The Republicans’ incompetence doesn’t excuse their malevolence. But it does show how this wave of voter suppression might be overcome.
On Tuesday, Arizona’s Doug Ducey became the latest Republican governor to sign a restrictive voting law, one intended to solve an urgent problem: In a state that has long been safely in the GOP’s hands, Democrats have been gaining strength.
Joe Biden won the state in 2020 (the first Democratic presidential candidate to win there since 1996), Democrats now hold five of the state’s nine House seats and both its Senate seats, and Republicans control both houses of the state legislature by the thinnest of margins.
The Arizona bill targeted the foundation of the state’s voting system, known as the “permanent early voting” list. If you’re on it, as 75 percent of the state’s voters are, you automatically get sent a mail ballot in every election. The system has worked well, with no serious allegations of fraud, except from the kind of conspiracy-minded half-wits who hold ballots under UV lights and search them for traces of bamboo from China.
But under the new law, if a voter doesn’t vote in two consecutive elections, they get sent a mailer requiring them to respond to stay on the list; if they don’t, they get booted off. They’ll still be registered, but they won’t automatically get a mail ballot.
It’s hard to know how much of an impact that will have on the next election. Advocates say it will more seriously affect voters who are younger or poorer, and that’s certainly what Republicans hope. But it will also affect plenty of the GOP’s own voters.
We’ve seen this in state after state: Absentee voting systems that were designed a few years ago by Republicans themselves to make it easy for their own supporters to participate — such as older voters who prefer to vote by mail — are now being altered or dismantled, for two reasons. First, in 2020 Democrats took advantage of mail voting as well. Second, Donald Trump decided he didn’t like mail voting, so every Republican now has to pretend that it’s rife with fraud.
Even if you were very clever — which as a group Republican state legislators are most certainly not — it wouldn’t be easy to design changes to mail voting that would make it harder for Democrats to vote but not put the same impediments in front of Republicans, especially since mail voting has traditionally not benefited either party.
Other kinds of voter suppression measures Republicans have proposed are targeted more directly at Democrats. In some states they have tried to target worshipers at Black churches by cutting early voting on Sundays. But those targeted suppression attempts tend to get attention precisely because they’re so transparently sinister. And that drives the backlash that will continue to enable Democrats to raise money and organize to overcome them.
A good amount of attention has been paid, for instance, to provisions that bar anyone from offering anything of value — including a bottle of water — to people waiting in line to vote. Since we know that minority voters are more likely to face long lines, these measures are plainly intended to make voting more difficult for people who tend to vote Democratic.
But the cost-benefit of promoting those measures is utterly out of whack for Republicans. How many Democrats will actually be prevented from voting by making sure nobody gets handed some water on a hot election day? The number must surely be infinitesimal. But such efforts get a huge round of terrible publicity, reinforcing the understanding that they’re targeting minority voters. That in turn will make it easier for Democrats to convince supporters to register and vote.
The GOP war on drop boxes may have a similar effect. Until 2020, no sane person though there was anything wrong with election officials putting out boxes where you can safely deposit your mail ballot — after all, you can put that same ballot in any mailbox; the drop box is just more direct, since officials will collect it without it going through the post office. But Trump decided, for no apparent reason, that drop boxes are fraudulent.
So now GOP legislatures have to ban them altogether, restrict them to one per county, or limit the hours they can be used. How many Democratic votes will that actually stop from being counted? The number is almost certainly small. Yet it’s another piece of evidence Democrats can use to show voters how naked and repugnant the Republican voter suppression effort is.
Republicans are essentially making a bet: With this collection of voter suppression measures, not only will they suppress more Democratic votes than they’ll mobilize, but the number of their own voters they’ll keep from casting a vote will be acceptably small. They might be right.
But every political action has a reaction. If Democrats can effectively use GOP voter suppression as an organizing tool, they can win more elections — and then make it easier for everyone, no matter their party, to vote.