Voter suppression has been around for as long as the republic. Stories of subterfuge and ballot box-stuffing schemes are such a part of American political folklore, there’s an entire book about them. So in one sense, there is nothing particularly novel about Republican politicians’ efforts to rig the vote, or the important revelations that right-wing groups and corporate officials are coordinating state-level campaigns to make it harder to vote.
However, a new nugget of polling data illustrates that something more fundamental has happened: Voter suppression is no longer a plot engineered in the shadows and denied in public, for fear of criticism by a population that considers such measures grotesque. Instead, voter suppression is having its coming-out party — because more and more Americans now consider it to be a perfectly legitimate and even laudable campaign tactic.
The data point comes in a new CBS/YouGov survey, buried under the top-line finding that almost two-thirds of Republican voters do not consider Joe Biden the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, despite Biden’s electoral college and popular vote victories.
Further down in the survey, pollsters asked GOP voters whether in advance of the 2022 election, they would advise Republican leaders to “tell the public about popular policies and ideas” or instead “push for changes to voting rules,” on the basis that Republicans “will win once those changes are in place.”
Nearly half of Republican supported the latter move, with the strongest demographics in support being female Republicans, nonwhite Republicans and white Republicans with no college degree:
This wouldn’t be so profound if this were a survey only of cynical, campaign-hardened GOP consultants. But here we see that a near-majority of rank-and-file Republican voters have internalized the soulless cynicism of their party’s political class.
In the same way so many Democratic voters have become calculated TV pundits who decide whether something is good policy based only on how they perceive it will supposedly play with moderate voters, many Republican voters have become dead-eyed operatives who actively support voter suppression regardless of how it might conflict with their party’s bromides about freedom and democracy.
Liberals keep hoping that exposing the latest voter suppression scheme might miraculously shame GOP lawmakers into backing off, but those Republican leaders are absolutely proud of their efforts, because a sizable chunk of their voters want that.
In effect, Roger Stone, Karl Rove, and Lee Atwater have created a GOP electorate of Roger Stones, Karl Roves, and Lee Atwaters. Shaming alone will not combat that kind of mercenary amorality — ending the filibuster and passing federal legislation to protect and expand the franchise is probably the best hope.
The new CBS poll doesn’t appear to be an outlier. An Economist/YouGov poll from March found that 57 percent of Americans say they would support or aren’t sure they would oppose “laws that would make it more difficult to vote.” An Associated Press poll in April found that while a majority of the country supports making it easier to vote, a majority of Republican voters do not. And voter ID laws — which are sculpted to make it harder to vote — are wildly popular, according to various surveys.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this change of norms.
For most of my lifetime, campaigns and elections have been considered a blood sport — but they at least had a few unwritten rules. Typically, it was assumed that the outer limits of acceptable tactics were negative ads and super PAC expenditures, with anonymous dark money spending tipping over into that gray area between what was seen as legit and not legit.
Though chicanery to drive down turnout was always a threat to steal an election, straight-up voter suppression was generally perceived as something looked down upon if not criminal — a tactic that would always be confined to the shadows, deterred by public shaming. Campaigns and politicians rarely copped to the idea that they were actively trying to make sure people didn’t vote — they either denied it, or dressed it up as some necessary way to ensure ballot-box integrity.
But now, another Overton Window has shifted. Super PAC and dark money spending flooding elections are the norm, and voter suppression tactics and legislation are considered by many to be just another totally permissible aspect of the political competition.
Maybe it was always like that — maybe conservative voters have always been win-at-all-cost automatons. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that women and people of color were explicitly barred from voting, which is the ultimate form of voter suppression.
But maybe in the modern era — after the right to vote was putatively extended to everyone — the revanche is part of the larger Trump effect, which among more and more Republicans has legitimized literally anything required for them to seize power. This effect is clearly reverberating not just among paid political pros, but also among rank-and-file GOP voters.
It’s important to remember that the psychological shift isn’t in reaction to actual proof that Democrats are pilfering elections. On the contrary, the normalization of voter suppression is happening even though there is no concrete, substantiated evidence that voter fraud systemically plagues American elections.
In other words, this is all happening without the kind of proof that might justify cynicism about elections. (And after the 2000 election shenanigans in Florida, it is Democratic voters who arguably have the most reason to question the integrity of elections.) The shift is a product of both the GOP’s fact-free “voter fraud” propaganda, and also a win-power-at-all-costs mentality among a large subset of conservative voters.
The former is an obvious problem that’s being supercharged by the miasma of disinformation unleashed by social media and exacerbated by the decline of fact-based journalism that anchors the news.
The latter is arguably even more troubling, because it is operating on the synaptic level. Politics has apparently become such a red-versus-blue tribal war that a significant chunk of Republicans now seem willing to trample the very ideals America is supposed to represent in the name of rescuing the country.
They are willing to sacrifice democracy in order to supposedly save it — an authoritarian mentality that never ends well.