Republican politicians in many states clearly believe that the best way for them to maintain power, given unfavorable demographic trends, is to engage in voter suppression and rig the administration of elections. Their allies in Congress, believing likewise, are doing what they can to let state legislators get away with this dangerous project.
Many thoughtful observers, journalists and academics alike, agree on this diagnosis. The question is: How should Democrats respond?
Appeals to principle won’t work. There are too few Liz Cheneys or Adam Kinzingers.
Other unpleasant facts must be taken into account, too. Decision theorists and computer scientists call such facts constraints: They limit the set of promising alternatives. These facts are in plain sight but facing up to them means being tough-minded and recognizing that there are no good alternatives here. (There can’t be: a major party is undermining a core democratic institution.) But some alternatives are better than others. Sorting them out requires taking the constraints seriously.
The first constraint, obviously, is the filibuster. The second is a 50-50 Senate. Those two constraints point to a third: There is no winning coalition for abolishing the filibuster. A fourth constraint, a polarized electorate, underlies the other three.
Not everything is cast in stone, however. Not long ago, many Republican politicians believed that the best way to advance professionally was to offer policies that appealed to a majority of voters, taking the electorate as given (i.e., as a constraint). Those beliefs are malleable. Given the right lessons, some or many GOP politicians could learn that voter suppression is not in their professional self-interest.
The right lessons are electoral. Losing more elections than they expect in the midterms, when the out-of-power party usually gains a significant number of seats, could tilt the balance of power within the Republican Party and persuade some pragmatists to start debating the GOP’s path. Those Republican politicians would do so not because they’ve suddenly realized that undermining fair elections is wrong but because they’ve changed their minds about what best serves their interests.
Some readers might consider this argument circular, that using elections to teach Republican politicians a lesson presupposes fair races when the GOP is trying to ensure that they won’t be. But the strategy isn’t circular — it’s political bootstrapping. In politics, one needn’t always pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps; sometimes an opponent inadvertently lends a hand. The GOP has done so. Parts of new state election laws are so brazen that they could trigger a backlash. Political psychologists have found that anger can induce people to participate in politics. Specifically, anger about voter disenfranchisement might stimulate turnout.
An overview of research on the topic of anger and mobilization reports the following triggers: an external cause, especially the intentional actions of some “freely acting” agent who can be blamed; coping potential, or the perception that one has some control over the situation; a perception that the situation is unfair, illegitimate, or undeserved; and the familiarity of threat.
Further, the concept of loss aversion, originally coined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, holds that losing something packs a bigger emotional punch than does gaining something of equal value. This phenomenon should operate where people are in danger of losing their voting rights.
Thus, the Republican voter-suppression project is a textbook case for political mobilization. The key ingredient is helping people feel that they can do something about the problem. Fortunately, the pitch is natural: “Republicans want to take away your sacrosanct right to vote, so show them they cannot. Vote early or turn out on Election Day. Whatever works.” By voting in midterm elections, voters can show that their right to vote can’t be taken away from them. This is political bootstrapping.
To be sure, this strategy does not address some state legislatures’ attack on democracy: The partisan takeover of the administration of elections is a problem more abstract to citizens than laws that curtail early voting, remove drop-boxes, or impose onerous voter ID requirements. Democrats should regard this as a constraint and work around it. Mobilizing turnout should be based on the GOP’s highly visible tactics, while fighting the hostile takeover of election administration is a job for lawyers and other specialists. Moreover, the stronger the backlash against voter suppression, the easier the specialists’ job will be. Though no popular vote margin is completely safe against partisan election administrators, a 2 percentage point Democratic popular vote margin in, say, Georgia’s 2022 Senate race is less vulnerable than a 0.1 percentage point margin. Political bootstrapping once again: A more robust job by citizens (turnout) will make the specialists’ day in court easier.
Finally, bootstrapping can happen inside the Republican Party as well. Some pragmatic GOP politicians may already have misgivings about their party’s current strategy but are afraid to say so. If the above mobilization strategy helps Democrats do surprisingly well in the midterms, then some of those careerists might start to speak up. Though it’s unrealistic to expect this to happen quickly – many legislators in the House are elected from deep-red districts, where they have no concerns about the party’s current path – perhaps the dynamic inside the GOP will change.
Can’t I offer something better than that? Honestly, I can’t. Nobody can. Our situation is without precedent: Never before has one of the two major parties tried throughout the country to undermine established rules that support free and fair elections. In this context, no strategy is guaranteed to work. Anyone who tells you that their strategy will do so is fooling themselves or you or both. The search should be for the approach that’s most likely to work, not for a magic wand.
Of course, all forecasts are inaccurate one way or another. Perhaps a strong voting rights bill will somehow pass the Senate and the state Republicans’ anti-democratic project will be defeated. Then, happily, the midterms can be held without anger. If that happens, great! But it may not. So, consider this a contingency plan for turning a legislative failure into an electoral advantage.