Vote-by-mail ballots are shown in sorting trays on Aug. 5, 2020, at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

It’s hard to imagine, given the right wing’s freak-out about vote by mail, but when the Washington Monthly first championed the idea a decade ago, the biggest pushback we got was from the left. Democratic operatives assumed that mailing every registered voter a ballot would advantage the GOP because most voters who utilized absentee ballots were right-leaning. Republicans were not full-throated fans of the idea, but neither were they hostile. Quite a few red states in the 2000s and 2010s made mail voting easier. 

Beginning in 2012, the Monthly published a series of stories—many by contributing editor Phil Keisling, who pioneered vote by mail as Oregon secretary of state—to persuade progressives that their worries were misplaced. Vote by mail, we argued, not only boosts overall turnout, which is good for democracy generally; it does so disproportionately among low-propensity voters, especially young ones, whom Democrats most need to mobilize. And while there are plenty of low-propensity white working-class Republican voters, too—which is why studies show that vote by mail doesn’t advantage one party over. another—it was in the Democrats’ interest, we said, to catch up with Republicans by reforming electoral laws and procedures to get more mailed-out ballots in the hands of their voters. 

Slowly, our efforts began to bend the curve of progressive opinion—especially after Keisling and I helped found the nonprofit National Vote at Home Institute to provide full-time research and bipartisan advocacy for the idea. By 2020, Utah (a red state) and Hawaii (a blue state) had joined Oregon, Washington, and Colorado in instituting universal vote by mail, as had 15 counties in California

But what hypercharged the issue was the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, the prospect of polling places as disease vectors swept away any lingering partisan doubts among Democratic officials. Plenty of their GOP colleagues felt the same way.

But one prominent Republican did not. On March 30, 2020, with the pandemic shutting down the economy and polls showing him likely to lose to Joe Biden, Donald Trump made the first of what would become a torrent of lies about efforts to expand vote by mail. For instance, he claimed they would end the Republican Party and lead to massive fraud—lies Russian propaganda repeated. His own campaign manager warned Trump that bad-mouthing vote by mail could hurt his reelection chances by scaring Republican voters from using it. But it soon became apparent that Trump’s real game was to lay the groundwork for denying the election results should they not go his way—which, as we now know, is precisely what he did.

Trump’s gambit to stay in office didn’t work. But his attacks on vote by mail drove a reverse polarization of the issue. Republicans took a dimmer view, Democrats a brighter one. Over the past two years, GOP-controlled states have made it harder for citizens to vote by mail and blue states have made it easier, as Prem Thakker reports in this issue (“The Newest Democratic Fight to Make Vote by Mail Easier”). 

Even more alarming is what Trump’s vilification of vote by mail did to the minds of GOP officials. In the days leading up to January 6, 2021, many House Republicans were groping for a way to back Trump without supporting his bogus claims of election fraud. As The New York Times recently reported, a low-profile Louisiana Republican, Representative Mike Johnson, provided them with a solution: insist that the expansion of vote by mail in key states had not been approved by their legislatures and was therefore unconstitutional. Legal experts, including the House GOP leadership’s own lawyer, determined that Johnson’s argument was spurious. Yet about three-quarters of the 139 House Republicans who voted against certifying the election relied on his claim. 

The basis of his argument, the “independent state legislature” theory, posits that no state body, including its courts, can restrict state lawmakers’ powers to set voting rules. The Supreme Court will test the hypothesis this session. Though there is “literally no support in the Constitution” or anywhere else for the theory, says the conservative legal scholar J. Michael Luttig, four of the six conservatives on the Supreme Court have flirted with it. Should they codify the theory, it would open the door to state legislators picking electors in defiance of the will of the voters. 

As Monthly legal affairs editor Garrett Epps argues in his cover story (“The Court’s Third Great Crisis”), the case is part of an attempt by the Court’s conservative supermajority to “govern the country from the bench” in the service of one political party. This has happened twice before. The last time, it prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt to try to pack the courts. The first time, it precipitated the Civil War.

The Monthly began its crusade for vote by mail believing that it would boost voter turnout and strengthen democracy. We never imagined that authoritarians would hijack the issue to circumvent democracy. But as we reported in August, new research confirms that vote by mail increases turnout even more than most experts had thought. That increasing participation offers hope because, as Epps explains, only the voters can demand the changes that can deter the Court from its destructive course and set the country on the right path. 

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.