Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
In the U.S., somebody always wants to block somebody else from voting.
At the outset, people with property didn’t want most people to vote. Whites didn’t want Blacks to vote and men didn’t want women to vote.
The country is a great democratic experiment, but let’s not get carried away. Those in political control were unlikely to allow others in on it.
But pressure for popular control could not be denied. Black Americans got the right to vote, at first only in theory. The popular vote replaced state legislatures in electing U.S. senators. Women gained the right to vote. Eventually, the country moved toward a political process open to all. It took almost two centuries.
But popular democracy has begun to unravel. Ironically, the largest turnout in history for a presidential election has unleashed the strongest efforts to turn back the rapid progress made since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
From 1933 through 1994, Democrats controlled Congress for all but two years. To end that control, the Republicans had to take the South away from their rivals and to make it more difficult for Democrats, especially Black Americans, to vote.
Opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act led many southerners to jump to the GOP. Its efforts at voter suppression focused on limiting access to voting.
While the GOP’s strategy worked, it was thwarted in 2020 by two factors – COVID-19 and Donald Trump. The virus threatened to keep voters away from the polls, calling for finding ways to help people vote. Trump’s possible reelection stimulated unusually strong support and even stronger opposition.
Responding to COVID-19, many states expanded mail-in voting, and developed other measures including public drop boxes and more convenient times for voting including at places remote from Election Day polling locations.
Easier access attracted more voters. Nationally, people of each party and other electoral subsets turned out in greater numbers. While improved access did not favor Democrats overall, it might have been a factor for them in swing states.
Since 2020, states under GOP control have cut back on the use of methods easing access. Early voting dates and polling places have been reduced. New forms of voter ID are required in some states. Texas even claimed it ran out of its new voter registration forms due to paper shortages.
The 2022 congressional elections will take place in newly designed House districts. GOP-controlled states continue to pack Democratic voters into as few districts as possible. The Democrats have done the same in a few places, but they have fewer opportunities because they control fewer states.
U.S. House elections this year are expected to produce GOP control, caused mainly by voter suppression and the new round of redistricting. The Supreme Court won’t touch politically driven district design. It’s even tough to get it to look at race effects.
Congressional Democrats have thus far failed to enact federal legislation overriding voter suppression. Added to reduced voter access, in the wake of the 2020 election some Republican states have moved to control how votes are counted.
Trump attributed his election loss to corrupt vote counting resulting partly from the use of mail-in ballots. He complained that mail-in ballots led to vote tampering, because early counts in his favor gave way to wins by Joe Biden after the envelopes were opened. Repeated reviews, including by Republican officials, found no evidence that Trump’s claims were true.
When he and his backers failed with those claims, they attacked the vote counters. In Georgia, for example, Brad Raffensperger, the GOP secretary of state, refused Trump’s request to reverse Biden’s victory. The GOP-controlled legislature eliminated his election authority in favor of its own designees. Similar moves occurred in eight other states.
The Constitution gives states power over the “times, places and manner of holding elections,” but Congress may override them. Partisan control of elections could end up giving one party a way to decide on winners, no matter the popular vote. Democratic efforts in Congress to require multi-party control of the process have failed, thanks to the filibuster and solid GOP opposition.
The Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection tried to force Congress to ignore the official results of presidential elections in some states. Congress might now amend existing law to ensure that vote counting is purely procedural, just as it has always been.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins is a leader in that effort, which will do nothing more than preserve the historical process. She now opposes efforts to halt this new voter suppression. Independent Sen. Angus King expresses alarm at efforts to reduce popular control.
Facing stepped-up GOP voter suppression, Democrats need to mount massive get-out-the-vote operations and to launch legal challenges to partisan control of the election process. The political wars this year could grow even more bitter and hard fought.