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Analysis

Why Opponents of Voting Reforms Are Wrong

None of the arguments against voting rights reform stand up to scrutiny.

January 11, 2022
The Capitol building
Anna Moneymaker/Getty

On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Senate will consider rules changes to allow passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act. As the show­down vote approaches, oppon­ents are scram­bling for reas­ons not to pass the land­mark voting rights legis­la­tion. Their lead­ing argu­ments, which range from factu­ally inac­cur­ate to histor­ic­ally naïve, are reviewed and rebut­ted below. 

Elec­tion reform must be done on a bipar­tisan basis

It would be lovely if both parties suppor­ted free, compet­it­ive, inclus­ive elec­tions. But they rarely do. . . at the same time.

In the 1820s and 1830s, for example, Jack­so­nian Demo­crats unilat­er­ally pushed to enfran­chise poor and work­ing-class white men. The 15th Amend­ment, which prohib­ited states from deny­ing Black Amer­ic­ans the right to vote, passed Congress in 1869 with precisely zero Demo­cratic votes. Recon­struc­tion-era Demo­crats were equally unified against the 14th Amend­ment and the Ku Klux Klan Act. Should Repub­lic­ans have waited for Demo­crats to come around while people of color were denied full citizen­ship?

This is not an argu­ment to post­pone elec­tion reform — it’s an argu­ment for Repub­lic­ans to get on the right side of history.

Voter suppres­sion laws don’t actu­ally suppress votes, so there’s no need to pree­mpt them

This claim is factu­ally inac­cur­ate. Voter suppres­sion laws not only deter people from voting, they do so in a targeted and discrim­in­at­ory manner. Take voter roll purges. For much of the 2010s, Geor­gia disqual­i­fied voters for tiny discrep­an­cies (such as the absence of a last-name hyphen) between their voter regis­tra­tion forms and other state records. In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, the exact match system snagged more than 50,000 voters, over 80 percent of whom were people of color. (For perspect­ive, Stacey Abrams lost the 2018 race for Geor­gia governor by fewer than 55,000 votes.) 

A note to journ­al­ists and others who look at the laws on the books: many of the worst ones were blocked by courts, and others were softened and their provi­sions improved the same way. But the Supreme Court has now twice gutted the tool courts used to protect voters, the Voting Rights Act. Expect far worse to come. 

“Can’t prove it” has long been the refrain for those who deal in the dark arts of voter suppres­sion. But, as with tobacco and carbon emis­sions, you can only deny mount­ing evid­ence for so long. Legendary conser­vat­ive jurist Richard Posner, who voted in 2008 to uphold Indi­ana’s voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion law, came to regret his decision as evid­ence moun­ted of its ill effects. Posner’s chan­ging stance in the face of chan­ging evid­ence should be a model for all of us.

Gerry­man­der­ing isn’t a big prob­lem

Repub­lic­ans, who currently control the redraw­ing of 187 congres­sional districts compared to just 75 for Demo­crats, have passed heav­ily gerry­mandered legis­lat­ive maps in Texas, North Caro­lina, and beyond. Some contrarian pundits, however, have poin­ted out that the balance of seats in Congress could remain roughly the same, if the 2022 elec­tion returns resemble those of 2020. Where’s the gerry­mander, they ask?

This is a blinkered and naïve view of redis­trict­ing. As my colleague Michael Li points out, Repub­lican map draw­ers have used the redis­trict­ing process to shore up the districts they already gerry­mandered heav­ily in 2010. As a result, North Caro­lina Repub­lic­ans could carry 71 percent of the state’s seats in Congress with just 47 percent of the vote. Texas Demo­crats would have to win 58 percent of the vote to be favored to capture 37 percent of the state’s congres­sional seats. The redis­trict­ing process has been partic­u­larly damaging to voters of color, whose districts were carved up to minim­ize their voting power. This isn’t gerry­man­der­ing in retreat, it’s gerry­man­der­ing 2.0.

Can’t we just reform the Elect­oral Count Act?

We should reform the Elect­oral Count Act. It’s a mess, and its ambi­gu­ities would have led us into a consti­tu­tional crisis had Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence attemp­ted to block the 2020 vote certi­fic­a­tion. But reform­ing that law won’t prevent extreme gerry­man­der­ing, intim­id­a­tion of local elec­tion offi­cials, voter suppres­sion, or the many other issues the Free­dom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are designed to fix.