Voter suppression is one of the United States’ most shameful yet open secrets. Beyond voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and polling place closures, the right to vote by mail during a pandemic is now the latest focus of partisan dispute. The Republican and Democratic parties are locked in a heated battle over voting rights in the run-up to the November 2020 election. Recent attempts to limit the use of mail-in ballots have revealed how our voting system in 2020 is particularly susceptible to voter suppression tactics from a polarized Republican party.
Republicans now view Democrats as an existential threat to their way of life and the nation itself. President Trump has said that “The Radical Left Democrats… will destroy our Country as we know it.” Senator Lindsey Graham recently painted himself as part of the “Resistance” that will oppose Democrats’ “radical liberal agenda as they try to fundamentally change America.” Seymour Lipset describes this phenomenon as one where parties “are concerned with making the world conform to their basic philosophy.” In addition, Lust and Waldner argue that when parties become so polarized, they view politics as a zero-sum game that they must win; otherwise, it would be catastrophic for their coalition and their values. In the opinion, or at least public rhetoric, of many Republican leaders, a Democratic presidency would bring forth the destruction of the America they hold dear. This mindset compels the Republican party to attempt to win by any means necessary, including voter suppression tactics.
While voter suppression tactics have been used in various forms for years, voting rights in the November elections are especially fragile because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent increased reliance on mail-in ballots. Even during elections conducted largely in-person, procedures on absentee voting can vary by region, state, and county. In a study of absentee ballots cast in Florida’s 2018 midterm elections, there was vast variation in ballot rejection rates between the 67 counties. These inconsistencies, combined with disparate access to vote-by mail, constitute a glaring weakness in our voting institutions. In Michigan, for instance, ballots can count if they arrive after Election Day, while this is not allowed in Maine. The governor of Texas recently attempted to unilaterally close all but one ballot drop-off location in each county. Rules can change at a moment’s notice as a result of different laws or court decisions. This means that depending on where a voter lives, it can be dramatically more difficult for them to cast a ballot safely and make sure it is counted during this pandemic.
This decentralization is a problem in a polarized political system. When one party sees the other as an existential threat, as the Republican party does now, they will attempt to win by any means necessary. Therefore, our fragmented voting system provides an opening for a party to attempt to change voting rules in order to limit the number of votes cast against them.
The Trump campaign and Republican party are doing just that, suing to stop ballots from being automatically sent to voters in Nevada, ban drop-box locations in Pennsylvania, and limit the time in which ballots can be counted. These actions are being justified under the guise of combating voter fraud; however, many experts agree that voter fraud is an overexaggerated threat which does not occur often. In addition, President Trump has admitted to believing mail-in ballots will hurt Republicans, thus revealing their partisan motivations.
The Republican party, rather than debating issues within the system, is using democratic institutions for partisan advantage. The party has decided it is necessary and justified to undermine people’s right to vote in order to win. They face fewer obstacles in our fragmented mail voting system, where limits on suffrage can be won through court cases and targeted to key battleground states. Voter suppression can greatly impact the outcome of the presidential election, especially in the electoral college, where a margin as small as 25,000 votes out of 3 million can decide a state’s electors.
Some may argue that having a fragmented voting system controlled by state and local authorities can combat partisan voter suppression. However, this decentralization helps those with malicious intent to specifically target key battleground states. In fact, such a system may actually be more beneficial for Republicans. Currently, many lawsuits over access to the ballot are occurring simultaneously, making it difficult and confusing to keep track of losses of the right to vote.
What are the consequences we face from this? The fundamental right to vote and for each citizen to have an equal opportunity to voice their opinion is at stake. A sitting president and his party are attempting to impose limits on voting to further their political ambitions. To keep democracy healthy, elected leaders must have respect for the will of the people and a willingness to relinquish power to those with whom they disagree. Without this principle, the system is no longer beholden to citizens’ wishes.
Perhaps even more frighteningly, Republican voter suppression threatens to destabilize trust in our elections. As part of their attacks on mail-in voting, they accuse Democrats of using it to rig the election. Only 34% of Republicans now believe this election will be fair, due in large part to the unfounded rhetoric around mail-in ballots’ security. Democrats, however, are concerned about voter suppression and thus may believe the election will not be conducted impartially. As a result of the public and partisan battles over voting rights and mail-in ballots, we are at an unprecedented point in history where it is possible the losing side will not accept the election results as legitimate. Democracy only works if the people feel that politicians have earned their right to power fairly. If margins are very close in a battleground state, the losing party may view the election as unfair, and faith in the election will be lost, leading to a disastrous scenario where large portions of the country think that the president’s power is illegitimate.
Extreme polarization between the Democrats and Republicans has been damaging our voting institutions in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. We face an urgent crisis in our electoral system stemming from the Republican Party’s use of voter suppression policies in order to maintain power. The unprecedented possibility that there will not be an uncontested transition of power is a frightening reminder of the fragility of our democratic institutions and a sign of the pressing need to reimagine our electoral process.