How Democrats Could Counter Republican Attacks on Voting Rights

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A day doesn’t go by without news that the Republicans are making another move to oust Democrats this November from Congress and state governments. What are the GOP moves and what can Democrats do to counter them?

Democrats have major hurdles in the courts and Congress in trying to curtail unethical if not illegal practices. With reactionary Republicans controlling the Supreme Court, arguing that they are unlawful will not carry the day. There are not enough bipartisan votes in Congress to eliminate the filibuster or pass the Build Back Better bill or any bills protecting or expanding voting access. Forcing votes Democrats know will be lost is not a strategy for winning.

Democrats should keep in mind that smaller armies have beaten bigger armies throughout history. Such smaller armies did it by picking the landscape that improved their chances of winning a battle. They made orderly retreats from battles rather than losing the resources needed to fight on. And they trained their soldiers to know how to best engage in a struggle. The Democrats can derail the Republican’s plans if they keep these lessons in mind.

The Republican game plan starts with a three-prong attack on voting

Republicans limit Democratic access to voting first by targeting large cities. An Associated Press’s analysis of the Clinton vs. Trump votes revealed that Hillary Clinton lost the election because of lower turnout in predominantly black areas and Democratic bastions, i.e., urban areas. A Brookings Institute report found that Biden had won 509 counties and Trump 2,547 counties in 2020. Biden’s counties had the largest populations and the most diverse.

Republicans also use the courts and state legislatures to severely limit access to drop boxes for collecting ballots and forcing folks to wait in hours-long lines. A Wisconsin Republican judge invalidated years of guidance from that state’s Elections Commission by ruling that drop boxes for absentee ballots are illegal statewide.

State Republican legislatures are taking similar actions to curtail voting. For example, Georgia eliminated 73 percent of drop boxes in Fulton County, which contains Atlanta. In addition, a Republican-controlled legislature passed new voting laws in Texas that rejected as many as half of absentee ballot applications in the most populous counties. Overall, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote.

Then comes the effort to throw out already-cast ballots

The former advisor to then-President Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, told his radio audience of over 100,000 that they need to occupy the vote-counting positions in their counties to oversee elections. His vision was, “we will decertify all those electors in those four states,” the swing states that Biden won.

The most powerful path to negating votes already cast is to use the Independent State Legislatures doctrine, which would allow a state legislature to choose a separate list of electors than what a popular vote in that state had chosen. Consequently, the party that controls the state legislatures can switch elector delegates assigned from the winning candidate to those whose party controls the state legislature. Currently, the Republicans control both chambers in 30 states, and the Democrats control both in 18.

This barely legal transfer would be premised on the understanding that massive fraud had occurred. The elected or appointed state officials would make that charge. If they all came from the same party, there might be no problem in getting a different vote count. However, Trump ran into a problem overturning the popular vote in Georgia when the Republicans counting the votes refused to “find” the votes that Trump needed to take the electors from Biden.

Republicans are now running candidates in many states who believe, without any evidence, that Trump won the election. It is expected that if Biden or another Democrat wins the 2024 Presidential election, these Republicans if they get into office, would transfer the electors to a Republican Presidential candidate on flimsy claims of massive fraud.

Next comes the effort to create more Republican House seats

Both parties gerrymander district boundaries to their advantage. However, since Republicans control more state legislatures than Democrats, they can redraw voting boundaries in states that represent 187 congressional seats, compared with just 75 for Democrats.

A good-government movement helped create new independent state commissions or bipartisan ones to draw district boundaries based on non-racially biased demographics. However, New York Times journalists report that these commissions have become “bogged down in political trench warfare.”

In Iowa, Republican legislators rejected their nonpartisan career staff members’ redistricted map and substituted one with more new districts with Trump voters. Utah Republicans adopted their own maps, ignoring proposals from a redistricting commission that voters approved in 2018. Likewise, Ohio Republicans controlled the legislature and simply ignored its redistricting commission, although the Ohio Supreme Court tossed out their map.

The same Times reporters in another article reviewed the new Republican gerrymandered districts for the 2022 November congressional races. They concluded that the Republicans had already added enough districts to capture control of the House of Representatives. Just five of the most likely to flip from a Democratic victory to a Republican would be enough. Only a quarter of all congressional district boundaries have yet to be adopted by state legislatures.

The Democrats’ game plan to counter these ploys could include the following tactics. First is to know the political landscapes of states and their legislatures.

For Democrats to keep the states that Biden won and have a chance at winning key state legislature races, they must coordinate state efforts. In the future, the party leaderships in swing states need to meet at least quarterly to share tactics on how best to move forward.

Each state Democratic Party Committee needs to work with community-based get-out-the-vote organizations in sharing resources to identify likely Democratic voters. But unfortunately, that coordination is not apparent on the Democratic Party website.

There are no links to statewide community-based organizations, many of which have achieved phenomenal victories. One of them, the New Virginia Majority, focusing on working-class communities of color, registered 140,000 new voters in 2016, which led to Democrats gaining 15 house seats. The Republicans had expected to lose no more than five.

This feat was accomplished despite Republican gerrymandered districts. The organizers chose to use their limited resources on efforts they could win. They didn’t try to change the minds of solid Republicans. Instead, they focused on the landscape of potential voters who would likely vote for Democrats.

On the Democratic state website page, a Democrat will find their state map divided up by county boundaries. What good does that do? Indiana has 92 counties, but more than half (3.4 million) of that population resides in just 20 of them. Florida has 67 counties, with over half in just six counties. Linking Democrats to one another across vast areas of a state is comforting, but that alone will not win elections.

Every state should have two state maps on this website. One would show congressional districts, and the other showing state legislative districts. The districts that have the potential to swing from Republican to Democrat in the next election must be highlighted. Volunteers then should be directed to those districts.

