A Campaign of Voter Subtraction

Trump’s Republican Party must subtract votes in order to survive.

An illustration of a check mark transforming into a minus sign
The Atlantic

The people who were attracted to Donald Trump in 2016 have become alienated from President Trump in 2020. White women, seniors, and suburbanites are abandoning him in droves. The other swing voters—who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but did not vote in 2016—will likely be voting in high numbers, after many of them participated in the largest wave of anti-racist demonstrations in American history.

Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in polling averages in every swing state. Democrats appear to be within striking distance in the red states of Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. They could snag Texas, dealing a heavy blow to the national Republican Party and Senator Mitch McConnell’s political career.

Republican Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona publicly called on his party to remember an eternal principle of winning elections: “It’s a game of addition.” Privately, his party is ruled by another eternal principle of winning elections, one that Ducey has supported in Arizona. When a party is losing votes in droves, the path to victory is ensuring that the opposing party is also losing votes in droves. When you can’t add enough votes to win, you subtract enough votes to win, even if some of them come from your own supporters. The opposite of voter addition—adding more and more people to the voting ranks—is not merely voter suppression. It is voter subtraction.

Republicans are literally subtracting untold numbers of individual votes as they suppress the overall Democratic vote. GOP voter subtraction preceded Trump, but not as the GOP’s sole lifeline. For most of the post-civil-rights era, the Republican Party has also been attracting and adding voters, putting the Democratic Party on the defensive after half a century of New Deal dominance.

But in recent years, Democrats have been more likely than Republicans to follow the demographic and ideological shifts of American voters, moving somewhat away from the bipartisan political bigotry of fears, fairy tales, and lies that especially attracted white voters. Republicans, by contrast, have doubled down on those politics under a president who refuses to condemn white-supremacist domestic terrorists, hardly pays taxes, denies racism and climate change, bashes dead soldiers, mocks Christians and disabled people, tells Americans not to let COVID-19 dominate their lives, berates and allegedly assaults women, calls Hispanic immigrants rapists and animals, claims that Muslims hate America, and suggests that unhappy Black people should go back to their urban hells and shithole countries—all the while saying he’s the least racist person anywhere in the world, and making money off of his presidency with impunity. Trump has alienated rising numbers of young voters, voters of color, feminist voters, anti-racist white voters, and Americans who desire presidential decency. Trump has alienated almost everyone except his shrinking base.

Trump’s game of alienation has made voter subtraction the existential game of the Republican Party. Subtracting voters at any cost is all that is saving the Republican Party from political death. Trump’s Republican Party must kill votes in order to survive.

On March 8, 2019, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed the For the People Act. The bill would have enacted a series of major reforms: automatic voter registration, early voting, automatic registration of felons completing their sentences, Election Day registration, and independent state commissions to redraw congressional districts. By the year’s end, House Democrats had also voted to reinstate the 1965 Voting Rights Act and federal oversight of state election laws to protect against voter subtraction and suppression.

The Democratic Party has primarily played a game of voter addition. Primarily, not totally. To maintain power, centrist Democrats have engaged in voter subtraction to fend off their primary opponents, opposing online voting and reducing the voting age to 16.

But although Democrats supported both voter-addition bills, almost all House Republicans opposed them. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, ignored them; instead of becoming law, the bills died in the Senate. In the meantime, Republican state lawmakers continued to pass voter-subtraction bills. Republican secretaries of state have been aggressively subtracting millions of names from the voting rolls, even as GOP legislators have made it harder for citizens to register to vote.

On October 6, the deadline to register in Florida, the registration website crashed. (Virginia’s registration site also crashed on October 13, the last day to register to vote in the state.) In Florida, the registration barrier came on top of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Eleventh Circuit upholding Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’s bill requiring people with prior felony convictions to pay all prison fines, fees, and restitution before registering to vote. In 2018, Florida voters had restored the voting privileges of 1.4 million Floridians who had served time for felonies (exempting murder and sex crimes). About 28 percent of the potential new registrants were Black, in a state Trump won by fewer than 120,000 votes in 2016.

