So you pass voter ID laws, because you know poor people and minorities are going to be less likely to have approved IDs. Then you limit early voting and start closing polling places. Then when Election Day comes, you deploy your “ballot security” troops.
Let’s say there’s a polling location in a city like Milwaukee, which Republicans know is going to vote heavily Democratic. They send a few of their ballot security personnel there to challenge the credentials and identity of one voter after another, and since the poll workers have to deal with those challenges, the whole process slows down and the lines grow longer and longer. They don’t have to successfully keep any particular person from voting on Election Day; they just need to throw sand in the gears. Eventually, people start to say “I’m not going to stand here for hours,” and they drift off and go home. Mission accomplished.
So how can Democrats combat those efforts? They have their own legal teams mounting challenges to voter suppression laws, and groups organizing voters, and with the pandemic going on they’re pushing for more vote-by-mail. On Election Day, they’ll also be sending their own teams out to polling locations, to help push back on Republican challenges and help people assert their right to vote.
But there’s something else Democrats can do, something that might be even more important. And the recent experience of the chaotic primary in Wisconsin shows how effective it can be.
You’ll remember that the Republican Party, which controls the Wisconsin legislature due to an absolutely spectacular gerrymander (in 2018, they got about 45 percent of the votes for the state Assembly but came away with 64 percent of the seats), refused to postpone the primary election, which also included an election for a key state Supreme Court seat. Gov. Tony Evers (D) fought them all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the legislature’s favor under the immutable legal principle that every election law case must be decided in favor of Republicans.
But then something unexpected happened. Despite all the Republican efforts to suppress the vote, Democrats sent in their absentee ballots in unexpectedly high numbers, and thousands went out to stand on line at polling places, literally risking their lives in order to cast a ballot. And the liberal Supreme Court candidate won. In fact, it wasn’t even close.
The lesson is that in that kind of a context — with a dramatic, high-profile fight over Republican voter suppression efforts — the Republican effort produced a backlash. As Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler said afterward, “Voter suppression might not be as clever as Republicans think it is. It can backfire by pissing voters off.”
The more attention is given to GOP voter suppression efforts, the more voter suppression itself becomes a campaign issue, one that can boost turnout among Democrats. However you might feel about Joe Biden, it becomes more important to exercise your right to vote if you think someone is trying to take it away.
Which suggests that as important as legal efforts and grass-roots organizing are for Democrats to push back on the GOP’s well-funded campaign of suppression and intimidation, the best weapons may be public attention and outrage.
Democrats may not be able to repeat the experience of Wisconsin, which was the only election taking place at the time and presented a unique set of circumstances with the conflict between the governor and legislature, culminating in the Supreme Court case. But they can draw as much attention as possible to what Republicans are trying to do. It’s something Democratic voters — and frankly, anyone who cares about democratic rights — should be angry about. Even angry enough to wait in line to cast a ballot.