In other words, the Democrats need to select the turf that they can win instead of wandering around in a state’s political wilderness.

A further step is to know when to retreat with a limited victory

George Washington’s greatest skill as a general was mastering an orderly withdrawal in battles he could not win. That enabled his troops to fight on to win the war. Progressive Democrats should consider that strategy. But unfortunately, they did not apply it to Biden’s proposed Build Back Better Plan. After meeting resistance to his $3 trillion plan, Biden recognized that he could get a smaller infrastructure bill passed. So, he pushed for a separate vote on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

It was a smart move. The size of this federal investment is twice what was spent to build the interstate highway system when adjusted for inflation. According to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill was backed by 63 percent of Americans. More importantly, it opens the door to address counties’ concerns in every state. Counties spend an average of $134 billion each year building infrastructure and maintaining public works. In the last three presidential elections, 80 percent of the 3,069 counties have gone for a Republican President. Now, Democrats can boast about providing something tangible that those counties can see.

Unfortunately, the media coverage of this historic bill was sidelined by Congressional Democrats. Moderate house members got a delay wanting the Congressional Budget Office to review the bill’s fiscal impact. But most of the media coverage covered the Democrats’ 90-member Progressive Caucus opposition, whose chair is Seattle Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Most of their members would vote against the infrastructure bill unless tied to voting for the larger Build Back Better bill. The USA/Today poll indicated that 52 percent of the public supported expanding the social safety net provided in the BBB plan. Less publicized is how much of that support was concentrated in areas already voting for Democrats.

The intra-party struggle damaged Biden and the party’s image. Biden’s approval rating dropped from 57 percent at the beginning of his term to 40 percent in January 2022. He has the lowest approval rating of any President’s first-year term, except for Donald Trump. The most significant drop has been among independent voters, losing 11 percentage points since July. There has also been a dramatic downward shift this last year in the approval ratings for the Democratic Party. It dropped nine percentage points, while the Republicans gained, and the GOP is now five percent higher than the Democrats.

If Biden is seen as weak and ineffective, and if the Democrats are seen as uncompromising as the Republicans, they will lose the next two rounds of national elections. However, there are probably enough independent voters even in the newly gerrymandered congressional districts to flip some Republican districts to Democratic.

To get their votes, Democrats must have a clear message that they can get something done and the Republicans cannot, recalling Harry Truman’s labeling of the Do-Nothing Republicans. Former President Donald Trump could not fund the nation’s infrastructure with four years in office, and only a handful of Republicans voted for the Biden infrastructure bill in the House. If the Democrats can pass a slimmed-down BBB bill, they will deny the Republican charge that the Democrats cannot govern.

Enough of those gerrymandered districts have independent voters that could flip to win the election wars. It takes discipline to make an orderly retreat on the legislative front to settle for more minor victories in exchange for retaining the resources to win future ones.

Prepare to monitor local voting stations

Steve Bannon’s encouraging his radio listeners to occupy the official positions that oversee local ballot-counting sounds like a riff attributed to Joseph Stalin by his former secretary: who votes is not as important as who counts the vote. Stalin never lost an election.

The Democrats must run candidates for these local positions. If not, then many will be filled by folks who may deny a Democrat having won any election. All they need is an unsubstantiated rumor of ballot fraud. Volunteer poll watchers also need to be trained to monitor possible challenges to the normal functioning of collecting and casting ballots. A national program could distribute training materials. Videos could help volunteers prepare to be knowledgeable poll watchers.

The Republicans’ strategy is built around the belief that Trump did not lose the vote count but that massive fraud allowed Biden to win. The Republican website has a clear national message “to ensure the protection of the ballot box.” To meet that objective, they created a Committee On Election Integrity Nationwide chaired by Florida’s state party chair who wants to “build out an expansive Election Day Operations program, backed by legal efforts.”

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ message is the usual “let’s all vote.” On their website national page, “I Will Vote” offers advice to the individual: “Select your state, make sure you’re registered to vote, then choose how you’re going to vote this year.” Unfortunately, this is not an organizing strategy. There is no option to join a group nor any signs of a project organized to win elections.

Democrats need a succinct counter-message. It could be as simple as “honest in and honest out” on ballots cast and then counted. Democrats can highlight the possibility that anyone’s honest ballot could be rejected if any objection was made to it from a partisan ballot counter or a poll watcher. A nationwide coordinated effort that links state parties with local community organizations and local media print and internet outlets must deliver the same message.

The Democrats can retain both chambers if they use their resources to get out the vote in the critical swing states. To keep them Democratic, they should look at how victories have been achieved in the past when the odds looked bad.

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Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/changemakers/ Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/

3 COMMENTS

  1. Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
    Never has this been so true.
    Progressives oppose business inconsistent with their “carbon free” agenda. Business that, like it or not, can create family wage jobs. Any surprise the unemployed workers in the Democrat’s traditional base abandoned it? Nice “progressive agenda,” no jobs, why support Democrats?
    Progressives – led by Seattle’s own Jayapal – overplayed their hand and thought they could roll Senator’s Manchin and Sinema. They couldn’t and BBB lost.
    But hey, did the average voter even know what was in BBB? Doubtful.
    So now its BBS: Build Back Slowly. Hopefully.

  2. Ask yourself why “Republicans control more state legislatures than Democrats” ?

    It’s called Politics . The Republican state operations operators are better than the opposition.
    BTW to believe that Hilary lost in 2016 because the Black turnout was less than Obama’s is laughable. What did you expect ?
    Biden and his advisors overplayed his hand….The way the Congress stays BLUE is to talk about programs that are popular, not just popular in certain groups.

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