News stories on voter suppression have been a common sight during this election cycle. In early October, Texas governor Greg Abbott (R) ordered that each county will have only one ballot drop box despite the influx of vote-by-mail during the COVID pandemic. Even before 2020, 160,000 voters were incorrectly removed from election rolls in Georgia, Texas, and Ohio. The most obvious explanation for these continued attempts at voter suppression in the U.S. is to affect election results. Partisan polarization in the United States has led to the weakening of the “guardrails” of American democracy, specifically the norm of mutual toleration, or accepting the right of the other party to govern if they have the mandate.  Trying to affect election results by way of voter suppression is one key example of a lack of mutual toleration. So it’s not surprising to see suppression attempts by one party in battleground or “swing” states such as Georgia, Ohio, or Texas.
However, one doesn’t ordinarily hear about widespread attempts at suppression in states where it isn’t necessary, such as in California, New York, and Illinois. Contrary to popular belief, attempts at voter suppression are far from uncommon in these overwhelmingly one-party states and stem from a steady decline in tolerance of opposition parties as legitimate rivals at every level of American government, including at the local level. The minority political party makes these attempts to prevent the opposition from governing, even when there’s little to no probability of party change.
New York, for instance, is staunchly liberal territory. Yet the perception of electoral integrity in the state is at 61 out of 100, on par with Kentucky and Arkansas. Further, allegations of voter suppression have come in many forms, including opening polling sites far later than expected, giving voters incomplete absentee ballots or failing to provide them at all, and hours-long waits at voting sites. The problem is not new to 2020. In 2016 and 2018, many voters found themselves removed from election rolls.
Partisan polarization and gridlock leads to this suppression. Specifically, the county boards of elections, which control each county’s voting processes, are required to have two Democrats and two Republicans. This 1894 law has led to partisan gridlock, as fears that the other party will benefit from a rule change are prioritized over the change itself. Before the pandemic, changes to rules like early voting and same-day registration were held up in the Republican controlled New York State Senate. The lack of mutual toleration between parties in America has been evident in federal and state legislatures, which are shaped by party and ideology. Consequently, partisan legislatures are less likely to protect important institutions such as free and fair elections.  The New York Republican Party has stalled legislation that would make voting easier in order to stymie the ruling Democratic party––not because it would help them win back seats.
Further, the Californian government has recently been fighting against the California GOP’s placement of unofficial ballot drop boxes. However, the GOP has rejected a cease-and-desist letter despite concerns that the drop boxes are not secure. This intransigence is a key example of voter suppression done to hamper the opposition’s governance. While the GOP won’t gain a seat through these unofficial ballot boxes, it impedes the Democrats currently in office from governing by forcing a courtroom battle. Other instances include a recent fire, found to be arson, at a Los Angeles-area ballot drop box that potentially destroyed over 200 ballots. Officials have called it an intentional act of voter suppression.
Illinois, another reliably blue state, has fought its own voter suppression battles. This year’s Illinois primary was marked by long lines at polling stations and hours-late openings, especially in the majority Black Chicago Southside. Racist robocalls, sponsored by a far-right group, have been reported in Chicagoland; they stated that mail-in voting could be used to track warrants or force mandatory vaccines. Such claims have been used in the past to suppress and intimidate marginalized voters. Fighting misinformation makes governing harder for the Democratic state and Chicago city government.
The decline in mutual toleration is a nationwide phenomenon that pervades throughout state, county, and local governments. Political parties are further apart ideologically now than in previous years, and voters are more polarized and less willing to punish undemocratic behavior, including electoral manipulation.  In New York, partisan gridlock renders parties unable to agree on ways to halt voter suppression, thus leaving undemocratic behavior unpunished. Both California and Illinois provide key examples in which minority parties attempt to obstruct the opposition’s governance via unofficial electoral maneuvers and voter intimidation. Given the low probability of a party change, the only possible gain from these attempts is to prevent the majority’s governance, thus demonstrating a lack of mutual tolerance.
Perhaps an alternative explanation has to do with party survival. While deep-blue states provide little opportunity for Republican rule, the GOP recently flipped a seat in a Southern California special election, and Chicagoland is a blue spot in a largely red Illinois. Mechanisms like unofficial ballot boxes could be a desperate attempt to gain traction against the opposition. However, it’s more likely that the minority party knows they’re not gaining a massive electoral victory with manipulation; they’re simply making it harder for the dominant party to legislate.
Voter suppression in these deep-blue states demonstrates the ever-increasing enmity between American political parties. Mutual toleration, at its core, is about accepting the opposition as a legitimate governing power.  Voter suppression is one manifestation of a lack of toleration. In blue states, it drives partisan gridlock by stymying opposition simply because it’s seen as illegitimate. The unfortunate result of these games is that voters lose both their voices and representative government as elected officials put party above all.
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).
 Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
 Michael H Graham and Milan W. Svolik, “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review, 2020.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die.