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The GOP’s increasingly blunt argument: It needs voting restrictions to win

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) during an event about judicial confirmations in 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The last time Republicans made a big, nationwide push on voter restrictions, it was voter ID. Except while the idea was ostensibly about secure elections, a few unhelpful GOP souls occasionally pointed to something less savory: that it was about helping Republicans win elections.

It’s happening again — a lot.

A growing number of GOP officials have in recent weeks and months justified the voter restrictions their party is pursuing by pointing to the supposed electoral benefit. If there’s a difference between last time around and today, it’s that these ones cut considerably higher profiles.

A decade ago, Pennsylvania’s Republican state Senate leader and state party chairman both pointed to the state’s new voter ID law as helping their party win the presidential election in their state. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) did the same thing in Wisconsin in both 2016 and in 2012. And after that 2012 election, former Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer claimed his party was indeed trying to limit early voting to suppress Democratic votes.

“It’s done for one reason and one reason only,” Greer told the Palm Beach Post, before saying that Republicans essentially believed, “we’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.”

Greer’s comments come with an asterisk, given that he was under indictment and later pleaded guilty to five felonies. But the thrust of his comments live on today.

In 2019, while debating a Democratic proposal to make Election Day a holiday and prevent purges of voter rolls, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the idea a “power grab” by Democrats.

By early 2020, with congressional Democrats pushing for $400 million to fund expanded mail-in balloting amid the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump again pointed to higher turnout kneecapping his party. He said such a thing would lead to “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

The next month, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R) said the expanded mail balloting in his state “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives.”

When Trump ultimately did lose, including in Georgia, some high-profile Republicans dropped the pretense and began echoing what had seemed like a wayward comment from Trump.

“If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on Fox News on Nov. 8.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said much the same on Fox on Nov. 30: “If we accept this universal mail-out balloting to people who didn’t even request ballots, I don’t think Republicans will ever win another national election again.”

That argument eventually worked its way up to the Supreme Court. In a key case, an attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, Michael Carvin, was asked why the party had an interest in things like preventing the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct. His reason: winning elections.

“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” Carvin said in March. “Politics is a zero-sum game. And every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretation of Section 2 hurts us; it’s the difference between winning an election 50-49 and losing an election 51 to 50 [sic].”

And it continues apace today. Earlier this month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) credited himself for Trump holding on to win in Texas. The reason? That he prevented Houston-based Harris County from sending out unsolicited mail ballot applications. Paxton claimed this prevented Texas from joining Arizona and Georgia in going blue after years of being solidly red.

“We would’ve been in the same boat,” Paxton said. “We would’ve been one of those battleground states that were counting votes in Harris County for three days, and Donald Trump would’ve lost the election.”

And last week, this cropped up in Arizona yet again, with a candidate for secretary of state, Mark Finchem, sending a fundraising email saying, “I will protect the elections from the Steal and make sure that Arizona is the Red State it REALLY is!”

Perhaps needless to say, but generally speaking, those who oversee elections like a secretary of state shouldn’t say their goal is to make sure one party or another wins.

Finchem’s argument is apparently that he would root out the kinds of voter fraud which he has baselessly claimed, and thus the elections would more accurately reflect his state. It’s a clarification that some of the above have provided, including Ralston and Graham. The idea is that this is not about electoral gain, per se, but rather that electoral gain would be a byproduct of increased election integrity. That’s a bogus argument, given we have no evidence of actual widespread fraud, but at least it’s a bogus argument that doesn’t revolve around tailoring public policy for electoral expediency.

But even accounting for that, many Republicans who have made this argument haven’t really bothered to walk that fine line. They’ve merely argued that increased turnout was bad for their party — and that, perhaps, some efforts to expand the franchise didn’t comply with the law.

Paxton, who now faces a primary with Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, is keen to credit himself with helping Trump win Texas for obvious reasons. In the meantime, though, he’s basically acknowledging that there’s huge electoral gain for the GOP in preventing expanded mail voting — not merely gain for the government.

Paxton’s claim is also a massive (and massively dubious) one. Trump won the state by more than five points, meaning Paxton credits himself with depriving Democrats of a more than 600,000-vote net gain it would have gleaned from having everyone sent mail ballots. There is precious little evidence that the expanded turnout spurred by such programs accrues to Democrats’ benefit nearly so much, but here’s a prominent Republican claiming it accounts for a six-point swing or more.

And that’s also kind of the point. It’s a theme that we’re increasingly seeing since Trump came out and said what he said last year. There is less compunction about arguing that this isn’t what it, from many of the outward appearances, looks like: gamesmanship. In this age, in which one party in particular has embraced an all’s-fair-in-politics approach, they’re bothering less with arguing that this is the right policy for government, and more that it’s the right policy for Republicans being able to control government.

There was a time in which such arguments were considered faux pas. Now they’re apparently just more high-quality red meat for the base.