Reporter's Notebook

Restricting the Vote

It’s a straightforward formula: foment uncertainty in the electoral system, and then propose laws that purport to fix the nonexistent problems

By Myers Reece

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist, summed up the wave of voter-restriction laws proposed by GOP statehouses across the country in a Feb. 24 tweet: “We are witnessing the greatest rollback of voting rights in this country since the Jim Crow era.”

Republicans in these 30-plus states, including Montana, are emboldened by the false claims put forth by former President Donald Trump and others that the 2020 election was “stolen.” Cries of widespread election fraud have been thoroughly debunked, but their existence nevertheless cultivates fertile soil for seeds of doubt, which the GOP sees as an opportunity.

It’s a straightforward formula: foment uncertainty in the electoral system, and then propose laws that purport to fix the nonexistent problems.

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobson has thrown her support behind a package of “election-integrity” bills, including measures aimed at same-day registration and voter identification. It’s interesting that the elected official in charge of voting would adopt a platform explicitly designed to make voting harder.

None of which is to say there isn’t room for improving elections, nor that isolated improprieties and mistakes don’t occur. But they don’t happen on a scale that nears result-tipping fraud, and November’s impressively successful election in the midst of a disruptive pandemic is proof of the system’s strength and efficacy.

When Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican Party sued to block Montana’s plan allowing counties to hold an all-mail election, a federal judge rejected the effort and called claims of potential widespread voter fraud “a fiction.”

“When pressed during the hearing in this matter, the plaintiffs were compelled to concede that they cannot point to a single instance of voter fraud in Montana in any election during the last 20 years,” the judge wrote.

The efforts may backfire for Republicans at the federal level, as the threat of widely proposed voter-suppression laws could be the tipping point that motivates two Democratic senator holdouts — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — to switch over in support of altering the filibuster.

The U.S. House recently passed an expansive voting rights bill, and with a growing chorus of Democrats expressing a belief that the legislation is vital to ensuring both the survival of their electoral chances and democracy itself, Manchin and Sinema may read the tea leaves and relent on the filibuster. Manchin said as much over the weekend, revealing that he’s willing to consider filibuster reform, although not elimination.

The political consequences are less obvious for Republicans at the state level. Then again, if Congress tweaks the filibuster and passes the voter-rights act, which would dictate a number of state laws, Republicans may be left feeling they overplayed their hand.

Moreover, is it necessary? Republicans gained ground in the U.S. House and performed better than polls predicted in the presidential and Senate races, proving they can win within the current legal framework. Montana Republicans, meanwhile, completely dominated statewide races across the board. The current system seems to be working out fine for the GOP.

And make no mistake: these laws aren’t about fraud. They’re about winning elections, based on the belief, widely held on both sides of the aisle, that an expanded electorate inherently favors Democrats. 

In the end, these are cynical calculations with generational repercussions, designed to take advantage of a destabilized political environment and era of misinformation where democracy is already reeling uncertainly.

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