Spooked by their losses, Mitch McConnell and Republicans are determined to make it harder to vote

'Right now, what Republicans are doing, they're doing because they can and there's no one watching them’

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Thursday 28 January 2021 21:52 GMT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted against the Senate moving forward with its impeachment trial of Donald Trump on Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted against the Senate moving forward with its impeachment trial of Donald Trump on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

President Joe Biden and Georgia Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were the first candidates in decades to win statewide federal elections in Georgia, but without intervention by the Democratic majority in Congress, a Republican-led crackdown on voting rights could also make them the last to do so for just as long.

Days after most news organizations projected Biden to be last November’s winner, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News that the GOP needed to “challenge and change the US election system” in the wake of Trump’s loss.

"Mitch McConnell and I need to come up with an oversight of mail-in balloting,” Graham said. “If we don't do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country."

Georgia Senate Republicans echoed his sentiments several weeks later, in a press release vowing to “reform our election laws to secure our electoral process by eliminating at-will absentee voting,” a practice the GOP-led legislature legalized nearly two decades ago but has become radioactive to Republicans thanks to a year-long campaign by now-former president Donald Trump and his allies. And just one week after Biden, Ossoff and Warnock were sworn into office, they are following through.

On Wednesday, Georgia State Senator Jason Anavitare introduced legislation to require absentee voters to submit two printed copies of approved identification — one when applying for an absentee ballot and a second copy when sending in the ballot itself — in order for their votes to be counted. In addition, the bill limits who can assist a voter with applying for or submitting their absentee ballot.

A spokesperson for Fair Fight, the Georgia-based voting rights advocacy group founded by 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — who many have credited with enabling Democrats’ 2020 victories in Georgia — wrote on Twitter that Republicans “are trying to change the rules of GA elections… because they were humiliated on November 3 and again on January 5, and they know their only chance at winning future elections is to prevent eligible Georgians from casting their ballots.”

For former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, Georgia Republicans’ efforts are the latest chapter in a long story.

“It is consistent with what we've seen from some members of my party in various states over the last 10 years or so, if not more,” he said. “This is an extension of the fear that Republicans have that they can't win without tipping the scales in their favor, whether it’s draconian measures on voter ID and voter registration, the locations of polling places, or absentee balloting.”

Democrats have frequently decried Republican efforts to make it more difficult for predominantly Democratic groups to vote, whether by enacting voter ID laws that accept gun permits but not student identification, onerous signature-matching requirements, or other measures that began making their way into state law books after Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory. Such measures have spread like wildfire in GOP-dominated southern states since 2013, when the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to pre-clear changes in election laws with the Department of Justice.

But twelve years since Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency touched off a wave of voter suppression and resentment that culminated in Trump’s election as his successor, Democrats have a chance to do something about it and head off a GOP retrenchment in the 2022 midterms. Now in control of both the House and Senate, top Dems are hoping to move two pieces of voting rights legislation that passed the House during the 116th Congress but sat idle in Mitch McConnell’s Senate.

The first is the For the People Act, a sweeping overhaul of federal election laws that would create automatic voter registration systems nationwide, prohibit states from denying voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, and expand early and absentee voting. It would also strengthen many of the federal conflict-of-interest and ethics laws that were so frequently and flagrantly violated during Donald Trump’s presidency, while implementing new restrictions on money in politics.

The second, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — named for the legendary Georgia Representative and civil rights leader — would restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act “pre-clearance” provisions with a new formula that is meant to pass Supreme Court muster.

Steele said expanding such oversight to all 50 states would “absolutely” be a major accomplishment for Democrats and the Biden administration and would stop Republican voter suppression efforts cold — if Senate Democrats can flex the procedural muscles needed to get it done.

“Right now, what Republicans are doing, they're doing because they can and there's no one watching them,” he said.

Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins predicted that Democrats’ fate in 2022 will be tied to their success or failure when it comes to enacting legislation meant to restore and renew democracy after four years of Trump.

