Republicans’ focus on election integrity is a cynical facade void of principle.
Recent efforts in Kentucky to expand voting access illustrate the duplicity behind Republican concerns about election integrity.
On April 7, 2021, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear signed a substantial voting reform bill into law, joining the stampede of states turning their attention to election reform after the 2020 election.
The new legislation, however, is a unicorn among horses in this stampede. The bill, HB 574, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the state House and Senate by votes of 91–3 and 33–3, respectively. This rare bout of bipartisanship on voting rights stems from the fact that the bill actually expands voting access.
The legislation provides for an overhaul of the state’s election system that will make voting easier and more convenient. Kentucky voters will now have three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting before an election, including a Saturday, and an online portal to register and request ballots. County voting centers will replace precincts, expanding in-person voting options and eliminating issues that arise when voters cast ballots at the wrong precinct. Finally, the law establishes a process for voters to “cure” their ballots if there is an issue such as a signature mismatch.
Many of these expansions fall short of the generous early in-person and mail-in voting rules adopted last year due to the pandemic, but they still mark a significant loosening of voting rules in a state that had some of the tightest restrictions in the country. The previous system did not allow any in-person early voting at all, for example.
This political episode in Kentucky, of all places, depicts an almost utopian world in which Republicans operate with sanity on an issue and the government churns out meaningful, bipartisan legislation. At the signing ceremony, Governor Beshear, a Democrat, commended the ability of Kentucky leaders to “come together to stand up for democracy and to expand the opportunity for people to vote.” Republican House Speaker David Osborne praised the bill’s passage, stating that it will “improve election integrity while still allowing appropriate access to Kentucky voters.”
Contrast these efforts with what is happening in the rest of the country. As of late March, 55 restrictive voting bills are moving through state legislatures in 24 states, with the primary focus on restricting absentee and mail-in voting, tightening voter identification and registration rules, and reducing the use of ballot drop boxes. The overwhelming majority of these bills have been introduced by Republican legislators. Republicans in five states have already passed restrictive voting bills this year, most notoriously in Georgia.
The new Georgia law, which was passed in late March, puts hefty new restrictions on absentee voting, nearly eliminates ballot drop boxes, and significantly increases the power of the state legislature over the State Election Board and county election officials. The Secretary of State will no longer be a voting member of the Election Board, a direct response to current Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger refusing to go along with the election fraud charade after the 2020 election. As a draconian cherry on top, the law also establishes misdemeanor charges for offering food and water to voters waiting in line. I wonder where “gave a Dasani to a voter in 100 degree heat” lands you on the prison power hierarchy.
It is no coincidence that the Georgia law was passed in the wake of historic victories by Democrats in the state, and it strains every drop of credulity to imagine this bill passing if Republicans had won instead. Nonetheless, the restrictive law was sold as the same bill of goods as the Kentucky law. At the signing ceremony, Governor Brian Kemp said the law was a “step toward ensuring our elections are secure, accessible, and fair.”
The two versions of election integrity pursued by Republicans — the expansionary model of Kentucky and the restrictive model pursued in the rest of the country — highlight the cynical deceit of the party on voting rights. Kentucky Republicans did not support strengthening voting rights because of an unusual adherence to democratic principles. They supported it because they benefited from the experiment of loosened voting restrictions prompted by the COVID pandemic. Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell won blowout victories in the state in 2020, and Republicans further cemented their supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
Conversely, Republicans’ broader efforts to restrict voting and undermine the democratic process both pre- and post-election are explicitly motivated by fear of losing power and electoral advantage. President Trump admitted to this exact fear, stating in March 2020 that Democrats’ proposed voting expansions would lead to “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Trump, Republican politicians, and conservative media would go on to constantly parrot lies about election fraud and mail-in voting leading up to the election.
After the election, Senator Lindsey Graham expressed a similar fear by asserting that Republicans will never win another election if election rules aren’t changed. A top Republican legislator in Arizona was even more candid about his motivations for pursuing voting restrictions this year when he argued that “[q]uantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.” Quality is of course doublespeak for both the legitimacy and partisanship of the votes.
For Republicans, legitimate votes are those cast by Republicans, while fraudulent ones happen to be cast by Democrats. The push by Republicans in Georgia and other states to restrict absentee voting, for example, illustrates this almost too perfectly. In 2020, Biden voters took advantage of mail-in voting at nearly twice the rate of Trump voters, with even sharper partisan divides in certain swing states that voted blue. If these numbers were reversed in favor of Trump, does anyone really believe Republicans would be restricting absentee voting?
Republicans’ blatant disregard for democratic principles in moments of political convenience is a threat to our democracy itself and should be a cornerstone of discussions of state and federal voting rights policy. We should not lend them any good faith as they push to restrict voting rights based on egregious lies about the 2020 election and their soreness from losing power. We should not lend their election integrity concerns any good faith as we pursue legislation to strengthen voting rights at the federal level, such as the For the People Act, especially given that these efforts often include resources to strengthen our election systems.
Despite unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID pandemic, our nation experienced the highest voter turnout since 1900 in one of the most secure elections in our history. The future in which this is the norm for our democracy is now threatened because one party is unable to cope with the fact they lost.
The fundamental question of the voting rights debate is one of access and fulfillment of rights, not election integrity. We have proven our ability time and again to maintain the security and integrity of elections as voting access and turnout increase.
Instead of focusing on unfounded concerns about election security, we must ask ourselves whether voting should be a broadly accessible and straightforward process with the express purpose of nurturing high turnout and upholding a core human right. Republicans’ duplicitous efforts on voting rights have proven their answer to this question depends almost exclusively on the likelihood of Democrats gaining power. For the GOP, when power is threatened, principle is abandoned, and our democracy suffers.