At campaign rallies, Donald Trump specialized in crafting political slogans whose catchiness obscured the lack of actual policy behind them: “lock her up, America First, build the wall, drain the swamp.”
But there was one Trump slogan that turned out to have a shocking amount of policy behind it – hundreds of pieces of legislation nationwide in just the last three months, in fact, constituting the most coordinated, organized and determined Republican push on any political issue in recent memory.
The slogan was “stop the steal,” a tendentious reference to Trump’s big lie about the November election result.
And the policy behind it was aggressive voter suppression, targeting people of color, urbanites, low-income communities and other groups whose full participation in future elections is seen by Republicans as a threat.
For decades, conservatives have made limited government, lower taxes, “family” values, religious freedom, public safety, national security and restrictions on abortion the centerpiece of their pitch to voters. In 2021, those issues have been joined on the party platform by – and sometimes seem to be eclipsed by – a bold new policy proposal: prevent voting.
“What’s different now is the absolute overt nature of this,” said the political analyst Lincoln Mitchell, an author and international elections observer.
“In fairness to the Republicans, voter suppression has a long history in the United States that is not located in one party, but it’s located in one ideology, and that ideology is white supremacy,” Mitchell continued. “So for much of the post-Reconstruction period, until say 1970 or 1980 or so, that was either primarily the Democratic party – think of the old Dixiecratic south – or in both parties. It is only in the last 40ish years that it has become a Republican issue.”
Since the November election, Republican state legislatures across the country have introduced more than 250 bills creating barriers to voting, cutting early voting, purging voter rolls, limiting absentee options and now, in Georgia, outlawing giving someone stuck in a 10-hour line a bottle of water.
John Kavanagh, a Republican state representative from Arizona, articulated the underlying thinking in an interview last month on CNN. “Everybody shouldn’t be voting,” he said. The lawmaker later clarified that he thinks “all legally eligible voters should vote, but I do not want to register people who are disinterested and do not want to be registered to vote.”
The same, less subtle message was delivered by Trump himself at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past February. In his speech, the former president unraveled a 10-minute-long list of proposed suppression tactics, all of which state legislatures have since attempted to make into law, with some success.
“We should eliminate the insanity of mass and very corrupt mail-in voting,” Trump said, additionally calling for strict new voter ID laws, signature matching and citizenship verification at polling stations.
Sylvia Albert, national voting and elections director of the government watchdog group Common Cause, called Republicans’ voter suppression efforts “shameless.”
“These bills are shameless, partisan efforts to silence us,” Albert said in a media briefing last week. “And it’s not a coincidence that these bills are being introduced after a free and fair and secure election with record turnout. Americans exercised their right to vote and, in response, these politicians are saying, ‘actually, we didn’t really want you to vote’.”
In Georgia, the Republican governor signed a law last month making it harder to vote by mail, nearly eliminating ballot drop boxes and giving the state legislature more power over elections. In the Pennsylvania state general assembly, Republicans have introduced more than 50 voter suppression bills. A Texas bill would require proof of disability if voting by mail.
The Michigan legislature is set to consider 39 bills targeting voting rights, especially voting by mail. Arizona Republicans have introduced vote-by-mail restrictions, the purge of more than 100,000 people from a permanent early voting list with little notice, and a bill making it a potential felony to forward a ballot to a relative.
“The Republican party is aware that in their current ideological formation, that if American democracy is modernized so that people have voting rights comparable to other democracies, they will lose control for a generation,” said Mitchell. “They will basically be out of national politics.”
Quentin Turner, Michigan program director for Common Cause, said that Republican suppression efforts in the state targeted communities of color, particularly a proposal to restrict access to absentee ballot drop boxes after 5:00 pm.
“A lot of working-class people in Michigan, in Detroit especially, may not be out or done with their day by 5:00 pm,” said Turner. “So they may not be able to go to a drop box that’s close to them. While it doesn’t specifically say in the bill that it’s targeting Black and brown voters, the nature of the specifications of the prohibition would have a larger adverse impact in those communities.”
The overtly racist nature of voter suppression has created what could be a political hazard for Republicans. Under pressure from activists, corporations have begun to condemn the laws, with American Airlines announcing on Thursday that it was “strongly opposed” to suppression legislation in Texas. Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and Home Depot face a boycott call for what activists say was too little action, too late, against voter suppression in Georgia.
Voter suppression efforts could also backfire on Republicans if they limit the participation of an unintended group of voters – for example elderly voters no longer able to vote by mail – or increase the turnout of targeted groups galvanized by the assault on the franchise, as in Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections this past January.
“African Americans in the south have gone through a lot to vote, historically,” Mitchell said. “This is an undemocratic, racist barrier, but it’s a barrier put in front of a people that are used to undemocratic, racist barriers. And they are not afraid of that. And we saw that, twice, in Georgia. They’re trying to stop us from voting? Screw them, let’s get even more people out.”