Illinois House passed a bill creating automatic voter registration (AVR) in the state, so that when you get a driver’s license or interact with state agencies in other ways, you’re automatically registered to vote. The Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, vetoed a previous version of the bill, but he may end up having no choice in this blue state but to support it, in which case Illinois would join eight other states (plus the District of Columbia) that have created AVR in recent years.
But today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case concerning Ohio’s voter purge, in which the Republican secretary of state expelled thousands of voters from the rolls because they hadn’t voted in recent elections; an appeals court had ruled the purge illegal. And meanwhile, in North Carolina, Republicans continue to move aggressively to put obstacles in front of voting despite recent losses at the Supreme Court over both their voter-ID law and their congressional districts, which the court said were drawn with an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Here’s the latest:
Rumors are circulating here about a new Republican voter identification bill, after federal judges struck down a previous version saying it targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Voting rights advocates are convening emergency meetings to plan legal defenses against it. Democrats are trying in sly, casual conversations with Republican colleagues to extract details on its timing and contours, but Republicans leaders have maintained a disciplined silence…
Beyond the voter identification law, almost every aspect of the state’s electoral system is now being drawn into this acrimonious political war, from the composition of local election boards and who has the power to appoint them, to rules determining the exact days, hours and operations of voting precincts.
Despite a string of losses in the courts, Republicans are going to keep trying to make voting as difficult as possible, particularly for African Americans, for one reason: It works. There are active debates about exactly how many people were kept from the polls in 2016 — for instance, some contend that Wisconsin’s voter-ID law disenfranchised enough African Americans to swing the state to Donald Trump — but every young person, urban dweller or racial minority they can keep from the polls increases the odds that Republicans will win.
And they’re optimistic, with good reason, that Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court will be on their side on this issue. The other four conservatives on the court have seldom seen a voting restriction they objected to, and there’s little reason to think they will in the future. Texas’s enormously restrictive law (which is still being litigated) could be the vehicle for the court to open up whole new avenues of vote suppression. If and when they do, Republican states will almost certainly rush in to pass the most restrictive laws they can.
Meanwhile, Democratic states are moving in the opposite direction, proposing measures such as automatic registration and same-day registration, in which you can register when you show up to the polls on election day (it’s in place in 13 mostly liberal states, plus D.C., while it’s been passed but not yet implemented in three more). But if they really wanted to make things easy, they’d be pushing for universal vote by mail (UVBM), which is used only in Washington state, Oregon and Colorado.
It’s something of a mystery why UVBM hasn’t been more of a priority for Democrats, because it couldn’t be easier. You get your ballot in the mail, you fill it out, you drop it in a mailbox. There’s no taking time off work, wondering where your polling place is or waiting in line. It’s particularly helpful for people who don’t have flexible schedules. While fraud is theoretically possible, in practice it’s a minuscule problem. Just ask someone from one of those three states what they think about it, and they’ll tell you how much they love it. That’s not to mention the fact that it makes elections cheaper and easier to hold, and provides a paper trail for any disputes.
Even as Republican and Democratic states move further apart, it seems clear that Republican legislators feel a good deal more urgency about this issue that Democratic ones do. You can bet that Republicans will do everything they can to make sure that changes they make this year are implemented in time for the 2018 election, in order to put a thumb on the scale in what could be a disastrous election for the GOP.
It may not be enough to help them avoid what’s coming, though. Most of the voter suppression laws are about making things just hard enough that some voters won’t bother — they can’t ban you from voting if you’re a Democrat, but they can make it more of a hassle, safe in the knowledge that the restrictions will fall more heavily on people like you. It’s a way of improving their odds. But it’s possible that in 2018, Democrats will be so motivated to get to the polls to punish Republicans that they’ll climb over any obstacle they face. North Carolina will be critical, however, because of the combination of its gerrymandered districts (in this closely divided swing state, Republicans hold 10 of the 13 House seats) and its possible voter-ID restrictions. Once those districts are redrawn, and if Republicans don’t succeed in passing a vote suppression law that survives a court challenge, the Democrats could gain a few seats just in that one state.
There’s one final piece to this puzzle, which is that it’s important to avoid the temptation to look at this conflict through a both-sides prism. You can argue that Democrats are making the same partisan calculation Republicans are, favoring the voting system that shapes the electorate in their favor. That may be true, but the fact is that Republicans are trying to make it hard for certain people to vote, while Democrats are trying to make it easy for everyone to vote. So both parties aren’t on equally firm moral ground.
Which may not matter to Republicans as long as they can hold on to the power they have. But it ought to.