Voting Expansion vs. Suppression: The War is On

No sooner had the dust settled on the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol than the next phase of the battle for US democracy was joined — the fight over defending versus suppressing the right to vote.

The campaign to suppress the franchise is largely being carried out in the states, while the pro-vote effort is a combination of state and federal efforts — the latter principally contained in H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” passed by the House of Representatives on March 3.

The bill, which would amount to the greatest federally mandated expansion in access to the ballot since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, would, among other things, require automatic voter registration, expand early voting, mandate no-excuse absentee voting, restore voting rights to convicted felons and establish public financing for congressional campaigns.

Not the least of the pro-voter measures being championed by national Democrats is granting statehood to the District of Columbia, which among other rights would provide voting representation in Congress for the national capital’s 700,000 residents. The bill to admit the “Douglass Commonwealth” as the 51st state received a hearing in the House on March 22 and is almost certain to pass that chamber, as it did last year. But unless underdog efforts to end or limit the Senate filibuster find success, the bill will advance no further.

Likewise, if H.R. 1 could somehow be shepherded through the Senate, much of the state-level suppression schemes could be rendered moot. But as with DC statehood, the Senate filibuster will kill all good notions.

Like almost everything else in politics, access to the ballot has become a partisan issue, with Democrats championing making it easier to vote through expanded mail voting, drop boxes, early voting and easy voter registration. Republicans are eagerly adopting the old Jim Crow playbook of limiting polling sites, eliminating no-excuse mail voting, cutting back on drop-box locations, making it harder to register to vote and much more.

Restrictions to mail, early voting and Election Day voting have been proposed in 43 states. On March 25, Georgia took the lead when Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill to constrict voting on a number of fronts, including requiring a photo ID to vote by mail, reducing the time people have to request an absentee ballot and limiting where ballot drop boxes can be placed. It even banned people from handing out water to people waiting in line to vote. Among other states, one of the more egregious proposals is Arizona’s bill to require mail ballots to be postmarked by the Thursday before Election Day. Not coincidentally, Georgia and Arizona are two once-solidly Republican states that Biden as well as Democratic Senate candidates carried narrowly in 2020. In a number of states Democrats are pushing back to make permanent the expanded voting options that were enacted temporarily in the face of the pandemic.

Expanded voting in general helps Democrats, but especially voting taking place somewhere other than at the polls on Election Day — at least in part because of Donald Trump’s claims that such voting is inherently fraudulent, a myth adopted uncritically by much of his voting base. For instance, reports the Washington Post, Biden won 76% of the absentee vote in Pennsylvania while Trump took 65% of the Election Day vote. In Georgia, Biden won 65% of the absentee vote, with Trump taking 60% of the vote on Election Day.

Don’t get the idea that this enshrines Democrats as the party of pure love for democracy. It’s part of a battle for pure power. As Trump himself said, Democrats want “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” In this case, Democrats are aiming to do well by doing good; Republicans hope to win by, as much as possible, shrinking the franchise as necessary to allow only affluent Whites to vote.

It wasn’t always thus. For a century after the Civil War, the Democratic Party, especially its southern wing, wrote the book on voter suppression. Southern Democrats maintained power by ruthlessly denying the vote to Blacks — by law if possible, by terror and violence if necessary. Where poll taxes, literacy tests and frequent voter purges left off, Ku Klux Klan intimidation and murder picked up the slack. These methods were stunningly effective; from 1900 to 1965, Blacks were for all practical purposes banned from voting in the South.

Since the adoption of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, however, the Democratic Party staked its future on expanding the franchise, and especially on attracting Black voters. How much the party repaid the loyalty of these voters over the following five and a half decades is another matter.

In a fully functioning democracy, political parties would tailor their platforms to appeal to as many voters as possible. But the Republican Party has gone in the opposite direction. For decades they have positioned themselves as the party of the wealthiest Americans against the 99%; the Democrats, while also feeding off corporate contributions, maintained enough of an appeal to labor, minorities and the broad Left to stay competitive. Now, Trump-era Republicans also have fully embraced the politics of White privilege, ensuring the loyalty of an enthusiastic base but also placing a hard limit on their appeal.

Therefore, the Republicans’ only real chance for sustained success at the polls — especially in national elections — is to, as much as possible, limit voting to likely GOP voters. Suppressing Democratic votes and Black votes goes hand in hand, since Blacks are the most consistently loyal Democratic voters.

As the Left is well aware, politics is more than supporting the Blue vs. Red team. Few Democratic officeholders will embrace progressive positions unless pressured. But they can be pressured in a left direction. Republicans cannot; their pressure comes from the direction of the Proud Boys, QAnon and the Oath Keepers, the heart of the antidemocratic movement behind the insurrection at the Capitol.  

While the Democratic Party’s embrace of expanded voting is self-interested, it also is in the interest of democracy and of the majority of Americans. The prospect of progressive social change will be severely curtailed if Republicans get their way in suppressing the vote. Only by defending the ballot will the agenda of the Left get a fair hearing.

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