Facing a demographic reckoning in the coming years, the Republican National Committee, GOP presidential candidates and prominent congressional Republicans have long paid lip service to the idea that they need to expand their base by broadening their message to attract more Hispanic, Black and Asian American voters, as well as women and young adults. The GOP autopsy report after 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost, which was known as the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” argued that the party’s future depended on it.
But those efforts were largely swept into oblivion after the arrival of Donald Trump and his divisive politics. And the passage of Georgia’s restrictive new voting law on Thursday night amounted to a capitulation on those goals. The fact that Democrats carried Georgia at the presidential level for the first time since 1992, and then flipped both of Georgia’s US Senate seats, was an acknowledgment that the GOP isn’t winning through the politics of addition. The new law signals the party will rely on the politics of subtraction instead.
Georgia laid down that marker last week, and Republicans in GOP-controlled state legislatures considering similar legislation now face a moral dilemma about whether they too will follow that path, dragging the image of their party backward toward the exclusionary politics of Jim Crow.
As of mid-February, the Brennan Center was tracking more than 250 bills introduced or carried over in 43 states that would make it harder to vote — and they noted that tally was seven times the number of restrictive bills compared with the same time last year. The sting of November’s losses has apparently served as powerful impetus for GOP lawmakers to codify Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen — as an excuse for their inability to broaden their tent.
Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who refused Trump’s entreaties to override the election results but then saved face with the base by acquiescing to the former President’s post-election demand to make mail-in voting more difficult, claimed that the state’s new voting bill is intended to make elections more “secure, accessible and fair.” That argument rings hollow since even Trump’s own Justice Department found no evidence of widespread electoral fraud, while one of Trump’s own lawyers argued in court this week that no reasonable people would believe her election fraud claims.
Voting rights activists, by contrast, argue that the provisions of the bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature will disproportionately hurt the ability of minority voters to cast their ballots in future elections.
Republican power grab
The GOP’s naked power grab was evident in the provisions that remove Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, another Republican who stood up to Trump’s efforts to overturn the November election, as the chair of the State Board of Elections, replacing him with “a chairperson elected by the General Assembly” while making him “an ex officio nonvoting member of the board.” The Georgia law also grants state officials authority to replace local election boards, giving them more control over the process.
Voters will now be required to provide driver’s license or state identification card information when requesting an absentee ballot (and if they do not have that information, they must affix a photocopy or electronic image of other identifying information to their request). Most ballot drop boxes must now be housed inside early voting locations, which are generally only required to be open during normal business hours — limiting the usefulness of drop boxes for anyone who needs to drop their ballot off outside the normal work day. And in a state where long lines in minority precincts are notorious, there is a new ban on giving food or water to people waiting in line.
“What in their mind would think that it’s not right to give a thirsty person some water, in any situation, whether they’re voting, or whatever. It’s ridiculous,” said Kimberly Wallace in an interview with CNN as she attended Saturday’s rally against Georgia’s new law outside of Atlanta City Hall. “You’re supposed to be making it easier for people to vote, not harder.”
Even some of the Republicans who previously bucked their party in the midst of Trump’s desperate attempt to overturn the election, including Raffensperger, are rejecting the criticism that the new law amounts to voter suppression and ‘Jim Crow 2.0.’ Raffensperger, who’s facing a primary challenger from a Trump-backed candidate, said in a statement Friday those “narratives as lazy, biased and political as they are demonstrably wrong.”
“There’s no rational argument against requiring state ID — provided for free to those who don’t have a driver’s license — for absentee ballots,” Raffensperger said, even though voting advocates note that those rules will disproportionately affect poorer voters and voters of color.
President Joe Biden on Friday called the Georgia law an “atrocity” and said the Justice Department is “taking a look.” But he also acknowledged that he doesn’t know what his administration can do to stop it: “We’re working on that right now. We don’t know quite exactly what we can do at this point,” Biden told reporters.
Democrats in the Senate currently do not have enough votes to pass the election bill approved by the House, the “For the People Act,” which would override restrictions like those passed in Georgia by setting national standards. Biden signaled during his first news conference as president last week that he might be willing to do away with the filibuster to get the bill through the Senate, but he is not ready to take that step yet. The GOP has cast the House bill as a federal power grab.
Georgia’s battle over access to the ballot is already playing out in the courts. Nsé Ufot, CEO of The New Georgia Project — one of the groups challenging the new law on the grounds that it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments — told CNN Saturday that “we absolutely are going to court to make sure that this bill in Georgia is invalidated.”
“I have no idea how long the battle takes. I would like for it to be quick. But we will see what the judge has to say about this,” she said on “Newsroom.”
Ufot rejected the governor’s argument that the legislation is an election security bill and argued that the only reason Republicans are seeking to curtail mail-in voting is because “they lost.”
“They will continue to lose because in a marketplace of ideas, fewer and fewer people are buying what they are selling, and the only way for them to continue to hold onto power is to make it difficult for more people to vote,” she said.
Testifying before Congress this past week about the “For the People Act,” Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice, noted the number of restrictive voting bills sweeping through state legislatures has created “a time of crisis for our democracy.”
“Legislators are rushing to enact a wave of voting restrictions in what would be the most significant cutback since the Jim Crow era,” he said in his testimony. “These proposals all disproportionately affect, and often target, voters of color. If enacted, they would result in large-scale disenfranchisement of eligible voters.”
America has come too far for voting rights to be a partisan issue in the 21st century. Reasonable Republicans have a chance to halt these efforts or let them languish in statehouses around the country, potentially winning back the trust of voters the party lost during Trump’s relentless assault on democracy.
If they don’t, these attempts to block voters from casting ballots may become a stain on their party’s legacy and reverse their efforts to create a bigger tent for many years to come.