We're living in a time where one political party openly believes it's more important to win elections than it is to let Americans choose their own representatives in free and fair elections. And whether they're going to get away with it is shaping up to be one of the most important issues the country faces in the post-Trump presidency era.
The Supreme Court isn't a venue where you typically expect to hear the quiet part said out loud. But that was what happened Tuesday, when an attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, Michael Carvin, advised the court that provisions that made it easier for eligible Americans to vote put "us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats." He was implicitly characterizing laws that make voting more difficult for likely Democratic voters, often people of color, as the difference between winning and losing elections.
Carvin was, of course, not the first person to say out loud what has become increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention: Republicans' support for laws that make it more difficult to vote has little to do with their boogeyman — voter fraud — and everything to do with winning elections despite the will of the voters.
Former President Donald Trump did the same when he told "Fox & Friends" last March that Covid-19 mitigation proposals that included provisions that made it easier for more people to vote safely would mean "you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."
Historically, restrictive voting measures have been justified as necessary to keep a shadowy group of people who are allegedly intent on casting fraudulent ballots from stealing elections. But those people never seem to materialize, and we've watched that narrative implode over the past few months as claims of fraud in the election were definitively rejected in over 60 lawsuits.
Similarly, after the 2016 election, Trump established a so-called Election Integrity Commission to prove the existence of "widespread voter fraud." It was forced to shut down just months into its work when it was unable to find evidence to substantiate that claim. Still, the fraud lie is routinely used to burden minority voting rights. This happens despite the conclusion by the Brennan Center for Justice, based on the data, in December that "voter fraud is extraordinarily rare and our system has strong checks in place to protect the integrity of our voting process. These are the facts."
It was in this landscape that the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, in which Democrats sued Arizona under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs argued that a policy that kept otherwise lawful ballots that had been cast in the wrong precincts from being counted, as well as a law that broadly restricted people from having other people turn in early ballots for them, amounted to unlawful voter suppression. The court seemed inclined to approve both of the Arizona provisions; the Court of Appeals had ruled that they unfairly burdened Black, Latino and Native American voters.
It's clear that Republican operatives and legislatures have adopted voter suppression through restrictive legislation as a political strategy.
When the Supreme Court issues its ruling, what's really at stake is whether its holding will affect more than just the Arizona provisions. Brnovich gives an increasingly conservative court the opportunity to adopt a standard of proof in Section 2 cases that would make it easier for Republican legislatures to enact policies that make it more difficult for people of color to vote, simply by claiming they are guarding against voter fraud. Brnovich might result in a strict test that would apply to future cases — like those that may need to be brought if some of the more than 250 bills Republicans have offered to restrict voting pass in their legislatures.
It's clear that Republican operatives and legislatures have adopted voter suppression through restrictive legislation as a political strategy. Now that a lawyer has confirmed before the Supreme Court that it's really just about winning elections, what's a constitutional republic to do?
It's probably too much to hope that the court will have a moment of righteous indignation. This is an even more conservative court than the one that gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accused the majority of taking away the umbrella that protected us in the middle of the rainstorm because we were still dry while using it.
It seems like it would be easier to go out and compete for votes with attractive policies and ideas than to engage in complicated legislative shenanigans and expensive litigation, but some Republicans seem to be as afraid of voters as a kid headed home to his parents with a bad report card.
So the only real solution to protect the right to vote is for the Senate to pass the For the People Act, which the House cleared Wednesday night, and for both chambers to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Those laws would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act and remove barriers that make it difficult for eligible people to register and vote. If passed, they would restore the mechanism to challenge unduly restrictive state practices. Unless the Supreme Court does something unexpected, this is the only path forward.
Otherwise, next year and beyond, a party that controls its state's legislature can impose rules that make it confusing and difficult for some people to vote. It can create an array of last-minute changes and restrictions that defeat your right to vote, for instance by changing your polling place and rejecting your ballot if, unaware, you go to the previous one.
While your choice of whom to vote for may be political, the right to vote itself isn't. Instead, it's a fundamental right that defines who we are as Americans. In part, the story of America has been about expanding groups of people who can exercise the franchise. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of women's gaining the right to vote last year. Important parts of our history are about people who persisted in demanding the right to vote and the dignity that comes with it for Black people, including the Selma march and the use of dogs and fire hoses against protesting schoolchildren in Birmingham. If we become a country where the right to vote can be restricted through political machinations, then who are we?
People who are afraid of the results of elections in which everyone who is eligible to vote can vote are people who don't believe they have a good case to make to the voters — people who think they're going to lose because they haven't governed well. In the words of the lawyer in the Brnovich case, "Politics is a zero-sum game, and every extra vote they get ... hurts us." But voting is about our rights, not about gamesmanship. Elections should be decided by the people, not by slick efforts to make it harder for some people to register or vote.