New voter restrictions fit a long pattern

Our guest columnist O. Ricardo Pimentel says claims by Democrats that Georgia's restrictive new voting laws are about the GOP remaining in power are probably right. And the GOP's claim that Democrats' plans to expand access to voting is also about getting elected is likely correct as well. wildpixel/iStock Getty Images

In this current debate about whether to expand or restrict voting, each side is probably spot on about the basic motivations of the politicians on the other side of the argument.

GOP legislators say expansion, such as expressed in a sweeping measure in Congress, H.R.1, intended to achieve nearly universal voting, is a power grab by Democrats.

Democrats say restrictions, such as those embraced by Georgia recently, are about Republicans staying in power by dampening the votes of those likely to vote against them.

There is, however, a qualitative difference between the two arguments.

Increasing access to voting is a quintessential American value, generally expressed through the maxim of one person, one vote.

Restricting the vote essentially says one person, one vote but only if the “right” person is voting the “right” way.

Which is to say, one side is for democracy to achieve its end, whatever political advantage it gains. I can live with that.

The other says it is also for democracy but, in practice, demonstrates a belief that not just any citizen should be trusted to operate the levers of democracy. I can’t live with that.

This argument is a long-running one, as old as the republic in fact.

One person, one vote?

This nation has long struggled with whose votes should be counted. We’ve come a long way from just white, male landowners as voters. Constitutional amendments 13 through 15, plus the 19th and the Snyder Act of 1924 correctly expanded our notions of citizenship generally and voting rights specifically for African Americans, women, the U.S.-born children of immigrants and Native Americans. Some of these amendments were alternately stymied and buttressed by various court rulings and by post-amendment legislation in the states and nationally, but we’ve come to a place where few would argue that only rich white men should be able to vote.

The current debate represents the next step in the evolution of the argument.

On the surface, it is no longer a dispute over who the person is who gets to cast one vote. It is whether the vote should be institutionally reconstructed to allow and encourage  as many people as possible to vote. Said another way, it is whether universal suffrage should be more than a concept; whether it should be as easy – even easier – for an adult to exercise a vote as, say, to buy a gun, drive a car or check a book out of a library. None of these are necessarily rights, though I’d get an argument from Second Amendment purists. But, allegedly, voting is a right.

Yes, aside from the power-grab argument, Republican politicos insist that liberalizing the ability to vote is a blow against the integrity of the ballot. Unfortunately, they use as Exhibit A the infamous stolen presidential election of 2020.

There was no steal. In fact, states such as Georgia – whose election gave Democrats a 50-50 share of the U.S. Senate (control with a vice-presidential tie-breaker vote) – certified their election results. 

Or as the Brennan Center for Justice explains, “extensive research reveals that fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators. The same is true for mail ballots, which are secure and essential to holding a safe election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The myth about a stolen election is, in fact, a way to justify voter suppression for the purpose of clinging to power, effectively thwarting an electorate that is literally changing complexion — turning browner, and along with that change, more accepting of Democrats and Democratic policies.

Because the evidence of election fraud is thin to non-existent, the Republican effort to tighten voting requirements is tantamount to an admission that, failing to persuade a majority of the virtues of its policies, it will instead make it harder, or at least not make it easier, for many of them to vote.

Voter ID, preventing third-party registration, thwarting mail-in ballots and automatic registration and even criminalizing providing snacks and water to voters waiting in line work together to discourage as many people as possible from voting.. And political gerrymandering – also tackled by the measure passed in the U.S. House and facing a battle in the Senate – is about stacking the votes in congressional districts so legislators can cherry-pick their voters.

So, maybe, when Republicans talk about the founding fathers and getting back to the original intent of our founding documents, they are longing for some of those early restrictions on voting based on race, gender and class. That is not fashionable nor politically palatable to say. So, instead, we are hearing a lot about “stopping the steal.”

New voter restrictions based on lie that the election was stolen are really Jim Crow barely warmed over.

O. Ricardo Pimentel
O. Ricardo Pimentel has been a journalist for about 40 years. He was most recently the editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express-News in Texas; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before that. He has also worked in various editing and reporting positions in newspapers in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., where he covered Congress, federal agencies and the Supreme Court for McClatchy Newspapers. He is the author of two novels and lives in Wisconsin.