To deter voters who are already registered, voting by mail has become the central focus of GOP voter subtraction in 2020. Over the years, voter fraud has hardly been a problem, being reported at nearly the same nonexistent rate as alien abductions. There’s no evidence of systemic voter fraud with mail-in ballots. But still, on October 2, the Department of Justice ended its decades-old policy of noninterference in elections when it stipulated that a U.S. attorney’s office can interfere if it suspects election fraud involving postal workers or military employees. Days earlier, Trump had claimed that mail-in ballots for him were being thrown away. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said at the first presidential debate. And he wasn’t referring to the Republicans who installed unofficial ballot boxes throughout Southern California, which state officials say is illegal.

For months, Trump has been using his pulpit to delegitimize voting by mail, which has become widely popular amid a pandemic that the Trump administration has failed to control. “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting,” he tweeted on April 8. The reason is not hard to figure out: In one recent poll, 48 percent of Biden supporters said that they plan to vote by mail due to concerns about COVID-19, compared with just 23 percent of Trump supporters.

Republican state legislators have followed their president and fought hard to implement voter subtraction in red states and swing states. And some activists have gone further. In August, the right-wing operatives Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl were charged with making automated phone calls to about 12,000 Michigan residents, falsely claiming that their personal information on mail-in ballots could be used to execute arrest warrants or collect credit-card debt.

But the misinformation campaigns pale in comparison with Republican efforts to make voting by mail harder. This year, the Supreme Court upheld requirements in Alabama and South Carolina for witness signatures on mail-in or absentee ballots. In September, two Minnesota Republicans challenged Secretary of State Steve Simon’s decision to count mail-in ballots arriving up to a week after the election. Due to Republican-backed laws or court rulings, mail-in ballots must be received by the time polls close on Election Day to be counted in South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Montana. But in a victory for Native Americans, the Yellowstone County District Court found the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA) to be unconstitutional. Since 2018, BIPA had effectively disenfranchised immobile Indigenous peoples who lived in remote areas by prohibiting voting organizations from collecting and delivering their ballots. A similar law remains in effect in Arizona, defended by Ducey. The Arizona governor publicly calls for a game of addition but, like other Republicans, privately plays a game of subtraction.

On October 1, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, ordered all of his state’s counties—no matter how large or small—to have just one ballot drop-off site. Democrats, who are more likely to live in larger counties, were thereby forced to travel longer distances to drop off their ballot. On October 9, a federal judge overturned Abbott’s order. The state of Texas immediately appealed, and a three-judge appellate panel upheld the order.

In Mississippi, Republicans have limited voting by mail by mandating that a voter must have a “legitimate” reason to receive a mail-in ballot. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in September that preexisting conditions, even those placing voters at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19, do not automatically qualify voters for mail-in ballots.

When Iowa voters broke records in the state’s primary election, in June, with more than 530,000 votes cast, including 420,000 absentee ballots, Republican state lawmakers did not rejoice. A week later, they passed a bill prohibiting the Iowa secretary of state’s office from unilaterally sending out unsolicited absentee-ballot request forms, as it had done for the primary. “More people will vote under this bill,” said Iowa State Senator Roby Smith, a Republican.

Iowa Republicans reversed course in July. But they prohibited county auditors from mailing “pre-populated” ballot request forms, and blocked them from sending out information on how Iowans without driver’s licenses can secure a voter-ID number to vote.

When voters manage to mail-in their ballots, likely Democratic voters may be more likely to be rejected. In North Carolina, Black voters’ mail-in ballots have been rejected at nearly three times the rate of white voters’, as of September 23. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in September that election officials could reject mail-in ballots not placed inside a secrecy envelope, which could subtract more than 100,000 votes in a state that Trump won in 2016 by about 44,000 votes.

Republicans are undermining voting by mail because they’ve had a much easier time at voter subtraction in person. On the first day of early voting in Georgia, on October 12, voters waited in long lines for hours across the state. Everlean Rutherford, a Black woman in Cobb County, tweeted that it took her nine hours and 39 minutes to vote. Voters of color are more than twice as likely as white voters to be forced to wait at least an hour to vote, according to a recent study.

