The second of two parts (to read Part 1, click here)
Both parties made significant contributions to the post-election conflicts that culminated in the Capitol riots on Jan. 6. The Republican contribution was obvious: the demagoguery of Donald Trump and the willingness of so many Republicans to associate themselves with his claims. The Democratic contribution consisted of making millions of Americans more receptive to Trump’s demagoguery by refusing to accept the legitimacy of previous Republican winners (including Trump), systematically reducing barriers to voter fraud in 2020, waging a scorched-earth opposition to Trump that seemed to know no ethical bounds, and rationalizing the left-wing violence of summer 2020, while the Democratic-leaning media made itself completely untrustworthy to Republican voters. Trump may have brought the supply, but Democrats had done much to stimulate the demand.
In that light, one can see Republican legislation in Georgia, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere not only as self-defense (as conservatives there view it) but as a legitimate attempt to restore trust and enhance civil peace. There is little that Republican legislatures or governors can do to alter most of the backdrop outlined above. They cannot mandate that Democrats stop challenging the legitimacy of Republican electoral victories or engaging in no-holds-barred efforts to bring down presidents they do not like; nor can they compel the media to act in ways that regains the trust of right-of-center voters. What they can do is what many states are now doing: take steps to restore confidence in the security of voting processes.
Republican Voting Reform in the States
To a large extent, Republican voting reforms at the state level are simply a return to the pre-COVID status quo. For example, emergency pandemic measures like drive-through voting are not being renewed. To this extent, the changes are a predictable snap-back of the sort we see after every American crisis; rules are bent or undone in a period of urgency, after which they are reinstated, though sometimes not in exactly the same form.
Other state-level reforms attempt to tighten ballot security and increase confidence in reported results more generally. Georgia has required, for instance, that the total number of ballots received be announced early in the process. Some states would prohibit mass mailing of ballots to all registered voters, and some would put a stop to ballot harvesting, a practice that has proved vulnerable to fraud by “ballot brokers” in Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and elsewhere for years. In Florida, drop boxes for ballot collection now must be monitored in person whenever possible, and voters must request absentee ballots every two years rather than every four years. The proposed Texas law would also prevent election officials or state courts from altering voting rules without legislative authorization. This change would address another point of concern that many states had in 2020, when the loosening of ballot-security measures was often imposed in ways arguably inconsistent with the constitutional requirement that the legislature determine the method of selecting presidential electors.
However, the voting reforms in states across the country have not been one-sided affairs in which ballot security was bolstered with no concessions to the importance of access. It is difficult to see how any of these ballot-security measures will prevent an eligible voter from voting if he or she wants to, and they have frequently been coupled with measures that actually expand voting opportunities in other ways. In Georgia and Texas, for example, in-person early voting was extended. In Texas, the proposed law would require employers to let employees go vote and would guarantee that voters in line before the polls closed could not be turned away. In Georgia, Florida, and Texas, the mail-ballot signature requirement, which depends on the subjective judgment of election officials, would be replaced by a requirement for voters to provide a driver’s license number, state ID number, or last four digits of their Social Security number, potentially preventing a large number of mistaken ballot disqualifications. The Georgia law codified the use of drop boxes for the first time, though reducing their number from the emergency 2020 decree, and made it easier for state officials to order local officials to open additional Election Day polling places to alleviate long lines.
With components that both enhance ballot security and expand and regularize access, such laws should serve as a foundation for reasonable compromise on this issue. Expand in-person early voting, which is more secure, while scaling back mail voting, which is less secure. Regularize procedures so that there is less room for concern about extra ballots floating around or suddenly appearing after the polls have closed. Require ID but make ID requirements easy to meet by eligible voters and less subject to arbitrary disqualification. Offer more Election Day polling places.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Democrats could do their part to prevent the next post-election explosion by embracing this compromise, tacitly acknowledging the part they played in reducing trust while respecting the heartfelt concerns of their fellow citizens. In an earlier era, perhaps they would have done so. After the 2000 election controversy, Congress passed the Helping Americans Vote Act on a bipartisan vote.
Instead, so far, most Democrats have chosen to respond in two counterproductive ways that will deepen mistrust. From President Biden down, they have utilized an overheated rhetoric of “voter suppression” and “Jim Crow,” opening the door wide to future post-election demagoguery by their own losing candidates (Stacey Abrams offered a preview in 2018). And they have doubled down on thwarting efforts to reduce fraud. Their demonstrative and hyperbolic opposition to Republican voting reforms may be motivated by sincere but misguided historical recollections of actual voter suppression (ironically, by Democrats), or by the opportunistic desire to enflame politically useful racial outrage. Either way, they are reinforcing the suspicions of Republicans and conservative independents, who ask: Why are Democrats so strongly opposed to reforms that would have little negative effect on the turnout of eligible voters but would provide greater ballot security?
H.R. 1 (dubbed the For the People Act) would go even further, not merely blocking new reforms proposed to enhance ballot security but positively eliminating many of the safeguards that already exist while essentially federalizing election administration — constitutionally a function of the states. States would be required to allow same-day voter registration and ballot harvesting; would be compelled to register all individuals, whether citizens or not; and would ban voter ID, effective checking of addresses of registered voters, and witness-signature or notarization of absentee ballots. This approach would ensure that half the country (or more: polls show large majorities in favor of voter ID laws) would have even less confidence in election results and would remain receptive to claims of stolen elections by losing Republican candidates. Although he has suffered the slings and arrows of the left for saying so, Sen. Joe Manchin was right when he recently wrote that H.R. 1 would make the partisan divide worse and contribute to the next post-election crisis. Thus, the predominant Democratic response to current election law controversies makes a future crisis more likely no matter the result: If they win, they will have deepened the mistrust of Republicans; if they lose, they will have deepened the mistrust of their own partisans. In the interest of the country, Democrats need an infusion of statesmanship. More Joe Manchins, please.
The nation also needs an infusion of statesmanship for Republicans, who have a crucial uncompleted task. Although they are taking appropriate steps to reduce the demand for post-election demagoguery, they have done no better than Democrats at limiting the future supply. The starting point should be to avoid the temptation of obsessively looking backward to 2020 and seeking vindication for Trump’s conduct, as Arizona Republicans have done with their ill-conceived and politically counterproductive private audit of Maricopa County ballots.
More broadly, Republicans must come to terms with the misbehavior of Donald Trump in the 10 weeks following the election and resolve never to allow it or facilitate it again. It was always unlikely that a Jan. 6 commission would lead to introspection rather than devolving into partisan recriminations, and it is understandable why most Republicans declined to support one. But Republicans need to have this conversation among themselves. Whatever Democrats did to build the audience, the biggest supplier of post-election demagoguery was the presidential candidate with an “R” next to his name – and he may try to run again. How Republicans handle that challenge will help determine how soon we have the next crisis of electoral trust.
Andrew E. Busch is Crown Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. He is co-author of “Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics” (Rowman & Littlefield).