The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Karl Rove’s defense of the GOP’s voting restrictions push — and what he ignores

Former White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove at conference in Las Vegas in 2017. (Richard Brian/Reuters)
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For several weeks now, Democrats have sounded alarm bells about Republican state legislatures’ wide-ranging attempts to change voting laws. They’ve labeled the new restrictions a concerted and deliberate effort to game the system and suppress Democratic votes.

The GOP now seems to be landing on its retort: These changes aren’t really that extreme at all.

That argument is exemplified by a new Wall Street Journal op-ed from former top Bush administration strategist Karl Rove. Here’s the crux:

Democrats are particularly upset with requiring Georgians voting by mail to provide the number from their driver’s license, free state-provided ID or other generally accepted identification.
The Iowa law also drew fire for reducing the number of early voting days to 20 from 29. If this is evidence of suppression, what should we call the District of Columbia, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Wisconsin and 15 other states, all with shorter in-person voting periods than Iowa? And what about Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey, none of which have early in-person voting at all? Will [Stacey] Abrams and [Vice President] Harris condemn these blue state[s] as centers of voter suppression?
Republican attempts to take reasonable and prudent actions to prevent future election messes are now routinely condemned as racist and antidemocratic while prominent Democrats are silent on these same practices in blue states, aided and abetted on both their attacks and selective silence by media allies.
I wonder why.

You get the gist. The thing is, there’s a valid point contained in there.

After Iowa and Georgia initially passed legislation, I noted how many of the proposed and actual changes — especially in Iowa — weren’t particularly out of step with how much of the country conducts its elections, including blue states. Iowa will still have more early-voting days than most states. Its new, earlier 8 p.m. poll-closing time will be thoroughly within the mainstream. And its requirement that absentee ballots now be received by Election Day, rather than merely postmarked by then, is how most states handle this.

But Rove’s defense falls short in three key ways: First, it cherry-picks some of the most anodyne changes, ignoring much more far-reaching and unusual ideas — both attempted and proposed. Second, it makes no mention that Georgia Republicans tried to go much further than the changes he mentions, but an outcry forced them to reverse course. And third, it elides questions about the scope of and stated justifications for this effort across the country.

Let’s take the first and second points. Here’s how Rove describes Georgia’s bills:

  • “expands the state’s early-voting period by four days”
  • “require Georgians to vote in their home precinct or risk having their ballot disqualified”
  • “forbid outside groups to send duplicate applications for mail-in absentee ballots to voters who’ve already applied for one”
  • “requiring Georgians voting by mail to provide the number from their driver’s license, free state-provided ID or other generally accepted identification”
  • “continuing no-excuse mail-in absentee voting”

That last one is particularly telling. That is indeed where the effort in Georgia is … now.

But the current merged bill between the state House and Senate looks very different from the original legislation that passed. Much of the outcry came after the state Senate passed a bill that would indeed have ended no-excuse absentee voting — being able to vote absentee without having a specific reason — which even GOP estimates said would have taken that option away from about 5 million Georgians. The other big outcry came after the state House passed a bill that would have reduced Sunday early voting to one day, which critics argued (very logically) seemed targeted at Black churches’ organized “souls to the polls” effort.

Both provisions have been dropped from the bill, in large part because there was such vocal pushback. Even some of the state’s top Republicans opposed them, with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R) and four GOP state senators boycotting the vote on the bill that sought to end no-excuse absentee voting.

It seems odd to argue that Georgia’s effort isn’t really that extreme when it was too extreme even for some top Georgia Republicans and that even a GOP-controlled state was forced to water it down. Rove’s op-ed suggests requiring ID to vote absentee is the crux of the criticism, but that’s not what truly animated opponents.

The most extreme voting restrictions proposed by the GOP

Other efforts that remain in Georgia’s bill aren’t mentioned. One is that it seeks to take power away from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), who clashed with President Donald Trump over Trump’s bogus claims of widespread fraud. Several other Republican legislatures are trying to do the same thing, with Kansas reversing course after its secretary of state warned that the changes would be illegal.

That provision gets at the other big point: the scope of and expressed justification for this effort. It would be one thing for one state like Iowa to nibble around the edges of its voting laws and largely keep them within the mainstream. But this is something Republicans are teeing up across the country.

Their stated reason is the mistrust created by the 2020 election, but this mistrust is based upon disinformation that was pushed by Trump and his allies that was rarely pushed back upon by other Republicans. They’ve used this to launch one of the most extensive efforts to scale back voting rights in modern history. Many of the changes, as in Iowa, aren’t actually as targeted at areas of perceived problems with things like mail-in balloting as Republicans claim. What unites almost all of them, though, is that they rein in opportunities to vote, which a critic would suggest points in an obvious direction.

And even if those changes wind up being largely within the mainstream, the question is why they are making them. Georgia Republicans signed off on no-excuse mail-in voting just 16 years ago. Did they really attempt to reverse course because of the perception of fraud? And is that a good enough reason?

Even if Georgia had nixed no-excuse absentee voting, that wouldn’t have brought it out of line with more than a dozen other states. But was taking away that option warranted or proportionate? It was deemed as so unwarranted that even top Republicans sent a strong signal against it, causing their party to change course.

It’s possible to game the system within the established rules and norms. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t gaming the system, all the same, especially after an election in which your side lost more narrowly than most people realize and given how broad this effort is across the country. Generally, when rights are expanded — even beyond what other states do — you should enunciate a clear reason as to why you might later rein them in. The GOP effort hasn’t really offered a consistent, logical reason beyond people’s baseless suspicions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Beyond that, many of the proposals are considerably more extreme than the ones that have been enacted in Iowa and proposed in the watered-down bill in Georgia. These proposals might not be taken up at all — especially given the pushback in Kansas and Georgia seems to have had some impact — but that doesn’t mean complaints about this effort are unfounded or that it’s not being done for attempted partisan gain.

One can disagree with Democratic politicians like Harris and Abrams calling this some kind of Jim Crow redux, especially if the actual laws do wind up inside the mainstream of most states. But that is hardly a given. And it’s surely a concerted effort to push things in a very specific direction, largely based upon lies that large portions of the population came to believe. To ignore all that and focus where things have landed in two states thus far — and after an outcry in one of them — is really to miss the forest for the trees.