We are two years removed from an election in which the Republican nominee became president despite getting 3 million fewer votes than the Democrat, six months removed from a midterm election in which Democrats won sweeping victories at all levels, and 18 months away from the next presidential election. The Republican Party is in a panic — as well it should be, not just because its leader is extremely unpopular, but because its electoral coalition is shrinking as a proportion of the population.
In response, Republicans are waging a scorched-earth campaign against democracy itself.
The latest news on this front comes out of Michigan, where a panel of federal judges just ordered the legislature to redraw its district maps after finding that the state’s extreme gerrymander, undertaken by Republicans, violated the rights of Democratic voters.
“Evidence from numerous sources demonstrates that the map-drawers and legislators designed the Enacted Plan with the specific intent to discriminate against Democratic voters,” the judges wrote.
Let’s take a little tour around the country, to see some of the other blows that Republicans are trying to strike against democracy:
- In Missouri, Republican state legislators are attempting to undo a constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly by the state’s voters last November which took the power to redistrict out of the hands of the legislature and gave it to a nonpartisan state demographer.
- In Florida, after voters overwhelmingly chose to restore voting rights to felons after they serve their sentences, the Republican-controlled state house passed a bill requiring felons to pay all court fines, fees, and restitution before they are allowed to exercise their right to vote. In other words, a poll tax.
- In Tennessee, Republicans are moving to impose a raft of restrictions on voter registration drives, including the possibility of jail time for organizers who file faulty registration forms, even though those who register voters are legally required to submit all the forms they receive even if they contain mistakes.
- In Texas, the state Senate passed a bill imposing harsh criminal penalties for people who make mistakes on their voter registration forms.
- In Arizona, Republicans are pushing a bill that would throw voters off the mail-in ballot list if they failed to vote early in either a primary or general election in two consecutive elections; if it becomes law, hundreds of thousands of Arizonans will likely lose their ability to vote by mail.
- In Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court is poised to allow the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the census, with the obvious intent of discouraging people in immigrant communities from answering, thereby making those communities look smaller than they are and depriving them of political power.
This kind of thing has been going on for a while. When Republicans win an election, one of the first things they usually do is change the rules to increase the chances that even if they lose the next election, they will still retain power.
That’s above and beyond all the structural elements of our system that enable minority rule, such as the disproportionate power given to small states in the Senate and the electoral college that has allowed Republicans to become president with fewer votes than their opponents in two of the past five elections.
But all of this is taking on a greater urgency right now. As they look toward 2020, Republicans see an election with the potential to profoundly degrade their power, both in Washington and at the state level. President Trump is extremely unpopular, with approval ratings that have long hovered around 40 percent. Even more threatening, the 2016 election increasingly looks like the last gasp of the monochromatic Republican coalition, its final opportunity to win a national election with almost no nonwhite votes.
The 2018 elections offer Republicans a frightening preview of the future. Newly released census data shows that turnout spiked among young people, rising from 20 percent in the last midterm election in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018 among those under 30. It also rose proportionately more among those with higher educations and those living in metropolitan areas, both of which favor Democrats.
Obviously, the circumstances of every election are different. But all the demographic trends favor Democrats, as the country grows more ethnically diverse, more urban, more educated and less religious with each passing year. That means that every election, Republicans have to do something more than they did the last time in order to win.
They could do that by expanding their appeal, reaching out to voters in new ways so that they don’t depend so much on a shrinking white, older, Christian electorate. Perhaps someday they will, though it will have to wait until after Trump is gone, since he works so hard to restrict his focus to the party’s existing base.
In the meantime, Republicans have decided that if democracy is working against them, they’ll work against democracy.