The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP argument against election reform is even worse than you think

Voters wait in line on the first day of early voting in Charlotte on Oct. 15, 2020. (Logan Cyrus/For The Washington Post)
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On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a package of reforms meant to guarantee voting rights and fight political corruption. Naturally, Republicans are outraged.

The response of most Democrats is to dismiss Republican objections as bad faith and part of their sweeping war on democracy meant to undermine voting rights so they can win and hold power despite having the support of a minority of the public. Which is perfectly true.

But let’s take Republicans’ objection to H.R. 1′s provisions seriously. Because when you do, it makes their opposition look even less defensible.

That objection was summarized by former vice president Mike Pence in a recent column:

Every single proposed change in HR 1 serves one goal, and one goal only: to give leftists a permanent, unfair, and unconstitutional advantage in our political system.

We hear this from Republicans at all levels; as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, “It is not designed to protect Americans’ vote — it is designed to put a thumb on the scale in every election in America, so that Democrats can turn a temporary majority into permanent control.”

Here are some of H.R. 1′s key provisions:

  • Requires automatic voter registration
  • Requires reasonably generous early voting
  • Requires no-excuse absentee voting or vote by mail
  • Mandates independent commissions to draw congressional districts to end partisan gerrymandering
  • Limits voter purges
  • Restores voting rights to those with felony convictions
  • Establishes public financing for federal campaigns in which small donations would be matched
  • Restricts “dark money”
  • Requires presidents and presidential candidates to release their tax returns

We could argue about the particulars of each of these, but let’s consider them in light of the Republican objection: that they must not be allowed because they would help Democrats.

Ahead of the vote on H.R. 1, Democratic lawmakers rallied on the Capitol steps on March 3. The bill is expected to face opposition in the Senate. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Reynolds/The Washington Post)

What they’re saying is that early voting — which many people find convenient — would help Democrats. Eliminating gerrymandering would help Democrats. Limiting states’ ability to throw thousands of people off the voter rolls en masse would help Democrats. Restricting dark money would help Democrats. If we saw every presidential nominee’s tax returns, it would help Democrats.

Getting the picture? Republicans are explicitly arguing that if the electoral system were not restrictive, exclusionary and corrupt, then they would be put at an unfair disadvantage. What does that say about their party?

Let’s take a closer look at one provision: automatic voter registration, in which people are registered to vote whenever they do something such as getting a driver’s license, unless they choose to opt out. Today, 20 states and D.C. have AVR. Most of them are run by Democrats, but not all; the heavily Republican states of Alaska and West Virginia have it as well.

The evidence is mixed, but while AVR clearly results in more people getting registered and more people voting, if there’s any advantage for Democrats it’s a small one, produced mostly by the fact that AVR registers many young people who otherwise wouldn’t have bothered.

But to argue against it, Republicans have to say that registering and voting should be difficult. In a pinch they can come up with some laughable elitist justification (if it’s too easy, uninformed people will vote!), but most of the time they’ll just say forthrightly that making registering and voting easier will help Democrats. Which means that making it harder helps Republicans.

Or take gerrymandering, for which it is impossible to come up with even a remotely plausible justification. It’s just about power: Our party has the power to draw lines that favor us, so we will.

H.R. 1 doesn’t give Democrats a “thumb on the scale” in redistricting; it would mandate that independent, nonpartisan commissions do the job. But Republicans cry that independence and nonpartisanship are unfair to them. They need gerrymandering, or else they’ll be deprived of the advantage that allows them to win even when more voters prefer their opponents.

So, viewed another way, Republicans are right: The creation of an even playing field would indeed disadvantage them relative to the status quo, because they’ve successfully created an uneven playing field in so many states.

A lawyer for the Arizona GOP basically admitted this at the Supreme Court this week. He was asked why the party was arguing that it’s important to disqualify a legitimate voter’s ballot if they mistakenly cast it in the wrong precinct. He replied that counting that vote would put Republicans “at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” and added: “Politics is a zero-sum game.”

So the Republican argument comes down to this: Only an unfair system is fair to us. Any attempt to make the system fair must therefore be stopped.

When you hear Republicans say that any electoral reform that makes voting easier is a plot to help Democrats, remember that that’s what they mean. Nothing makes them more afraid than a well-functioning democracy. They aren’t even pretending otherwise.

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