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The State Assault on Voting Rights Hurts All of Us

Republicans are cynically supporting anti-voting measures that will ultimately hurt both parties—and our country.
March 29, 2021
The State Assault on Voting Rights Hurts All of Us
Demonstrators stand outside of the Georgia Capitol building, to oppose the HB 531 bill on March 3, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. HB 531 will add controversial voting restrictions to the state's upcoming elections including restricting ballot drop boxes, requiring an ID requirement for absentee voting and limiting weekend early voting days. The Georgia House passed the bill and will send it to the Senate. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

When John F. Kennedy squared off against Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, 64 percent of eligible voting-age Americans cast a ballot—the highest proportion in a half-century. In the decades that followed, voter turnout plummeted. By the time President Clinton ran for re-election in 1996, more adults were staying home than showing up at the polls. But in recent election years, that tide has been shifting in a positive direction.

Beginning with the landmark “Motor Voter” Act in 1993, which allowed people to register to vote while visiting the DMV, both the Democratic and Republican parties have found new ways to encourage their voters to turn out. The result has been a steady rise in participation. Last year, as states expanded early-voting options amid the pandemic, over 159 million Americans cast a ballot—roughly two-thirds of all eligible voters, besting the 1960 peak with the highest proportion in over a century.

And even as turnout soared last year, the election was conducted smoothly and securely. This should have been cause for celebration, regardless of party allegiance. Instead, GOP leaders across the country have leveled baseless accusations of election fraud—and now cite those claims to justify a vast rollback of Americans’ voting rights.

As former elected Republicans—one of us black, the other Latino—we have devoted our careers to bringing voters of all races and backgrounds into the conservative coalition. The bills being peddled by Republicans across the country are naked acts of voter suppression, engineered for partisan gain under the guise of “election integrity.”

In state after state, Republican officials and activists are carrying out a coordinated attack on our electoral system. Since President Biden’s inauguration, lawmakers have introduced more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote—not only in battleground states like Georgia (where a troubling new law was enacted last week) and Arizona, but even in conservative strongholds like Nebraska and South Dakota.

It is hardly a coincidence that Republicans are targeting the most successful voting provisions—such as the early-voting options that nearly 85 million people exercised in 2020, including 80 percent of Arizona voters and 60 percent of Georgia voters. In these states, as well as Pennsylvania and elsewhere, lawmakers have proposed eliminating no-excuse absentee voting for everyone under the age of 65, curtailing early in-person voting, removing ballot dropboxes, and preventing “souls to the polls” efforts common among church groups. The Georgia bill signed into law last week goes so far as to forbid third-party groups from bringing food or even water to people in line waiting to vote.

These measures would disproportionately affect students, the elderly, wage workers, and black and brown communities—those who’ve traditionally had the most trouble reaching polling places on election day. But the ripple effects would also be felt by everyone in the form of extremely long lines, just like those seen throughout the South in 2018 and 2020.

This crusade against voting rights lays bare the GOP’s greatest political liability: The party remains frozen in time, even as new demographic blocs have begun to gain power. Rather than encouraging citizens to exercise their right to vote or persuading new voters to become Republicans, the GOP has instead set its sight on a sweeping effort to restrict voting access in a way not seen since the end of Reconstruction. Make no mistake: These phony “election integrity” measures are meant to entrench minority rule, not strengthen our elections.

This cynical approach to elections is bad policy, but it’s also bad politics for Republicans. By gutting voting rights, Republicans risk discouraging the infrequent voters who catapulted Trump to victory in 2016; hindering rural and elderly voters who benefit from early in-person voting, voting by mail, and same-day registration; and permanently alienating a growing pool of black and brown voters. Simply put, these anti-voting measures hurt both parties—and our country.

This assault on voting rights makes the case for many of the provisions in H.R. 1, which includes popular, commonsense provisions such as universal same-day registration, no-excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration, and two weeks of early in-person voting. It faces an uphill battle in a deadlocked Senate.

Unfortunately, the Republicans in Congress have had much to say about what they don’t like about this sweeping bill, but little to say about what they are for. The question for our fellow Republicans is simple: Do we want to be a party of growth and inclusion that advances big ideas, or one that erects barriers to participation in a desperate attempt to keep political power without public support? As the party of Lincoln with a proud history of supporting the passage and reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, this shouldn’t be a tough question to answer.

Michael Steele and Carlos Curbelo

Michael Steele is a former chair of the Republican National Committee and former lieutenant governor of Maryland and chairman of the U.S. Vote Foundation. Carlos Curbelo represented Florida’s 26th district in Congress from 2015 to 2019 and is a member of the board of directors of Issue One, a leading crosspartisan political reform group in Washington, D.C. Both are members of the National Council on Election Integrity, a bipartisan group of more than forty political, government, and civic leaders devoted to defending the legitimacy of our elections.