Voter-ID laws have effectively disenfranchised Black and Hispanic voters, who are less likely than white voters to have photo IDs. These photo IDs are required to vote in six states (Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia), and requested in 10 states (Idaho, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Michigan, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Rhode Island).

In addition to voter-ID laws, Republicans have limited early voting. In June, a federal appeals court upheld a Republican-backed law that allows only two weeks of early voting in Wisconsin. Limited early voting, consolidated polling stations, and faulty voting machines at Democratic polling sites ensured longer lines in Black districts around Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee during the 2020 primary, and will likely do so again on Election Day.

If in-person voters manage to escape voter purges, register, have photo ID, reach the polls, and take off hours from work to wait in long lines, the voter subtraction still will not end. What may happen on Election Day already happened on September 19, Virginia’s second day of early voting. Trump supporters gathered to disrupt voting at a polling place in Fairfax, taking cues from their president. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” Trump said at the first debate.

But how many Americans are watching the Republican game of voter subtraction very carefully? Most Americans seem focused on the polling data, on the game of voter addition. There is widespread media coverage of campaign contributions, regular stories on new polls; and regularly updated dashboards and graphs on the news networks, imparting which candidates likely voters are supporting. But where is the daily coverage of those Democratic attorneys general and secretaries of state fighting off GOP voter subtraction? Where is the regular coverage of contributions to the organizations protecting voters, such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, led by Sherrilyn Ifill; Fair Fight 2020, founded by Stacey Abrams; and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, led by Kristen Clarke? Where is the widespread and systematic coverage of the GOP effort to subtract votes?

Democrats following only the polls are gearing up for a postelection replay of 2016. The situation seems eerily similar weeks before Election Day. Biden leads handily in the polls, just as Hillary Clinton did then; many of his supporters believe that all people need to do now is vote. If Republicans keep the White House and the Senate, many will conclude that Democrats lost because people did not vote. But if that happens, it’s likelier that Democrats will have lost because people who wanted to vote could not vote.

If Democrats lose, they will pore over the exit polls, looking to see who stayed home. Young people, people of color, and poor people might again be blamed for failing to vote at higher rates. Black and Hispanic men might be blamed for voting for Trump at higher-than-expected margins. The very groups assaulted with racist policies and misinformation by Republicans during the election risk being assaulted with racist ideas after the election. The voter-subtraction policies of Republicans will fade into the background.

And if Trump wins, Biden voters might again be livid at the pollsters. Many Democrats seem to believe that the reason the polls did not predict a Trump victory in 2016 was because state-level polls underrepresented white, non-college-educated voters, obscuring Trump’s strength. Pollsters have corrected this. However, this popular explanation fails to explain why those state-level polls that did properly weigh education levels were also off in predicting the results.

The greatest myth of the 2016 election is that the polls got the election wrong. What if the polls did not get it wrong? What if the Republican game of voter subtraction got it right? What if the GOP game is even stronger in 2020, as it wields the awesome power of the presidency?

Pollsters track voter addition. Pollsters struggle to track voter subtraction. They weren’t able to do so in 2016, and they seem unlikely to be able do so in 2020. “Voter suppression could render good, methodologically sound polls inaccurate if people who intend to vote cannot, for whatever reason, succeed in doing so,” Robert Santos, the vice president and chief methodologist of the Urban Institute, wrote in September.

Taking full advantage of the raging pandemic, Republicans are waging a mass movement of voter subtraction, primarily subtracting Democratic voters and some of their own voters too. Ignoring this movement and primarily studying the polls is like trying to predict the outcome of a grand battle by studying only one side.

The grand battle of the 2020 election is not between Biden and Trump, or between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives. The grand battle is between the American people and GOP voting policies. The grand battle is between the survival of the American voter and the survival of the Republican Party. The grand battle is between voter addition and voter subtraction.