Bookman: Voter fraud lie forces frenzy of voter suppression bills

The Georgia Senate is considering GOP-sponsored legislation that would eliminate no-excuse absentee balloting, reduce early-voting opportunities and undermine the independence and authority of the secretary of state. Columnist Jay Bookman says the overhaul is based on a big lie. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A lie is a fickle creature.

Once told, a lie marches free into the world, with its own agenda, out of control of those who created it. And as Georgia Republicans are discovering, a lie that is big enough and powerful enough can even turn on its masters, forcing those who created it to now serve it.

They must protect the lie, advance the lie, and always create new lies to protect the original lie, even when it is no longer in their interest to do so. The lie must be served.

The lie, of course, is voter fraud. Donald Trump may be the most aggressive peddler of that lie, but he was not the first to tell it; the myth of voter fraud has been essential to the Republican narrative for decades. A party that styles itself the party of true America, of real Americans, somehow has to explain to itself why it has won the popular vote just once in the last eight presidential elections, the freak election of 2004 when George W. Bush was still riding the surge of post-9/11 patriotism.

There are two possible ways to explain that record. One would be to accept that the GOP is actually not the party of true America, of real Americans, that a steady majority of Americans actually reject what the GOP has come to represent. However, that is not an explanation that Republicans are willing to accept, because it strikes at their very identity. And if you reject that first explanation, as Republicans must, then the only remaining possibility is that the elections in question are fraudulent, that they are somehow rigged. As a result, the overwhelming majority of those identifying as Republican to pollsters now believe they are being cheated of their birthright as Americans.

The election-fraud lie has had a functional as well as narrative value for Republicans. Until now, it has given them cover for imposing a long series of voter-suppression measures, intended to create an artificially small and restricted electorate in which they can better compete. There’s no better example of that than the current session of the Georgia General Assembly, in which the historic defeats in 2020 have whipped Republicans into a desperate frenzy of voter-suppression legislation.

They aren’t concentrating on how to help Georgia’s schoolchildren recover from a largely lost year of education, or how to bolster our public-health system, or how to improve the state’s atrocious Covid vaccination rate. (Georgia ranks 49th in percentage of doses administered, and 50th in the percentage of population to have gotten at least one shot). Instead, they’re spending time and energy trying to eliminate no-excuse absentee balloting, reducing early-voting opportunities, undermining the independence and authority of the secretary of state and even banning the provision of food and water to voters stranded in long lines.

Some of these bills will pass into law, but in a form that we won’t see until the last days and even hours of the legislative session. If those laws then survive the inevitable court challenges, Republicans may actually succeed in discouraging an unknown number of legal citizens from voting next year.

But I can see at least three major drawbacks to their effort. The first is that we all see what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. In effect, they are undermining representative democracy to maintain their grip on power, and while it is certainly less dramatic than the January 6 assault on the Capitol to try to overturn the election, its motive is no less obvious. Second, some of the provisions are as likely to harm Republican turnout as much if not more than Democratic. And third, the inevitable court challenges will continue well into the 2022 election season, creating multiple, recurring headlines about voter suppression that Democrats will milk to drive donors to donate and voters to vote.

Smart Republicans understand the damage that all this is doing to the country, to the state, to the GOP and its future, but they know their base and its appetites, and they know they have no choice but to continue anyway.

Why? Because they have lost control of the lie. The lie no longer serves their interest, they now serve the lie. The lie and Donald Trump.

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.