The American Right has long had a hostile relationship with democracy, embracing the anti-democratic nature of the Constitution and using both legal and violent methods to keep as few people voting as possible.
In the twentieth century, numerous popular struggles faced years of resistance to expand democratic rights, eventually bringing about the direct election of senators and then the right to vote for women, black people, and adults under twenty-one. But while the Right generally no longer opposes democratic rights in principle — at least in public — over the past few years it has significantly accelerated its project of undermining fair elections. Simply put, the situation is dire.
Republicans are very unlikely to do anything as ham-fisted as suspending elections, freedom of speech, or the right to assembly entirely. But everywhere Republicans have power, they have increasingly stacked the deck in order to advance the Right and suppress or disadvantage racial minorities and the Left.
Both parties have tried to game the electoral system to their own advantage for centuries, and in modern times, the Republicans have long been more blatant about it. But since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and especially since Donald Trump’s presidency, Republicans have moved with increased unity, speed, and aggression to undermine fair voting. And of course, all of this is happening in a country where less than a year ago, a right-wing mob stormed Congress while it was certifying the results of the presidential election, a riot almost certainly coordinated with high-ranking Republican operatives and politicians.
While Republicans have not given up on trying to win elections, they have decided that they aren’t going to let anything as trifling as losing keep them out of power. The new energy is motivated in large part by Trump’s loss to Joe Biden, but their work has actually picked up speed since he left office. In a concerning development, a significant and growing faction of the party is now legislating and organizing based on the assumption that elections in which Republicans lose are inherently illegitimate. In this belief they mirror their party’s voters, at least two-thirds of whom believe that Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump was fraudulent.
Strategies of Suppression
Of all the Right’s attempts to undermine democracy, three are the most blatant: making it harder for likely Democrats to vote; gerrymandering; and stuffing formerly dull, bureaucratic election boards with Trump cronies willing to bend the results.
Voter suppression has been a key tactic of the American right for a long time. But as Josh Mound wrote in Jacobin, these efforts grew even more intense in 2020:
Already aided by the anti-democratic structures of the Senate and the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, Republicans have waged a concerted effort in states across the country to suppress the vote by closing polling places, limiting drop boxes, stunting the postal service, throwing out ballots for dubious reasons, and disenfranchising ex-felons, among other tactics.
With the Supreme Court shifted even further to the right than in 2013, there is little hope of recuperating the Voting Rights Act. In all likelihood, it will be gutted even further. Any hope of at least slowing the damage via new legislation has been dashed, as Senate Democrats have allowed Republicans to filibuster voting rights bills three times since the start of the year.
Among other things, the failure to pass voting legislation means that with the results of the 2020 census, Republican-controlled state legislatures can gerrymander districts more aggressively than ever before. Gerrymandering — the process of drawing political maps to advantage one party — has gone on for centuries, but the maps Republicans have drawn in the last few months are staggering, and they will define the boundaries of election districts across the country for at least a decade. Ari Berman, who has covered the issue extensively, lays out some stark numbers:
In Georgia, Republicans passed a new congressional map on Monday giving their party 64 percent of US House seats in a state Joe Biden won with 49.5 percent of the vote.
In Ohio, Republicans passed a new congressional map on November 18 giving their party at least 80 percent of seats in a state Donald Trump won with 53 percent of the vote.
In North Carolina, Republicans passed a new congressional map on November 4 giving their party between 71 to 78 percent of seats in a state Trump won with 49.9 percent of the vote.
In Texas, Republicans passed a new congressional map on October 18 giving their party 65 percent of seats in a state Trump won with 52 percent of the vote.
The gerrymandering of state legislative districts has been even more extreme than of federal districts. Because of the way the new maps are drawn, in any state Republicans currently control, it is about to become virtually impossible for Democrats to win legislative majorities, even if a majority of voters cast votes for them. Democrats’ federal delegations from these states are also all but guaranteed to grow smaller, again regardless of the number of total votes they receive.
In case rigging the districts in their favor fails, Republicans, egged on by Trump, have also filled state and local election boards with activists convinced that Biden won the election only through fraud. Many of these activists are willing to do almost anything to stop that perceived fraud from happening again. Since no actual election fraud occurred, what this means in practice is simply ensuring that the right candidate wins regardless of the vote count.
Following recent legislation, the Republican government in Georgia flagrantly removed black Democrats from electoral boards and placed them with white Republicans who parrot Trump’s lies about voter fraud costing him the election, a move the usually dry Reuters wire service described as a “purge.”
Even longtime Republicans aren’t safe unless they toe the new party line. In Wisconsin, Republican law enforcement officials have publicly mused about charging electoral board members with felonies. Referring to the activists who replaced her, one Republican who served on a county electoral board in Michigan for thirteen years recently told Slate, “Every last one of them believes all this fraud happened and that I participated in it. . . . It’s sad. People I’ve known for thirty years are literally attacking my integrity.”
Beyond putting hardcore Trump activists into the boards, Republicans in a number of state legislatures have also introduced bills to give themselves greater influence over the process of counting votes, which has long been considered a technocratic process with little need for partisan intervention.
As the New York Times reported in June, “Republicans have introduced at least 216 bills in 41 states to give legislatures more power over elections officials, according to the States United Democracy Center, a new bipartisan organization that aims to protect democratic norms. Of those, 24 have been enacted into law across 14 states.” While no laws have yet been passed to this effect, an increasing number of Republicans have gone so far as to assert that state legislatures can simply hand the state’s electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate they choose, regardless of the vote in their state.
Given that voter suppression and gerrymandering are already very effective in producing the desired outcomes, it remains to be seen how often these corrupt electoral boards or state legislatures will actually need to intervene. Though Republicans would certainly prefer to win without blatantly overturning electoral results, the events of January 6 show that even mainstream Republicans like Ted Cruz are not above doing so. Indeed, the playbook goes all the way back to 2000.
With the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary in general largely captured by right-wing ideologues, the facts hardly matter. They don’t have to be correct, they just have to manufacture controversy and confusion about the results until a friendly court has time to rule in their favor.
Tactics like storming the Capitol and trying to physically stop the vote count in Democratic strongholds might look silly considered in isolation (though physically stopping the count until they could arrange more favorable circumstances was an important part of Republicans’ successful strategy to hand the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000). However, in reality, these tactics aren’t deployed in isolation but rather as the most visible and dramatic part of a multifaceted strategy.
And as Barton Gellman has extensively reported, the Republicans have learned quickly from Trump’s chaotic attempt to overturn the 2020 election. In fact, the entire wave of new state legislation and electoral board upheaval is meant to knock down the very barriers that stopped the first attempt.
With Republicans set to win more legislative power in 2022 and officials still near-unanimous in their desire to nominate Trump for a rematch against Biden, all of this adds up to an acute crisis of democracy coming in 2024, if not sooner. The question is, who is left to stop it?