Sunday, February 25

Opinion | The battle for democracy is an endless game of whack-a-mole

What’s it going to take to protect voting rights in America? Two new stories from state politics show that even though it will be a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, the best hope we have lies in a combination of Democratic focus and occasional Republican stupidity.

Let’s start with the stupidity. In Wisconsin, a conservative majority on the state supreme court declared Friday that dropboxes for absentee ballots violate state law and must be banned. Just as Republicans intend, this will make voting less convenient for many people. But although this decision will be widely interpreted as a victory for the GOP and a setback for Democrats, the likely partisan effect is approximately zero.

Which shows that if Republicans can be occupied with inane crusades that actually don’t help them win elections, perhaps that will give Democrats the opportunity to make genuine progress shoring up voting rights.

For all the attention dropboxes got in 2020, you’d think they were a surefire scheme for Democrats to win elections. Yet as a dissenting judge in the Wisconsin case wrote, there is “no evidence that voters who used dropboxes voted for one candidate or party or another, tilting elections either direction.”

That’s true of absentee voting more generally; while Republicans used to focus on getting supporters (especially older voters) to vote absentee, there is no evidence that the use of mail ballots gave either party an advantage. And before 2020, dropboxes were used in many states without controversy.

Oddly, Republicans have not yet addressed the threat represented by one key category of dropboxes, 140,000 of them placed around the country, most with no video surveillance. You may have seen them — indeed, there might be one right on your block. They’re painted blue, and they say “United States Postal Service” on the side.

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It’s something of a mystery that Republicans believe that if you deposit your ballot in a dropbox placed outside your town hall by the Board of Elections then it might be fraudulent, but if you drop the ballot in the mailbox standing right next to it, that’s perfectly legitimate. Or actually, it isn’t a mystery: It’s because Donald Trump got into his head one day that dropboxes are bad, so immediately every Republican had to agree.

Once Trump decided that dropboxes were a threat to his reelection, the entire apparatus of the Republican Party swung into action. The anti-dropbox propaganda was blasted out from Fox News and the rest of the conservative media. Republican state legislatures rushed to crack down on drop boxes. There’s even a preposterous movie about it. Now the conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have weighed in.

To repeat, they’re putting all this energy into eliminating dropboxes despite the fact that it will almost certainly not help them win future elections. They think it will, but they’re wrong.

Now let’s consider what liberals in another swing state have been up to. In Arizona, a coalition of advocacy groups just submitted twice as many signatures as needed to get a voting rights initiative on November’s ballot.

Among other things, the initiative would create a same-day registration system in the state, limit voter purges, and prevent the state legislature (currently narrowly controlled by Republicans) from making changes to the rules on appointing presidential electors after Jan. 1 of an election year.

That last provision could be important, because the GOP may well nominate unhinged Trumpian conspiracy theorists for governor and secretary of state. The danger is that Republicans could come up with a way to overrule the voters and simply hand the state’s electoral votes to the GOP nominee, whether it’s Donald Trump or someone else.

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This path to reform should be a major focus of Democratic organizing, since 26 states allow for ballot initiatives. While the initiative process is often put to nefarious ends, in many places where Republican legislatures are working against voting rights it’s a tool that the public can use to circumvent those legislatures and guarantee their rights.

It’s not an easy task by any means; it requires time, organization, effort and money. And Republicans will fight back.

But it shows that guaranteeing voting rights will require a multi-pronged, well-planned effort. Get initiatives on the ballot. Focus on state legislative races rather than quixotic campaigns against high-profile national Republicans you don’t like. In places where state supreme court justices run for election, pay attention to those races as well.

Of course, this will all be threatened by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which next year could hand vastly more control over federal elections to state legislatures. And there’s no question that Republicans can be diabolically brilliant as they search for ever-more creative ways to rig elections in their favor.

That’s all the more reason for Democrats to be serious and focused. And when Republicans get distracted by drop boxes, or whatever idiotic idea Trump comes up with next? Let them have at it.

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