Two election process topics have dominated the discourse in the last couple of months. The first is HR1, a Democratic initiative that would, among other things, expand same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, vote-by-mail and and early voting. The second is the Georgia voting law, a Republican initiative that would, among other things, make it harder to submit an absentee ballot and reduce the availability of ballot drop boxes and mobile voting centers.
The Democratic initiative has two important characteristics:
- It expands voting access.
- It helps the Democrats (or so it is believed).
The Republican initiative also has two important characteristics:
- It reduces voting access.
- It helps the Republicans (or so it is believed).
Democratic partisans in the discourse point to the first characteristic to tell the story that the Democrats are for voting rights while the Republicans are against them.
Republican partisans in the discourse point to the second characteristic to tell the story that both Democrats and Republicans are messing around with the election process in order to benefit themselves. This framing occasionally gets picked up in the media, which sets off a round of “can’t believe they are both-sidesing this” type reactions that are then followed up with a reiteration of the story mentioned in the prior paragraph.
From a regular person’s perspective, this discourse divide doesn’t really matter. You can like or dislike either law on its own merits without necessarily worrying yourself about the mental state of this or that lawmaker.
But obviously how you characterize what is going on matters to a lot of discourse participants, which is why they spend so much time fighting about it. This is especially true for the Democratic pundits who seem especially invested in the idea that the Democratic Party is standing on principle here and not merely acting in their self-interest.
Unfortunately, the current slate of legislative measures doesn’t help us disentangle the party’s motives because, in every bill currently under consideration, Democratic self-interest and voting expansion are aligned. To figure out which of the two matter the most to Democrats, you’d need to see how Democrats behave when disenfranchisement is in their perceived self-interest.
One example of this would be the inclusion of left-wing third parties (and their voters) into the electoral process. This is seen as drawing votes away from Democrats and so it is in their self-interest to crack down on it even though that is a kind of disenfranchisement. And that’s exactly what Democrats do.
Every four years, the Democrats launch lawsuit after lawsuit in state after state to try to keep the Green Party and other left-wing candidates off the ballot. This is done principally to drain the resources of these candidates by tying them up in costly litigation but also, in some cases, to actually kick them off the ballot.
For example, in 2020, the Democratic party successfully got the Green Party disqualified from the Pennsylvania presidential election on the basis that the party had faxed in a required affidavit when they should have mailed it in. I doubt very seriously that the Democratic officials responsible for this lawsuit have a principled position on faxing versus mailing and I strongly suspect that, had Trump gotten Biden booted off the ballot under similar circumstances, it would have been met with howls of outrage about disenfranchisement and looming authoritarianism.
Democrats do this kind of thing, not just to third party opponents, but also to left-wing Democratic opponents in primary races. Just last week, the Virginia election board, which is controlled by the Democrats, cited paperwork technicalities to disqualify three progressive Democrats who were waging primary battles against less progressive incumbents. The situation in Virginia is so bad and so at odds with the way the state generally treats paperwork mistakes that the NAACP recently spoke out about it.
These are not isolated cases and these kinds of disenfranchisement tactics go to the very top of the Democratic Party. Barack Obama got his start in US politics by getting every single one of his opponents disqualified from the ballot, including the incumbent representative of the state legislative seat he was running for.
When I’ve made this point in the past, Democratic partisans have scrambled to come up with a variety of rationalizations for why this is OK.
I’ve seen people argue that any candidate that fails to meet certain ballot access technicalities is too incompetent to govern. This is obviously absurd: mailing a document instead of faxing a document tells us nothing about how you would govern and more likely reflects the quality of the campaign lawyers you have access to. But worse than that, this kind of competence-proxy argument could justify any number of voter and candidate restrictions: if you can’t figure out how to get a voter ID, something the vast majority of Americans have, then, by this logic, you may be too incompetent to participate in the election.
Others have tried to argue that disqualifying a candidate is different than disqualifying a voter. As with the prior argument, there is an obvious absurdity here: voting rights mean nothing if the candidate you want to vote for is not on the ballot. Removing all your opponents from the ballot, as Barack Obama did in his run for the Illinois State Senate, is clearly more disenfranchising to voters than anything currently be proposed by Republican legislatures.
To reiterate what I said above, none of this matters for how you should feel about particular proposals. But it does, I think, shed light on the question of whether Democrats are acting on principle or out of self-interest when proposing certain electoral reforms. When principle and self-interest are aligned, Democrats talk the talk and walk the walk of democracy. When they are at odds, they sound and act more like restrictionist Republicans.