The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans will do anything to suppress the vote. The courts will help them.

Voters wait in line in Atlanta on Nov. 3, 2020. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)
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To look at the obstacles Republicans are placing in the way of American voters, you’d think this was a party in panic. Which it is: Republicans are doing everything they can think of, in every place where they have the power, to slice and mold the electorate into a shape that will enable them to win elections without majority support.

It’s a comprehensive effort playing out in Congress, state legislatures and the Supreme Court. And like many things the GOP does, it’s a mixture of the ruthlessly shrewd and the stupidly misconceived.

It’s no accident that the effort is coming to a head in Georgia and Arizona, two longtime Republican strongholds that are now in the midst of a political transition. In both, Republicans control state government. But Joe Biden won both by narrow margins, and after that election each state has two Democratic senators.

To Republicans, this is proof that the system itself must be altered. Democrats simply cannot be allowed to achieve those kinds of gains.

So in Georgia, state Republicans are moving forward with a voter suppression effort so sweeping it almost defies the imagination. On Monday, the state House passed a bill with these extraordinary provisions, among others:

  • Limits Sunday voting to one Sunday in each county
  • Limits the use of ballot drop boxes
  • Requires absentee ballots to contain a driver’s license number, state ID number or copy of photo ID
  • Makes it illegal to give food or drinks to voters waiting in line to vote

You read that right: The bill would make it illegal to go to a polling place where voters are waiting in an hours-long line and give them water.

We don’t even need to pretend that there is some nonpartisan purpose behind any of these measures; they’re simply what Republicans think, at this moment, might prevent the kind of losses they’ve suffered recently.

That doesn’t mean they’re right; in many cases, they’ll make things difficult for all voters, not just Democratic ones. For instance, in another bill, Georgia Republicans are moving to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting — which they themselves passed in 2005 because they thought it would make it easier for their own voters to cast ballots.

But it probably won’t achieve the goal they hope for. As I’ve explained, the results of the 2020 election show that despite Donald Trump’s relentless propagandizing against the expansion of mail voting, it didn’t actually help Biden win.

Consider the bizarre issue of drop boxes. There’s nothing about them that inherently advantages one party or the other; they just offer a way to submit your ballot if you’re uncertain about the reliability of the mail. But once Trump got it into his head that drop boxes are a Democratic scheme to steal elections, the entire Republican Party made limiting drop boxes a top priority.

But I’ve been able to find no actual evidence that drop boxes advantage one party. As election expert Richard L. Hasen told me, “There’s ample reason to believe that expanding voting opportunities doesn’t necessarily help Democrats. It helps voters.” And restricting voting opportunities won’t necessarily help Republicans.

But that doesn’t apply to every measure Republicans are pushing. For instance, restricting or eliminating early voting on Sundays has an obvious target: the “Souls to the Polls” mobilization drives many Black churches mount after services. Purging voter rolls, closing polling places in Democratic areas, restrictive voter ID requirements and limiting voting hours will also likely keep a significant number of minority voters from casting votes.

Which brings us to the two voting rights cases the Supreme Court heard on Tuesday. It may now finish the job it started in 2013 when it struck down the Voting Rights Act provision requiring states with a history of racial discrimination to get federal preclearance to changes in voting laws.

The legal issues are complicated (here’s a good explanation), but what it comes down to is whether laws that have racially disparate effects on people’s ability to vote are permissible under the Voting Rights Act, regardless of whether their intent was provably racist. Republicans would like to raise the bar high enough that it would be almost impossible to say a state law had effects that fell too hard on minorities.

In this case it’s about two Arizona laws, one that throws out an entire ballot (even votes for president or statewide offices) if it was cast at the wrong precinct, and another that bars anyone from turning in ballots on behalf of another person unless it’s a family member. The GOP position is that if these laws fall more heavily on minorities, then tough luck.

Their hope is that the court will narrow the meaning of the relevant section of the VRA so far that you can barely see it, giving a green light to Republican legislatures across the country to employ every means they can think of to make it harder for people to vote.

This is how the Republican Party and conservative judges work together: The legislators come up with more and more voter suppression measures, then the Supreme Court ratifies them and clears a legal path for even more voter suppression.

This party has all but given up on persuading anyone that it’s right about taxes or health care or abortion or climate or anything else. Its highest priority is shutting down access to the ballot in hopes that it will help them win elections. It’s going to try everything possible to do this — whether it works or not.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: The White House and Congress must beat back attacks on voting rights

Ruth Marcus: With voting rights already under attack, the Supreme Court could deal another big blow

Eugene Robinson: The Republican Party is making Jim Crow segregationists proud

Stacey Abrams: Our democracy faced a near-death experience. Here’s how to revive it.