‘We’re f—ed’: Dems fear turnout catastrophe from GOP voting laws
The state’s new voter I.D. requirement for mail-in ballots could affect the more than 270,000 Georgians lacking identification. The provision cutting the number of ballot drop boxes could affect hundreds of thousands of voters who cast absentee ballots that way in 2020 — and that’s just in the populous Atlanta suburbs alone.
It didn’t take long before the implications became clear to party officials and voting rights activists. In a state that Joe Biden carried by fewer than 12,000 votes last year, the new law stood to wipe out many of the party’s hard-fought gains — and put them at a decisive disadvantage.
Democrats in other states where similarly restrictive voting laws have passed are coming to the same conclusion. Interviews with more than three dozen Democratic elected officials, party operatives and voting rights activists across the country reveal growing concern — bordering on alarm — about the potential impact in 2022 of the raft of new laws passed by Republican legislatures, particularly in some of the nation’s most competitive battleground states.
“I’m super worried,” said Max Wood, founder and CEO of Deck, a progressive data analytics company that analyzes voting behavior. “I try to be optimistic, and I do think there are times when this kind of stuff can galvanize enthusiasm and turnout. … But I don’t know that that will be enough, especially with how extreme some of these laws are.”
Democratic efforts to model midterm turnout under the new laws remain in their infancy. But even without a sophisticated understanding of the practical effect, there is widespread fear that the party isn’t doing enough to counter these efforts, or preparing for an election conducted under, in some instances, a dramatically different set of rules governing voter access.
“If there isn’t a way for us to repeat what happened in November 2020, we’re f—ed,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the Stacey Abrams-founded New Georgia Project. “We are doing what we do to make sure that not only our constituents, our base, the people, the communities that we organize with, get it. We’re trying to make sure that our elected officials get it as well.”
Since Jan. 1, at least 18 states have passed laws that restrict access to the ballot, according to the Brennan Center’s voting laws tracker, ranging from voter I.D. requirements to provisions making early and absentee voting more difficult.
In Michigan, voting rights activists are fighting a push by Republicans to require voters who cast ballots without a photo I.D. to take additional steps to verify their identity within six days of voting. In 2020, about 11,400 voters cast ballots without a photo I.D. — a tiny proportion of the electorate, but almost exactly the margin by which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016.
“If you make all of those people vote by provisional ballot and you make them go back to their clerk’s office, some number of people are not going to take that extra step,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a Michigan-based ballot initiative which has shifted its focus from redistricting to voting rights.
Republicans, Wang said, are “trying to peel away Democratic-leaning voters wherever they can. … It’s sort of death by 1,000 cuts.”
Georgia Democrats are rushing to develop a strategy to work around their state’s voting law, which GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law in March, on the heels of unexpected Democratic victories. It has been widely viewed as a blueprint for similar measures in other states.
The state Democratic Party aims to confront the law by building on their voter education program established after the 2018 midterms. They are training county chairs, volunteers and voters on the law’s terms in Zoom and in-person sessions. The goal, according to one party official, is to train volunteers on how to obtain a voter I.D. in all 159 of Georgia’s counties. The party also brought on three new deputy political directors for Black, Latino and Asian American outreach.
This November’s mayoral election in Atlanta represents a test-run of the law and how its requirements will impact voters. While Democrats aim to apply lessons from this election to next year’s midterms, they recognize that the heavily Black, safely Democratic city is a far cry from a statewide race.
“Certainly, the city of Atlanta is very different than other parts of Georgia,” said Saira Draper, voter protection director for the Georgia Democratic Party, pointing out that Fulton County is Georgia’s most populous. “The fact that they’re going to have this opportunity to go through the process, that’s a good thing. And the problems that they encounter, if they encounter problems, it might be a way for us to steer other counties away from these problems.”
What’s missing, however, is an overarching tactical plan to counter the restrictions in the states where they stand to wreak the most harm on Democratic chances. The party and its affiliated interest groups are preparing to spend millions of dollars litigating against restrictive voting laws and bolstering turnout operations, but Democrats have been largely splintered in their response. One reason: widespread hopes and expectations that Washington or the courts will provide some remedy.
