No More Pretending: Republicans Admit Vote Restrictions Are All About Winning

As one top GOP lawyer says, allowing for mail ballot or other reforms “puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Daryl Metcalfe, a member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, wasn’t the first modern Republican legislator to buttress a specious argument for voter suppression with racist undertones. In September 2012, on the eve of President Barack Obama’s reelection, Metcalfe tried to defend the dubious voter identification law he had sponsored by explaining that “a lot of people out there … are too lazy to get up and get out there and get the ID they need.” He was roundly criticized. So was Rep. Mike Turzai, then state house majority leader, who gleefully predicted that the state’s voter suppression efforts would give Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.

It didn’t work out so well for Metcalfe and Turzai in the short term. Pennsylvanians who had a right to vote cast their ballots that year, despite Republican efforts, and delivered the state decisively to Obama. In the long run, however, the Republican party on a national scale has come to embrace what these state lawmakers were pitching a decade ago. Republicans across the country are saying loudly and proudly that their new wave of restrictive voting and election bills are necessary to disenfranchise minority voters. Metcalfe is still pitching crazy ideas. Only now he’s at the heart of what the GOP stands for.

There’s no hiding the strategy anymore on local talk radio or in the weeds of state legislatures. This isn’t the Republican party of 2012, the party that sent Romney into battle with an incumbent president. This party brazenly commits state-level voter suppression even as congressional Democrats contemplate eliminating the Senate filibuster to try to pass two landmark federal civil rights bills that would thwart such suppression. These Republican efforts amount to taunting: We dare you, Democrats, to pass the We the People Act  and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act.

There is little that is ambiguous or implied in that dare. It is, as lawyers say, open and notorious. Republican officials repeatedly concede that, in the words of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, “”If Republicans don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.”

Republican state legislators justify the latest versions of their restrictive voting laws on the fantasy that the 2020 presidential election turned on voter fraud. They either cannot or will not concede, to themselves or their constituents, that Democrats can lawfully win elections without the kind of systemic voter fraud that has never occurred or been proven. And they’ve evidently given up on trying to woo voters with popular policies.

Take Texas, for example. With its long history of white supremacy and racism, it already suffers from one of the most anti-democratic election regimes in the nation. But now Republican legislators there, worried about demographic changes that jeopardize their political success, want to make it even harder to vote. One statewide measure would, among other things, aggressively preclude county election officials from even encouraging citizens to apply to vote for mail, and would also make it harder for voters with disabilities to cast a lawful ballot. The GOP target? Harris County, down Houston way, a jurisdiction full of traditional Democratic voters.

Take Arizona, for another example. After voters there elected two Democratic senators and gave the state to Joe Biden, anxious Republican legislators recently introduced (by the Brennan Center’s own count) at least 22 restrictive bills designed to make it harder for citizens to cast a lawful ballot. There is more than a whiff of Jim Crow in these efforts. “Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues,” Arizona Rep. Joe Kavanagh said last week. “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”

One of the main targets for Arizona Republicans is mail-in voting, one of the most popular (and secure!) methods of voting. As was the case in Pennsylvania, most of the legislators now seeking to restrict mail-in ballots were wildly supportive of such voting when they thought it benefited their candidates. After 2020, the party line has shifted.

These partisan efforts to suppress votes come as the U.S. Supreme Court, the most conservative in a century, seems poised to endorse two older restrictions on voting in Arizona. One would require election officials to discard otherwise valid ballots cast at the wrong precinct. The other would outlaw the practice of collecting valid ballots for delivery to polling stations. Arguing before the Court, Republican lawyer Michael Carvin explained that the out-of-precinct ballot ban should be sustained because “it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

That Arizona would be a battleground in the fight for voting rights in 2021 is no surprise given how quickly a deeply-red state turned blue. What is surprising so far is the tepid position taken by Sen. Krysten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who was voted into office by a narrow margin that might be wiped away next time by the restrictive new measures state Republicans are pushing. So far, Sinema insists that defending the Senate’s filibuster is more important than enacting the We the People Act and its companion. But without laws protecting voters, Sinema might not be in the Senate. It’s not every day that political self-preservation and democracy merge as they do for Sinema.

Like Sinema, Georgia senator Raphael Warnock was elected by a thin margin in a traditionally Republican state. Like Sinema, he’s witnessed state legislative Republicans contort themselves in the past few months to enact voter suppression measures that quite likely would prevent him from winning reelection. Unlike Sinema, Warnock is putting his legacy on the line to end the filibuster and protect the vote.

And he’s doing so by specifically calling out Sinema. During his first Senate floor speech last week, a historic one to be sure, Warnock said: “It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in our society.” Warnock’s calling out Republicans, too. “Some politicians did not approve of the choice made by the majority of voters in a hard-fought election in which each side got the chance to make its case to the voters,” Warnock said. “And, rather than adjusting their agenda and changing their message, they are busy trying to change the rules.” No wonder Warnock and so many others who know white supremacy when they see it keep saying we are on the verge of a new era of Jim Crow discrimination.

No candid Republican can deny that allegation. Warnock is describing what the GOP is doing. With each quote about the “quality” of votes, with each limitation on early voting, Republicans are showing every Democratic senator (and the rest of us) the prospect if federal voting rights and election reform measures are not enacted. It’s a grim future, a white-supremacist, minority-rule future. GOP zeal for egregious voter suppression is actually a gift to the Democrats. It should make it easier for them to make their case against the filibuster—and for the federal democracy reforms. If not now, when?

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen, a longtime network legal analyst, is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a senior editor at The Marshall Project.