Republicans Are Making 4 Key Mistakes

An illustration of elephants in holes
Getty / The Atlantic

It’s not only Georgia.

In every state where Republicans control a chamber of the legislature, bills to restrict voting are advancing fast. Arizona and Texas Republicans have acted especially aggressively to choke off unwanted voters in time for 2022.

Arizona Republicans propose to reduce the number of days for early voting. They want to purge voter rolls of people who missed the previous election. They want to cut off mail-in balloting five days before Election Day. And they want to require that affidavits of identity accompany any ballot that is mailed in.

Texas Republicans are pushing a bill to limit early voting, prohibit drive-through voting, limit the number of ballot drop-off locations, and restrict local officials’ ability to publicize voting by mail.

Arizona and Texas have the most at stake; both of these formerly solid Red states are now suddenly competitive. But in other states, too, Republicans are reacting to defeats in 2018 and 2020 by attempting to reshape the future electorate to their partisan advantage.

Leave aside, for the moment, the clamor about whether these laws are fair or democratic. Let’s look at them instead from the point of view of practical politicians. Will they deliver the intended results?

Recommended Reading

Almost all the new laws raise new barriers to voting by mail. Republican officials dislike postal voting in 2021 because in 2020 Biden voters were much more likely than Trump voters to use a postal ballot.

But that pro-Biden tilt in postal voting looks like a once-in-a-lifetime event, driven more by divergent reactions to the threat of the coronavirus than by ordinary voting behavior. (Forty percent of Biden postal voters cited fear of the virus as a reason they voted by mail.)

In previous elections, constituencies that have generally supported Democrats in recent years, including younger voters and members of racial minority groups, have tended to use postal ballots less frequently than do Republican-leaning constituencies, including older, white, and military voters. And many of the particular restrictions Republicans have in mind will bear especially hard on their expected voters.

For example, the new Georgia law requires those voting by mail to include some form of proof of identity, such as a photocopy of a driver’s license or a utility bill. If you work in an office park in the increasingly Democratic suburbs of Atlanta, making a photocopy is easy. A machine is probably just down the hall. If you are tech savvy, you’ll scan the license on your smartphone and print a copy. But if you live on the edge of a conservative small town in rural Georgia, or if you are unfamiliar with computers, making a photocopy or scanning and printing can be complicated. Obtaining an affidavit may prove even more daunting.

You might assume that Georgia Republicans have absorbed such negative information, balanced it, and coldly calculated that the trade is worth it: They may lose some of their older, poorer, or sicker rural voters, but if they can thwart a larger number of Black or young voters, they will emerge ahead.

But in the Trump and post-Trump era, local Republican power holders have again and again demonstrated that they are not good risk assessors. They refuse to acknowledge awkward truths. They believe their own inflammatory propaganda. The result is that they make self-harming decisions based on inaccurate information.

Last week, the liberal world was much upset by a segment on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show in which the highly influential host endorsed the white-nationalist fear of race replacement: “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people—more obedient voters from the third world.”

Again, leave aside for the moment the origins and implications of the idea. Focus on the arithmetic instead. Donald Trump lost in 2020 in great part because his support collapsed among white voters, especially among white men. In 2016, exit polling found that white men with college degrees voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by 14 points. In 2020, the same polls found they voted for Trump over Joe Biden by a margin of only three points, a startling 11-point drop. Trump’s margin in 2020 among white men without college degrees dropped by six points.

Meanwhile, Trump’s share of the vote among Latino Americans actually improved from 2016 to 2020. The clear pattern, instead, is that conservatives are being outvoted by a coalition built around Black voters and white, college-educated voters. For a right-wing newscaster to look at recent elections and conclude “We multi-generation Americans are being outvoted by newcomers” is a triumph of ideology over reality. Yet in many state legislatures, ideology has triumphed over reality. Republican decisions are being driven not by what happened, but by rage-distorted misperceptions instead.

The misperceptions and the rage are blinding Republicans to four specific ways that their voter-suppression measures may backfire.

Voter suppression can countermobilize its targets.

As he campaigned for reelection in 2020, President Trump noisily explained again and again that voter suppression was crucial to his political strategy. For example, on March 30, 2020, Trump told the audience of Fox & Friends that if every eligible American voted, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

An unpopular president told his opponents that they were guaranteed to win if they showed up—and those opponents heeded the president and showed up in historic numbers. Who could have predicted that?

In the 2010s, Republicans used their dominance of state politics to raise obstacles to voting. Sometimes the methods worked. The 2014 elections were marked by the lowest turnout since the Second World War—and a resounding Republican win in U.S. Senate elections. In 2016, a decline in Black voters’ turnout in midwestern industrial states, notably Michigan, helped secure the White House for Donald Trump. More often, though, Republican efforts to discourage African American voting have inspired countermobilization, driving increased turnout.