“I don’t think the Democratic Party as a whole is prioritizing this issue and its potential damage in the way that they should,” said Doug Herman, who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “We just went through an insurrection that was stoked by voter fraud lies, and the reaction to that from the Republican Party is to restrict the voting process so severely that only their voters can participate. And I don’t understand the lack of fierce resistance to that from Americans and Democrats.”
The restrictions advanced by Republicans affect so many facets of voting that Democrats cannot agree on which provisions are the most problematic. Some Democrats cite signature-matching laws. Others point to fewer drop boxes or shorter time frames for early voting. Still more consider voter identification requirements especially crippling.
Aneesa McMillan, Priorities USA’s deputy executive director, who runs the group’s voting rights program, said the “most ridiculous thing we’ve had to sue over” was a Michigan law that prevents hiring people to transport voters to the polls.
Yet it’s difficult to project the effect of various laws on 2022 turnout because the rules are so new — and because the last election was held under pandemic conditions that are unlikely to be as severe in 2022. On top of that, even if Democrats can get their voters to the polls, stricter I.D. requirements and other restrictions in some states could make it easier to disallow their votes.
Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that in addition to portions of laws seemingly designed to curb turnout, “what is even more nefarious is what happens once people, if they can get through all the hurdles that they’ve set up, what happens to their vote once it has been cast?”
Citing a provision of the law in Georgia giving Republican lawmakers more power to intervene in local elections operations, he said, “That is not America, that’s Russia. I mean, that is some straight-up dictator-type stuff.”
Vice President Kamala Harris this month announced a $25 million expansion of the DNC’s “I Will Vote” campaign to bolster voter registration, turnout and election protection programs. Harrison said the DNC in 2022 will have the largest voter protection program it has ever had, doubling the size of its staff, including embeds in states.
“Over the last 3 decades we have witnessed the Republican Party, especially at the state level, put up enormous roadblocks to the freedom to vote for every citizen and part of the problem is that there is one party that believes every American citizen deserves the freedom to vote while the other party erects barriers to the ballot box,” said Donna Brazile, a former DNC chair.
Some statewide elected officials expect a possible blowback effect on Republicans, saying that once Georgia Democrats understand the new rules in place, they will be even more motivated to turn out.
“That may incentivize more voters to turn out and do what needs to be done, to ensure that their ballot is cast,” said state Rep. Sam Park, whose district includes suburban Atlanta’s populous Gwinnett County, the state’s most diverse. “When you see politicians coming after your ability to cast your vote, it’s a reminder of how much power you really have, how powerful the vote really is.”
Harris met with a group of voting rights activists at the White House in mid-July to discuss protecting ballot access, particularly among Black voters. Veteran civil rights leaders have also pulled the president’s ear on the issue, suggesting a number of filibuster workarounds to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or For the People Act.
But even the White House’s heightened attention isn’t enough to erase the pessimism among many on the left.
“I’m pretty well convinced that it’s going to hurt Democrats significantly in the long run,” said Brian Fallon, co-founder and executive director of Demand Justice, which supports Supreme Court reform. “There’s definitely no combination of lawsuits or Biden remaining popular or voter registration that’s going to overcome that, so I think it’s pretty bleak.”
Congressional Democrats have yet to reintroduce the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore a requirement that certain jurisdictions receive approval from the Justice Department or D.C. district court before making changes to voting laws.
Senate Democrats used a first-in-two-decades field hearing last week in Atlanta to draw attention to voting rights and say they plan to continue holding field hearings in other places where state lawmakers are considering or passing legislation that limits access to the ballot.
Yet they did not provide a clear strategy for how Democrats could counter Georgia’s law and the nearly two dozen newly passed laws like it.
“Hope is quickly turning into frustration,” said Latosha Brown, co-founder of the Georgia-based voting rights group Black Voters Matter. “Constantly, we are showing up to protect democracy. When in the hell are those who claim that they are committed to democracy going to show up to protect those that protect democracy?”
Brown and Ufot pointed to Texas, where statehouse Democrats vacated the state in protest of its voting bill, as one example of the heights they would like to see other Democrats go to in pushing back against punitive voting measures in other battleground states.
“Texas Democrats were out of moves, and the only thing they could do to deny quorum was to take their families and leave the state in the middle of the night,” Ufot said. “That’s the kind of response and leadership that this moment requires, and I am waiting for the administration to match the energy of state and local Democrats across the country who are fighting these fights.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.