Part of the US Republican Party’s shift to more radical and authoritarian right-wing politics is its drive to suppress the number of Americans voting — particularly Americans with dark skin. Following Donald Trump’s campaign against the “stealing” of the presidential election, Republicans have introduced bills in many state legislatures to make it harder to vote.
The former President’s evidence-free claim of major voter fraud in the US is now mainstream in the Republican Party. Republican politicians typically proclaim that making it harder to vote is a matter of restoring “election integrity”.
Their real concern was expressed by Trump last year when he told Fox News that if proposals for expanding voting rights had passed, there’d be “levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again”.
Last month John Kavanaugh, the Republican chair of the Arizona legislature’s Government and Elections Committee, told CNN: “everybody shouldn’t be voting… Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes as well”.
By February, over a hundred anti-voting bills had been introduced in state legislatures. That number is now approaching three hundred. More than 90% have come from the Republicans.
These bills are concentrated in close states in the presidential election, including on recent counts 26 in Arizona; 27 in Georgia; 21 in Michigan; 15 in Pennsylvania; 26 in Texas. In each all or all but one bill came from the Republicans. Note that all these states swung from Trump to Biden — except Texas, where there is much speculation about the Democrats winning in the near future. Texas already has some of the US’s most restrictive voting laws.
Small and heavily Republican Arkansas, Iowa and Utah were the first to actually impose new restrictions after the 2020 election.
There has been greater controversy around the next, Georgia, where an Election Integrity Act became law on 25 March. The Act included sixteen changes including new ID requirements for absentee ballots, restrictions on ballot drop-off boxes, a prohibition on handing out food and water to voters waiting in line, and greater state (i.e. Republican) control over local election procedures and officials.
Bills introduced around the US include a wide range of measures, mostly focused on access to absentee voting, early voting, voter ID requirements, registration rules, electoral roll purges, and the number of polling places.
If all the proposals go through, they are unlikely to dramatically suppress voting numbers, at least immediately. What they can do, if successful, is further strengthen the US political structure’s bias towards right-wing forces dominating on the basis of minority support.
The Senate — in which the 600,000 people of Wyoming and the 40 million people of California both get two representatives — and the presidential electoral college are key elements of this set-up. The fifty Democratic-aligned senators represent 56.5% of the US population, to the fifty Republicans’ 43.5%. Senate Republicans last represented a (very narrow) majority of the population in 1996, yet they won a majority of seats in eight of the thirteen Senate elections since then. This advantage will likely grow. Of course this makes the Republican defence of the "filibuster" procedure, which means that it takes 60/100 Senate votes to pass many laws, even more anti-democratic.
The Republicans lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, but won three times due to the electoral college. In 2020 Biden won the popular vote by over seven million, but it would only have taken a few tens of thousands in a few close states to deliver the election to Trump.
These biases have knock-on effects in other parts of the structure, not least the President-appointed and Senate-confirmed membership of the Supreme Court.
The Republicans are using their dominance in state legislatures to gerrymander state and congressional constituency boundaries, extending their advantage.
More broadly, the existence of a major party eager to diminish even existing plutocratic democracy and normalise institutionalised minority rule is a powerful reactionary influence in politics and society.
Republican hostility to voting rights is not new. In the Reagan era, leaders of the newly insurgent Christian right talked about the necessity of limiting participation in order to win their agenda. For decades Republican politicians have supported policies to reduce the electorate, including changes to registration and electoral rolls which may have eliminated millions of voters. Over the years, however, there have been clear shifts and accelerations, even before this one.
An important shift came after 2013, when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to overturn key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring states and local authorities to get federal “pre-clearance” before implementing changes to voting laws or practices, based on their histories of voting rights discrimination.
Within five years this attack on civil rights-era legislation led to a thousand polling places closing, disproportionately in predominantly African-American counties, and a flow of other restrictions disproportionately impacting black people and other minorities.
This brings us back to a central aspect of the Republicans’ drive against democracy: its targeting of participation by black and brown Americans. They want politics more dominated by right-wing politicians from small, conservative states — and by white people. They are acutely aware that, while white Americans remain a majority, it is a rapidly shrinking one.
As socialist US historian and activist Robin D G Kelley put it: “Voter suppression is anti-black act and an anti-class act… Voter suppression laws are class warfare.”
The context is a long history of — often dramatic and violent — suppression of people of colour’s right to vote. Until the 1960s this was organised and championed predominantly by the Democratic Party. In the last decades of the 19th century Southern Democrats created white-supremacist one-party rule in the region by wiping out black office-holding, largely eliminating black voting, and suppressing Republicans, Populists and others with significant black support. In many cases they disenfranchised swathes of poor white people too.
How the Republicans and Democrats switched places from the 1960s, with particular speed and completeness in the South, is a peculiar historical and political story.
Georgia, in the heart of the civil-war Confederacy and the 20th century white-supremacist South, is at the centre of the current battles for clear reasons. Almost a third of its population is black (nationally, 13%). In the presidential election Georgia went Democratic for the first time since 1980 — with the exception of an ultra-narrow 1992 win by Southerner Bill Clinton in a three-way race — and largely on the basis of increased black turnout. In the Senate run-offs that followed, the Democrats flipped both seats on the basis of even higher black turnout and support, electing the state’s first black and Jewish Senators.
The Georgia Republicans, who still control the state government, are striking back.
The ban on giving food or water to people waiting to vote mainly affects people in urban areas, who are more likely to have to queue — and more likely to be black or minority. Greater state-wide control of local election decisions means giving Republican politicians control over mainly Democratic officials and voters in black-majority areas. (An earlier version of the Election Integrity Act banned early voting on Sundays, to stop get-out-the-vote mobilisations by black churches.) And so on, and in other states as well.
Clearly nothing like the reinstatement of old-style “Jim Crow” laws which generally excluded black people from voting altogether is on the cards, or possible after the political struggles and demographic changes of the last century. Republicans say the widely-made comparison is an outrage.
Proportions guarded, it is in fact legitimate and to the point. As New York Times opinion writer Jamelle Bouie explained, Jim Crow laws did not formally or fully openly disenfranchise black people; and they did not spring fully-formed but proceeded step-by-step over decades from the first defeats of post-civil war “Reconstruction”. “The thing about Jim Crow”, wrote Bouie, “is that it wasn’t ‘Jim Crow’ until, one day, it was.”