Still, the president’s weeks-long barrage of false voter fraud claims has done grave long-term damage to the health of our democracy. Less noticed, it also has helped his party lay the groundwork for a much more concrete political goal—a major new assault on voting rights likely to start in earnest next year.
Lately, the media has lavished praise on the handful of GOP officials who actually did their jobs—it’s a low bar these days—rather than subvert democracy at Trump’s bidding. But in reality, Republicans are largely united behind the lie at the core of Trump’s effort: that the election revealed a voting system dangerously vulnerable to fraud, underscoring an urgent need for stricter rules.
Indeed, one reason among many that so few Republicans have pushed back against Trump is that his propaganda serves their interests. The GOP, one campaign source confirmed to Reuters, is planning a push for “far more stringent oversight on voting procedures in 2024.”
With polls showing large numbers of Republican voters now think the election was rigged—no surprise after Trump sent more than 400 tweets in the 20 days after the vote undermining the integrity of the contest—savvy Republicans are seizing on voter distrust to promote suppression laws as the solution.
“This election has shown we need major reforms to our election systems, including Voter ID laws across the nation, to protect against fraud and rebuild the American people’s trust in fair outcomes,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida said last week. In addition to the call for nationwide voter ID—a long-sought conservative goal—Scott also touted legislation, which he first unveiled before the election, that would restrict mail-in voting by making it harder to get a mail-in ballot, limiting who can handle someone else's ballot, and disenfranchising voters whose ballots arrive after Election Day even if postmarked before, among other steps.
Of course, Washington isn’t likely to pass much of anything for the next two years—it’s in the states where efforts to limit voting will succeed or fail. Ground zero for new suppression measures are likely to be states that are competitive but where the GOP has full political control—states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, Iowa, and New Hampshire. But even states with Democratic governors where Republicans hold the legislature, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, could see battles over voting.
Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leaders have all but promised as much. In a statement released Thursday confirming that they have no plans to appoint their own slate of electors to the Electoral College, they said they’d passed along allegations of voter fraud to the U.S. Justice Department, before adding, “We clearly recognize the need for legislative action to address the issues presented by the 2020 General Election.”
In addition, among the blitz of Republican-backed post-election lawsuits was one filed by two Pennsylvania GOP legislators claiming that their state’s law allowing universal mail-in voting violates the state constitution. The lawmakers have said the suit isn’t intended to affect this year’s results, but rather aims to limit mail-in voting for future elections. Mail-in voting was widely expanded in many states in this pandemic year, and Democratic voters took much greater advantage of it. Republicans don’t want to see a repeat.
Sometimes they’ve even been explicit about the partisan motives driving them. “Mitch McConnell and I need to come up with an oversight of mail-in balloting,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Fox News a few days after the election. “If we don't do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country."
Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor who may be mulling a second presidential bid in 2024, also wants to rein in mail voting. “My understanding is every one of the major industrialized nations in the world, all of our allies have same-day voting. They've gotten rid of or don't have ballots by mail,” Walker said on a podcast of the conservative American Enterprise Institute after the election. “I think we should go back to something close to that. Maybe just allowing absentee for shut-ins and places like that, because it is a huge problem, and it's only going to get worse going forward.” (In fact, six European countries, including the U.K., Germany, and Spain allow all voters to vote by mail, and eight more allow it for some voters.)
Walker, by the way, is worth paying attention to when it comes to Republican efforts to gain an advantage by undermining fair elections. As governor, he pushed through a strict voter ID law, and signed a redistricting plan so skewed to the GOP that it has entrenched the party in power in Wisconsin ever since, regardless of the will of voters. Last cycle, he chaired a national Republican group that aims to protect the right to gerrymander.
We've seen this movie before. It started under the Bush administration, with Karl Rove playing the lead role in stoking fear about voter fraud. Later, after Republicans won full control of a slew of state governments in 2010, they came out of the gate the following year with a coordinated assault on voting not seen in half a century. Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia, Kansas, and more all passed strict voter ID, cuts to early voting, measures making voter registration harder, or other suppressive laws. They were helped along by the Supreme Court, which in 2013 neutered a key plank of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in Shelby County v. Holder.
This time around, the court could again come to Republicans’ aid. There are fears that it may continue to narrow the scope of the VRA, making it still harder to stop racial discrimination in voting. It could go even further by embracing the radical theory—recently endorsed by several of the conservative justices—that state legislatures have exclusive authority to set election rules, denying any role for state courts to knock down laws that restrict the right to vote.
But there are also some differences this time around. Perhaps most important, a decade ago, Democrats were slow to react to the GOP’s anti-voting push, and, when they did, reluctant to frame it in the cataclysmic terms it deserved: as part of a coordinated campaign to corruptly undermine democracy in order to preserve minority rule and thwart the popular will. In the post-Trump era, there should no confusion about what today’s GOP stands for. And with the party set to put its war on voting into overdrive starting in January, it’s likely to be clearer than ever.