Republicans are going to nationalize vote suppression
Leave it to Donald Trump to allege widespread fraud in an election that he won.
On Sunday, the president-elect tweeted that "in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." Trump is, of course, lying. Behind the seemingly pointless attempt to stir doubt about his victory is a more sinister motivation, which is to call into question the legitimacy of any and all institutions of American public life and democracy. But while Trump is throwing up a cloud of confusion, there are serious policy changes afoot. Now that they have control of Congress and the executive branch, Republicans will be nationalizing vote suppression.
They haven't made any grand announcements to that effect yet. But you can bet that it's coming, for one important reason: 2016 taught them that vote suppression works.
For years, Republican state legislatures have been passing laws to make it harder for certain kinds of people — the kinds likely to vote for Democrats — to register and vote. But the effort kicked into high gear after 2013, when a conservative majority on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, lifting the requirement mostly Southern states had to demonstrate that changes to their voting systems didn't discriminate against minority groups. Immediately, Republican state legislatures swung into action, passing voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, and laws curtailing who can register voters. In 2016, 14 states had newly passed voting restrictions in place. One survey of around half the counties that had been removed from federal oversight found that they had eliminated a total of 868 voting locations since the ruling.
While we can't say that these restrictions got Donald Trump elected, they certainly helped. In Wisconsin, for instance, Trump won by 27,000 votes in the initial count (a recount will begin soon), yet as many as 300,000 eligible voters lacked the ID required by the restrictions Republicans passed after taking control of the state legislature and governor's mansion in 2010. In North Carolina, Democrats weren't able to turn out African-American votes in the numbers they had hoped, even after an appeals court struck down the state's draconian voting law, saying, "The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision."
So get ready, because Republicans are likely to pass a federal law or two taking what has worked for them at the state level and making it the law for all 50 states.
Can they do that? Yes they can. Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution states that while the states decide how to hold elections, Congress can overrule them — for federal elections, that is. But it's highly unlikely that states will want to have a different set of rules for elections for president and Congress than they have for local offices, so they'll likely just accept whatever the federal government mandates.
Congress' power isn't limitless — it couldn't declare that only people over six feet tall can vote — but it has a lot of room to move under the authority the Constitution grants it to set the "times, places, and manner" of elections. Republicans will no doubt craft their legislation to push up against the limits of how restrictive they're allowed to get, in the knowledge that when registering and voting are harder, the people most likely to vote Democratic, including young people and minorities, are going to be more likely to be inconvenienced and not bother to cast ballots.
And of course, it will all be justified on the basis of mythical "voter fraud," which is no more likely to happen now that Donald Trump is claiming it did than when Republicans were telling the same story years ago. In case you're wondering, in 2016 there was exactly one documented case of the kind of voter fraud ID requirements are designed to stop. It involved a Trump supporter in Iowa who felt moved to cast a second ballot because she feared the election was rigged against her candidate.
And it isn't just legislation. President-elect Trump has chosen for his attorney general Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — who as a U.S. attorney prosecuted three civil rights activists (including a former aide to Martin Luther King) for helping elderly African-American voters cast their absentee ballots, and reportedly referred to the NAACP and ACLU as "un-American." Call me crazy, but I'm guessing that protecting minorities' voting rights is not going to be high on Sessions' list of priorities. In fact, it's more likely that his Justice Department will move in the opposite direction, becoming lax in enforcing the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act and pushing states to do things like purge their voter rolls, which often disenfranchises large numbers of voters.
There are many ways Democrats could push back on the Republican agenda and make voting easier — if they had the power. Voting solely by mail, which is now in place in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, has produced healthy turnout with few allegations of fraud (and you can't keep someone from the ballot box when it's the mailbox on the corner). Six states have approved automatic voter registration, in which you're registered automatically when you get a driver's license or interact with a government agency in some other way, unless you opt out. Same-day registration, which also has proven effective at boosting turnout without the kinds of problems Republicans often predict, has been approved in some form in 16 states plus the District of Columbia.
Democrats would like to expand all those measures to as many states as they can, on the theory that the more people who vote, the better Democrats do. Indeed, when nonvoters get surveyed, they inevitably prove to be more liberal and more inclined toward Democrats than the population as a whole. Which is exactly why Republicans want to keep nonvoters from voting — at least certain kinds of nonvoters.
And now that they've got complete control of the federal government, they'll have their chance. The only question is how far they'll go.