“I think that there will be a lot of Democrats who will be disenchanted and disappointed if much of the Democratic agenda doesn't make its way through,” he said. Hopkins added that he doesn’t see voting rights as a party line issue if it gets to a floor vote in either the House or Senate, positing that there will be a need for “one or two Republicans” on both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

But whether or not either passes with Republican support, the most important supporter of both might be the person residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When that was Trump, both were little more than aspirational messaging bills, buried in Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard. But these days, newly in-control Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration appear equally committed to ensuring they are both enacted into law.

As for when that might happen, top Democrats on Capitol Hill are keeping mum so far. Asked when work on either bill might begin, a spokesperson for House Majority Header Steny Hoyer said neither have been scheduled for action at this time, but stressed that the Maryland Democrat is looking forward to bringing both to the House floor.

On the Senate side, a representative for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had not yet responded to a request for comment before this article was submitted for publication.

But whenever Congress gets around to moving voting rights legislation, the White House is fully on board. According to a White House official, the administration views the For the People Act as “a landmark bill that aims to strengthen and reform our democracy.”

“We are glad to see Congress taking important steps to address such core issues. And we look forward to close collaboration with its sponsors as it moves through Congress,” they said. “As the President made clear throughout the campaign, he supports meaningful democracy reform — from restoring the voting rights act, to getting private money out of campaigns, to strengthening our ethics laws so we ensure federal officials serve the American people not their own interests. The President looks forward to working with Congress to enact meaningful voting rights and democracy reform legislation.”

Yet even with a bare majority in the Senate, the House, and the White House under Democrats’ control, mustering the institutional energy to move what would amount to the most sweeping expansion of voting rights in a half-century will push inter-party relations in the upper chamber to the brink.

When Democrats introduced similar legislation after taking control of the House in 2019, then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell decried the bill as a “power grab.”

"Their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party," he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act."

McConnell would spend the next two years using every procedural tool in his tool chest to block nearly every piece of election-related introduced in the Senate — even limited election security measures with bipartisan support.

And though the new Democratic Senate majority can control the Senate’s calendar and bring bills to the floor for debate, McConnell is banking on the support of moderate Dems such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Krysten Sinema to maintain the 60-vote threshold he has used to block legislation when he was previously the Senate’s minority leader.

Steele, the former GOP Chair, isn’t so sure that the filibuster — used by southern segregationists to block civil rights legislation for decades before 1964 —  will survive a modern-day fight over voting rights.

“McConnell thinks he may have won the day, just because he's gotten his ‘agreement’ that the Democrats aren't going to touch the filibuster, but I guarantee you when the you-know-what hits the fan, Manchin and other Democrats who are who are lukewarm on or in opposition to ending it are going to be under enormous amounts of pressure to get an important piece of legislation passed, even if McConnell is holding the whole thing hostage,” he said.

According to another former GOP elected official, the Senate minority leader’s hardline opposition to expanding voting rights is not likely to change or be open to negotiation.

Joe Walsh, who served in the House from 2011 to 2013 and now hosts a conservative radio talk show, said that one of the issues his constituents would frequently raise with him was the specter of widespread voter fraud.

“They hear from their base all the time: ‘Oh, my God, voter fraud is a huge f**king problem,’” he explained. It was always one of the biggest issues with my constituents, and it’s still one of the most animating issues for Republican base voters.”

Walsh noted that such beliefs persist despite the lack of evidence for widespread fraud in either in-person or absentee voting, and are a significant reason that former president Trump was able to convince a majority of Republican voters to believe that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

He posited that such mass delusions are unlikely to abate, and will continue to drive Republican opposition to any attempt to make it easier for Americans to vote, because they are ultimately faith-based rather than grounded in any sort of evidence, and have been reinforced by Trump’s lies about Biden’s 2020 victory.

“It's an article of faith, and I have found that it's impossible to move most of these people off of it,” he said. “What happened in 2020 just reinforced all of that s**t for them.”

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