This tension was explicit in the Jim Crow South, when whites who held positions of power developed often elaborate systems and rules meant to keep black people from voting. In recent years, it’s been more subtle.
When voters in Florida in 2018 approved an initiative granting the vote to those convicted of certain crimes, the state’s legislature tried to mandate that those seeking to exercise their newly acquired right would have to pay off any outstanding fines before doing so. The limit functioned as the sort of poll tax that was once common in the region. A court rejected that stipulation earlier this week, but the power dynamics were similar: A Republican legislature, worried about more Democratic votes, tried to shift the boundaries.
In other places, Republicans have seized on the idea that fraudulent voting is common (which it isn’t) in order to enact restrictions on voting that disproportionately mean fewer Democrats cast ballots. At times, those advocating for the changes slip and admit that they recognize their policies will aid their own party but, generally, those are aberrations, given the implication. No politician wants to be seen as advocating a self-serving limit on the ability to vote, even if that’s actually the rationale.
Almost no politician, anyway.
President Trump, continuing his recent jeremiad against mail-in voting on Thursday, was unabashed in explaining the motivation for his opposition to the practice.
Allowing states to encourage voters to cast ballots by mail would “lead to the end of” the Republican Party, Trump claimed — as a reason to oppose the practice.
Consider the implication at face value. If allowing more people to vote meant that Republicans would consistently lose, well, that’s sort of how democracy works. The point of democracy isn’t that there must necessarily be two parties from which people can choose, it’s that people can choose. If people chose against Republicans — or against Democrats — that’s their choice. You can’t justifiably limit that choice solely to protect the party itself.
There’s no evidence that mail-in balloting favors Democrats over Republicans. Research published last month found that encouraging widespread voting by mail yielded “a truly negligible effect” on turnout and vote share by party. It was not the first such study to reach a similar conclusion. In fact, as The Post reported Thursday, absentee voting in Michigan and Wisconsin might have contributed to putting Trump over the top in those states in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump or his defenders will probably argue that we’re misinterpreting the president’s comment and that his assertion follows from his comment about voter fraud. In other words, that mail-in voting will lead to rampant fraud, which will mean that Republicans lose. The problem with that assertion, of course, is that there’s no evidence to back it up.
Over and over, we’ve heard allegations that absentee votes or mail ballots are rife with fraud. This allegation is reinforced in two ways: by noting isolated past examples of fraud being committed at a small scale by individuals and by emphasizing characteristics of mail balloting that seem like they might allow for fraud to occur. During a press briefing Thursday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany deployed both.
The short response (for those uninterested in clicking the preceding link for a longer one) is that there is only one demonstrated example of a concerted, systematic effort to abuse absentee ballots to a significant scale in any recent election. It was in North Carolina in 2018 — and led to the state throwing out a congressional race won by a Republican. Critics of mail-in ballots usually hope that listing a number of small examples of fraud (intentional and inadvertent) will make up for the lack of evidence that this occurs at any significant scale.
As for claims that mail ballots will encourage fraud — stealing ballots or voting for dead people — there’s no evidence that this occurs. What’s more, it conflates access to ballots with the ability to vote, as though the electoral process is no more safeguarded than that corn-kernel voting system at the Iowa State Fair. In reality, cast ballots are confirmed against existing information to ensure that fraudulent voting doesn’t occur. It’s not as simple as grab-a-ballot-from-a-mailbox-and-vote, as Trump claimed this week. In many states, you’d also need to know how the voter associated with the ballot signs his or her name and then forge it convincingly. And in order to swing an election, you’d probably need to do this hundreds of times.
It bears repeating that this is the argument against expanded voting that Republicans have deployed for years. Despite the ongoing lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud, Republicans continue to insist that expanding the ability to vote will lead to rampant fraud — even as expanded access to voting hasn’t led to rampant fraud.
Regardless, this idea that Trump is simply saying that fraud will cost Republicans votes isn’t actually what he’s saying. We know that because he has repeatedly in the past said that expanded voting will damage Republican electoral outcomes.
He said it in 2016 when he claimed in an interview that, if he lost that year’s election, Democrats would ensure that immigrants were given citizenship and the right to vote, meaning that 2016 was “the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning."
He said it in March, during an interview on Fox News. Trump was complaining about components of a coronavirus response bill introduced by Democrats that would have ensured broader access to absentee voting, given the pandemic.
The legislation “had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said. It wasn’t that Trump was afraid of fraud. It was that Trump was afraid of how much voting would occur, and what that would mean for voters.
While the current situation is obviously unprecedented, research suggests that Trump’s concern is unfounded and that Republicans won’t necessarily suffer electorally if mail-in voting is expanded. But that’s not really the point. The point is that the president explicitly and overtly worries that allowing more votes to be cast will damage his party and his own political prospects — and that this is why he opposes allowing more votes to be cast.
This is not how democracy works.