Modern voter suppression raises the sorts of petty, bureaucratic obstacles to voting familiar from Jim Crow, but does not reproduce its deadly violence. Requiring extra paperwork, imposing burdensome identification requirements, and facilitating lengthy queues on voting day are effective ways of dissuading people who are only weakly committed to the political process; they are less effective against people strongly committed to the process. But in the 2010s, Republicans repeatedly used voter suppression to elect politicians—including Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump—who proceeded to convert their opponents’ weakly committed supporters into strongly committed voters.

Republicans get discouraged too.

Modern voter-suppression methods target unsettled people, who change their address frequently. Every change of address necessitates a reregistration, and every reregistration can generate the small mistakes—a missing hyphen in a double last name, for example—that can lead a voter to be purged from the registration rolls.

So long as middle-class homeowners reliably voted Republican, the GOP reliably benefited from rules that tilted the electorate toward middle-class homeowners.

But that so long as condition is ceasing to apply. Over the past 20 years, Republicans have traded suburban voters for rural voters. They have lost ground among the college-educated and gained ground among voters who did not attend college. They have weakened among 40-somethings and gained among 70-somethings. The result of all those shifts is an electorate in which many of the voters most likely to be discouraged by voter suppression are Republicans, not Democrats.

Eastern Kentucky was Trump country: overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Republican. Yet in 2020, the lowest voter turnout in the state—only 44.5 percent—was posted in eastern Kentucky’s Martin County. The highest turnouts were recorded in the county containing the city of Lexington. More than 66 percent of voters cast a ballot there—and almost three out of five of them voted for Biden.

Trump and the Republicans still carried Kentucky, of course. But the trends so starkly visible there are also on display in North Carolina, Georgia, and other dynamic states where Republicans are trying to turn the tide by shrinking the electorate. The voters they are repelling may be their own.

Blatant voter suppression may galvanize the courts and Congress.

The Republican action in the states has summoned a reaction at the federal level. The House has already passed the most ambitious voting-rights legislation since 1965. The law faces obstacles in the Senate, including the risk of being filibustered. Thus far, the Democrats have not gathered the votes necessary to end the filibuster. Blatant voter suppression by Republican state legislatures is the one force that might change the minds of pro-filibuster Democrat senators.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has endorsed some elements of the voting-rights legislation, even as he has stood by the filibuster. Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, although her stance on the filibuster remains somewhat enigmatic. But if Arizona Republicans attempt to shrink the state’s electorate in order to defeat Sinema, they may force her to choose between saving the filibuster and saving her own Senate seat.

The courts, too, might react to the recent efforts at suppression. Over the past two decades, a more conservative judiciary has retreated from its former protection of voting rights.

But the judiciary is about to become rather less conservative. There are 68 vacancies on the federal bench, and another two dozen or so are likely to open soon. The Biden administration is moving fast to fill them. And as the world witnessed in 2020, some antidemocratic acts by Republican legislatures can exceed the tolerance even of Republican-appointed judges.

Winning votes is better than suppressing them.

In 2020, many of the precincts with the most immigrants moved most strongly to Trump. In Chicago, the precincts with the most people of Mexican descent delivered 45 percent more votes to Trump in 2020 than in 2016. Yet these Republican-leaning new voters figure high among those most negatively affected by Republican-sponsored voter suppression.

State-level Republican officials have sought to reduce the number of early-voting days. They hope that by cramming more voting into Election Day itself, they can lengthen voting queues and discourage minority voters. Almost everywhere in the country, minorities must wait longer to vote than whites; urban and suburban voters must wait longer than rural voters.

So it’s natural to assume that by further extending the lines on Election Day, Republicans can gain an even greater advantage.

Natural, but wrong.

Texas is notorious for the waiting time at some of its polling sites, where lines can stretch for hours. Latino voters in urban areas, such as Greater Houston’s Harris County, have faced some of the longest waits. Harris County is 44 percent Latino, and those voters rallied to the Republican party in 2020. Of Harris’s 299 majority-Hispanic precincts, more than 90 percent moved toward Trump between 2016 and 2020, some precincts by more than 30 points.

Would it not make more sense for Republicans to try to speed these voters to the polls rather than harass and deter them with long queues? Would a wiser use of political resources not be to compete to keep their votes in 2022 rather than engineer the voting system to thwart their votes? The middle-aged educated homeowners whose ballots are favored by voter-suppression laws are ceasing to be a reliable Republican bloc. Some of the groups most targeted by voter suppression are rapidly becoming more Republican. Republicans would be smarter to switch off the race-baiters on cable news, read the precinct reports, and do the solid work necessary to earn and secure votes from voters who are ready to vote Republican if only the party will allow them to vote at all.