Democracy under attack: how Republicans led the effort to make it harder to vote
Sam Levine in New York December 27, 2021
2021 was the year that America’s democracy came under attack from within.
Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the election results, an endeavor that culminated in the 6 January assault on the Capitol, ultimately failed. But the lies the former president spread about fraud and the integrity of the 2020 results have stuck around in a dangerous way. False claims about the election have moved to the center of the Republican party.
Republican lawmakers have seized on the fears created by those baseless claims and weaponized them into new laws that make it harder to vote. Between January and October, 19 states enacted 33 laws to restrict voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Related: ‘Terrifying for American democracy’: is Trump planning for a 2024 coup?
But Republicans haven’t stopped there. There is now a concerted effort to take more partisan control of election administration. Trump is supporting election deniers in their efforts to take control of key offices that control the rules of elections and counting of ballots. That effort has elevated fears that Trump is laying the groundwork for another coup in 2024, when supporters in those roles could help overturn the election results.
All these actions are taking place against the backdrop of the once-per-decade redistricting process, which Republicans dominate in many states. Republicans are taking full advantage of that power, drawing districts that will entrench their control of state legislatures and win congressional seats for the next decade.
Joe Biden has described this attack as “the most significant test of our democracy since the civil war”. But Democrats in the US Senate have been unable to pass two bills with significant voting rights protections. Whether Biden and Senate Democrats can find a way to get those bills through Congress looms as a major test of his presidency.
Here are the ways that voting rights emerged as the most important story in American politics in 2021:
New voting restrictions
When state legislatures convened at the start of 2021, many moved quickly to enact new laws making it harder to cast a ballot. Many of these new measures targeted voting by mail, which a record number of Americans used in 2020.
One of the most high profile battles was in Georgia, a state Trump targeted with baseless claims of fraud after a surprising loss to Biden there. Republicans enacted a law that requires voters to provide additional identification information on both absentee ballot request forms and the ballot itself. They also restricted the availability of absentee ballot drop boxes, a popular method of returning ballots in 2020. The law also criminalized providing food and water to people standing in line within 150ft of a polling place.
In Florida, Republicans enacted a new law that also restricts the availability of ballot drop boxes, imposes new rules around third-party registration groups, and requires voters to more frequently request absentee ballots.
The fight over new voting restrictions exploded in July, when Democrats in the Texas legislature fled the state for several weeks, denying Republicans the quorum they needed to pass new voting restrictions. Republicans eventually succeeded in passing a law that banned 24-hour voting, established regular citizenship checks for voter rolls, made it harder to assist voters, and empowered partisan poll watchers.
Undermining confidence in elections
A staggering number of Americans continue to deny the results of the 2020 election. A September CNN poll found 36% of Americans do not believe Biden was the legitimate winner of the election.
Trump has fed that disbelief by continuing to make claims of irregularities that have already been debunked. Republicans in several states continue to call for the “decertification” of elections, something that is legally impossible.
Republicans in some places have gone even further, authorizing unusual post-election inquiries into election results.
The most high-profile of those reviews was in Arizona, where Republicans hired a firm with no election experience, called Cyber Ninjas, to examine all 2.1m votes cast in Maricopa county, the most populous in the state. That monthslong effort, which included a hand count of every single ballot, was widely criticized by election experts, who noted that the firm had shoddy methodology and its leader had embraced conspiracy theories about the election. Ultimately, the Cyber Ninjas effort affirmed Biden’s win in Maricopa county.
Related: Cyber Ninjas, UV lights and far-right funding: inside the strange Arizona 2020 election ‘audit’
Republicans elsewhere have embraced similar reviews. In Wisconsin, Republicans in the legislature have hired a former Republican supreme court justice to examine the election, but that effort has been marked by sloppiness and accusations of partisan bias.
“This is a grift, to be clear,” Matt Masterson, a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security, who works on election administration, said in December.
These efforts have been coupled with an even more alarming effort in Republican legislatures to empower lawmakers to alter election results. Lawmakers in seven states, including Michigan, Arizona, Missouri and Nevada, introduced 10 bills this year that would empower them to override or change election results, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Some of the bills would allow partisan lawmakers to outright reject election results, while others would allow for post-election meddling in the vote count.
Attacks on election officials
Over the last year, there’s been a surge in election administrators who have left their positions because of threats and harassment. Experts are deeply concerned about that exodus and say that it could make room for more inexperienced, partisan workers to take over the running of elections. Ben Ginsberg, a longtime Republican election lawyer, said earlier this month the effort was an attempt to take election administration “from the pros” and give it “to the pols”.
Trump has endorsed several candidates who have embraced the myth of a stolen election to be the secretary of state, the chief election official, in many states. So far, he’s made endorsements in GOP primaries in Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada – all swing states that could play a determinative role in 2024.
Extreme partisan gerrymandering
At the start of each decade, state lawmakers across the US draw new congressional and state legislative districts. In 2020, Republicans dominated the down-ballot races that determine who gets to control the redistricting process. And this year, they’ve used their power remarkably powerfully.
In Texas, where 95% of the state’s population growth was from non-white people, Republicans drew maps blunting the political power of minorities. They drew no new majority-minority districts, instead giving Republicans an advantage at winning the state’s two new congressional seats. Republicans have also moved to shore up their advantage in politically competitive states like North Carolina, Ohio and Georgia. Democrats are gerrymandering the states where they have power, like Illinois and Maryland, but control the redistricting process in far fewer places than Republicans do.
These rigged districts will insulate Republicans from threats to their political power for the next decade.
Federal voting rights legislation
One of the biggest frustrations of the first year of Biden’s presidency has been that Democrats have not been able to pass two crucial pieces of voting rights legislation through Congress. One bill would set a minimum of access across the country, guaranteeing things like 15 days of early voting, as well as prohibiting partisan gerrymandering. The second bill would re-establish a critical piece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring states where there is repeated evidence of voting discrimination to get voting changes approved by the federal government before they go into effect.
There is growing frustration that Biden has not pushed hard enough to get rid of the filibuster, which Republicans have relied on to stall those bills. Democrats have pledged to find a way around the filibuster next year.