The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Expanding voting is not simply the political inverse of limiting voting

People in Gwinnett County, Ga., stand in line to cast their votes in two Senate runoffs on Jan. 5. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

In many ways, the debate over access to casting a ballot in the United States is more complicated than it needs to be. It can be distilled at its most basic to one question: How much do you care about getting as many people as possible who are eligible to vote to actually do so?

Some people are straightforward, arguing that not everyone who can vote should. Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh (R) took that position when speaking to CNN earlier this month, saying that “everybody shouldn’t be voting.” It is fine not to encourage turnout from those who are “totally uninformed on the issues,” he said, though polling shows that it’s often Republicans who are uninformed or misinformed about key political issues.

Others express the same sentiment in other ways, from saying that only those who own property should vote to delineating more nuanced boundaries for participation. There are those who believe that every adult citizen should have the franchise and there are those who think that there are necessary boundaries, such as prohibitions for those with criminal convictions.

These days, it’s rarely the case that discussions of voting access involve explicitly stated opposition to large demographic groups voting. They used to, of course. A century ago — well, 60 years ago — Black Americans were barred from voting through often-indirect mechanisms. The effort to tamp down on Black voting was rationalized and manifested in a variety of ways, but it is impossible to extricate race from those efforts. Whites were worried about Black Americans exercising their right as surely as they were worried about where Black people sat in theaters, and so the White establishment came up with ways to prevent them from voting because they were Black.

Such considerations now are not manifested so concretely when they exist. Part of that is a function of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that forced race into the background of efforts to control who casts votes. Those seeking to limit Black power in the South began responding to more subtle cues offered by the Republican Party. The deepest divide in America these days is the partisan one, according to Pew Research Center polling — but that partisan divide is itself to some degree a representation of the country’s racial divide. If you were to want to limit the number of people who vote for Democrats, it’s often easier to target groups that vote heavily Democratic, such as Black Americans.

Now the original question — how much you care about getting as many people as possible who are eligible to vote to actually do so — takes on a new timbre. If you ostensibly want as many people (including Black people and Democrats) to vote as possible but you are concerned about the practical effect of having that happen, you need to figure out how to rationalize limiting their ability to vote while still publicly endorsing the idea that everyone who wants to vote can.

All of which brings me, slowly but surely, to one of the most ridiculous sentence pairings I've read in years.

“Both parties are trying to game the election rules to their advantage,” the subheadline for an article at the National Journal reads. “But the Democratic effort in the House is being hailed as a reform, while GOP efforts are slammed as voter suppression.”

Consider that framing in the context of our original question: How many of those who are eligible should be encouraged to vote?

The Democratic effort at issue, a bill identified as H.R. 1, is predicated on the idea that the answer should be “as many as possible.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) describes the bill as being “about ensuring that Democrats remain in power and control for the next 100 years,” which is revealing. His concern, like the concerns of so many Republicans, is that expanding systems for people to vote will lead to more Democratic electoral victories. Cruz, again like many Republicans, frames his objections in the context of purported voter fraud, a claim bullhorned into the political conversation by President Donald Trump last year as he fretted (correctly, it turns out) about his reelection chances. But there has never been any evidence of widespread voter fraud and there remains no credible evidence of rampant fraud in last year’s election.

Fraud is the primary assertion being used to rationalize the limits Republicans seek.

Purported fraud is also the focal point of much of the second part of that National Journal descriptor. The “GOP efforts” being “slammed” as suppression are the more than 250 pieces of legislation that have been introduced in recent months, most of which are aimed at scaling back voting time periods, systems and eligibility. They’re being “slammed” as suppressive because many are suppressive, definitionally. The laws will scale back early-voting hours, or introduce new mandates for submitting a ballot by mail, or change oversight of elections, or remove voting systems. Advocates have often positioned these changes as necessary for a variety of reasons that aren’t always centered on this idea that fraud is a rampant problem, which it isn’t. But the effect is the same: limiting the ways in which people can vote will unquestionably limit how many people vote.

That’s not a popular position to hold. That’s why the fraud claims are particularly useful, as they were for Cruz: He can object to an effort that will mean more people voting (which may mean more Democrats voting) by claiming that he’s mostly just worried about more people voting illegally, something that doesn’t happen to any significant degree even in places with liberal voting laws. It’s like objecting to your husband buying the house where he lived with his first girlfriend by insisting that you’re just worried that it’s haunted.

Others take a different tack in trying to juxtapose the Republican efforts to constrain voting with the Democratic efforts to expand it. For the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove argued that Democrats should object to existing laws in blue states as ferociously as they do to proposed laws in red ones that would have the same effect, an argument that would likely generate a uniform response from many on the left: “Okay!”

And then there's the argument in that National Journal piece by Josh Kraushaar, that the parties are similarly trying to “game the election rules to their advantage.”

It is true that increases in turnout among low-propensity voters would aid Democrats in many places. It is also true that Democrats are aware of this. But there is nonetheless a distinction between “trying to get more people to vote” and “trying to get fewer people to vote” that intertwines with our original question. Maybe Democrats are only trying to encourage more voting because they think it will lead to their winning more elections. But isn’t having as many eligible people vote as possible a central tenet of democracy?

Kraushaar does a lot of work to equate the Democratic bill with the suppressive Republican proposals. He amplifies arguments that were common among Republicans in October and November, such as the need to have elections resolved as close to Election Day as possible. He hand-waves other arguments, as when he asserts that “a month of early voting is excessive.” (One argument he offers to justify this position is that important news can break shortly before the election, as though it can’t similarly break shortly after and as though voters are incapable of judging the risks here themselves.)

Then there’s this, referring to the decision of Republican legislators before the 2020 election not to make the counting of absentee votes easier:

“Republicans in several swing states (namely, Pennsylvania) didn’t want an efficient count, the better to sow confusion on Trump’s behalf. Thus they blocked early counting of early votes. And Democrats generally opposed absentee ballots coming in on time because procrastinating voters have historically favored their side. It’s a bipartisan recipe for chaos.”

Whether these things are equivalent, much less a “bipartisan recipe for chaos,” you may judge for yourself. But he also frames Democratic support for counting ballots postmarked before Election Day that arrived after the election as being predicated on partisan scheming. If an older Republican put her ballot in the mail a week before the election but it arrived only the day after, that vote should simply be discarded even as votes cast on Election Day itself — six days after that Republican cast her vote — are counted? Thinking that’s bizarre marks me as a Democratic apologist?

It’s critical that the ballot arrive by Election Day, Kraushaar claims, because it’s otherwise “difficult for even the most knowledgeable political observers to break down the election tallies on Election Night.”

Oh.

We again return to our original question. How much do you care about getting as many people as possible who are eligible to vote to actually do so? If your answer is that you care about your party’s voters being able to vote and no one else, we might praise your honesty, if not your commitment to democracy. If your answer is that rampant fraud necessitates tight controls on voting, we regret to inform you that you’ve been snookered by dishonest presentations of the risk such activity actually poses.

If your answer is that people who are eligible to vote should be given more opportunities to do so, opportunities that accommodate those who vote rarely or who work late hours or who move regularly, we have bad news for you: You are necessarily a rabid Democratic partisan.

Sorry. Those are the rules.

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