The most outrageous provision of the Election Integrity Act of 2021, the omnibus election bill signed by Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia last week, is one that makes it illegal for anyone except poll workers to offer food or water directly to voters standing in line. Defenders of the law say that this is meant to stop electioneering at the polls; critics say it is a direct response to volunteers who assisted those Georgians, many of them Black, who waited for hours to cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential election.
Less outrageous but more insidious is a provision that removes the secretary of state from his (or her) position as chairman of the State Election Board and replaces him with a new nonpartisan member selected by a majority of Georgia’s Republican-controlled Legislature. The law also gives the board, and by extension the Legislature, the power to suspend underperforming county election officials and replace them with a single individual.
Looming in the background of this “reform” is the current secretary of state Brad Raffensperger’s conflict with Donald Trump, who pressured him to subvert the election and deliver Trump a victory. What won Raffesnsperger praise and admiration from Democrats and mainstream observers has apparently doomed his prospects within the Republican Party, where “stop the steal” is dogma and Trump is still the rightful president to many. It is not even clear that Raffensperger will hold office after his term ends in 2023; he must fight off a primary challenge next year from Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, an outspoken defender of Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.
This is what it looks like when a political party turns against democracy. It doesn’t just try to restrict the vote; it creates mechanisms to subvert the vote and attempts to purge officials who might stand in the way. Georgia is in the spotlight, for reasons past and present, but it is happening across the country wherever Republicans are in control.
On March 24, for example, Republicans in Michigan introduced bills to limit use of ballot drop boxes, require photo ID for absentee ballots, and allow partisan observers to monitor and record all precinct audits. “Senate Republicans are committed to making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” the state Senate majority leader, Mike Shirkey, said in a statement. Shirkey, you may recall, was one of two Michigan Republican leaders who met with Trump at his behest after the election. He also described the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 as a “hoax.”
Republican lawmakers in Arizona, another swing state, have also introduced bills to limit absentee voting in accordance with the former president’s belief that greater access harmed his campaign. One proposal would require ID for mail-in ballots, and shorten the window for mail-in voters to receive and return their ballots. Another bill would purge from the state’s list of those who are automatically sent a mail-in ballot any voter who failed to cast such a ballot in “both the primary election and the general election for two consecutive primary and general elections.”
One Arizona Republican, John Kavanagh, a state representative, gave a sense of the party’s intent when he told CNN, “Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues.” He continued: “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”
In other words, Republicans are using the former president’s failed attempt to overturn the election as a guide to how you would change the system to make it possible. In Georgia, as we’ve seen, that means stripping power from an unreliable partisan and giving it, in effect, to the party itself. In Pennsylvania, where a state Supreme Court with a Democratic majority unanimously rejected a Republican lawsuit claiming that universal mail-in balloting was unconstitutional, it means working to end statewide election of justices, essentially gerrymandering the court. In Nebraska, which Republicans won, it means changing the way the state distributes its electoral votes, from a district-based system in which Democrats have a chance to win one potentially critical vote, as Joe Biden and Barack Obama did, to winner-take-all.
This fact pattern underscores a larger truth: that the Republican Party is driving the nation’s democratic decline. A recent paper by Jacob M. Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, makes this plain. Using a new measure of state-level democratic performance in the United States from 2000 to 2018, Grumbach finds that Republican control of state government “consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period.” The nationalization of American politics and the coordination of parties across states means that “state governments controlled by the same party behave similarly when they take power.” Republican-controlled governments in states as different as Alabama and Wisconsin have “taken similar actions with respect to democratic institutions.”
The Republican Party’s turn against democratic participation and political equality is evident in more than just these bills and proposals. You can see it in how Florida Republicans promptly instituted difficult-to-pay fines and fees akin to a poll tax after a supermajority of the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment to end the disenfranchisement of most felons. You can see it in how Missouri Republicans simply ignored the results of a ballot initiative on Medicaid expansion.
Where does this all lead? Perhaps it just ends with a few new restrictions and new limits, enough, in conjunction with redistricting, to tilt the field in favor of the Republican Party in the next election cycle but not enough to substantially undermine American democracy. Looking at the 2020 election, however — and in particular at the 147 Congressional Republicans who voted not to certify the Electoral College vote — it’s not hard to imagine how this escalates, especially if Trump and his allies are still in control of the party.
If Republicans are building the infrastructure to subvert an election — to make it possible to overturn results or keep Democrats from claiming electoral votes — then we have to expect that given a chance, they’ll use it.