It’s conventional wisdom that the 2020 election is about Donald Trump—a referendum on his corrupt and sadistic presidency, and an opportunity to cleanse the nation of his malice. But this election presents more than a choice between two old men; it is a choice between a multiracial democracy with free and fair elections and an autocracy in which the government locks nonwhite citizens out of the democratic process. Trump’s Republican Party has finally, fully embraced voter suppression as a legitimate tool of governance. In the process, it turned the presidential race into an election about whether we can ever have real elections in the United States.
For most of American history, only a sliver of the population could vote, giving lie to the constitutional guarantee of self-governance. The civil rights movement of the 1960s persuaded lawmakers to outlaw disenfranchisement on the basis of race, sex, wealth, and age—and to police states’ compliance with the Voting Rights Act. This consensus stuck for about four decades; as recently as 2006, the Senate unanimously reauthorized the VRA. In recent years, however, the GOP has grown increasingly hostile to equal suffrage. George W. Bush’s Justice Department launched a five-year hunt for voter fraud to justify new voting restrictions. It failed but used the crusade as propaganda against voting rights, anyway. Republican-controlled states began implementing voter ID laws during this period, insisting that they were necessary to prevent fraud that did not exist. Republican lawmakers then worked with conservative attorneys to dismantle the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement, prevailing at the Supreme Court in 2013’s catastrophic Shelby County v. Holder. That indefensible decision unleashed a wave of voter suppression in every state where Republicans ran the government. It led to mass poll closures and early voting cuts in disproportionately nonwhite communities, new restrictions on voter registration drives, draconian voter ID rules, racist redistricting, proof-of-citizenship requirements, partisan voter purges, poll taxes, and outright voter intimidation.
There was some media coverage of this onslaught, but each new restriction was treated as a distinct instance, a technical change of complicated rules. Until recently, there was virtually no accounting of the sheer number of people who were being shut out of the franchise, because they tended to be the most vulnerable and most invisible Americans. In 2016, a federal appeals court found that North Carolina Republicans had sought to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” when imposing new burdens on voters—using state data that broke down voting practices by race. The GOP’s suppression of Black votes was absent from most coverage of Trump’s victory in the state. Pundits and data analysts obsessed over Florida polls but failed to note that more than 1 in 5 black Floridians could not vote because of a Jim Crow–era felon disenfranchisement law. They marveled at the monstrously long lines but rarely asked how they came to be, or why Black people must, on average, wait longer to vote. Voter suppression loomed over the 2016 election, but it remained oddly absent from day-to-day coverage. Republicans had spent years restricting access to the ballot box, and their work was so persistent and ubiquitous that it stopped being a story in itself. Mass disenfranchisement simply faded into the background.
This year is different. Trump appears to have so much faith in the GOP’s voter suppression machine that he feels no obligation to deny its existence. To the contrary, the president has embraced disenfranchisement as a key strategy of his reelection strategy. He doesn’t just say the quiet part out loud but screams it incessantly, to the point that Twitter has to slap warning labels on his tweets. Trump has condemned mail ballots as fraudulent (unless they’re cast for him). He has preemptively rejected the results of the election if he loses, accusing Democrats of stealing votes by expanding voting rights. His campaign has sought to throw out thousands, perhaps millions of valid votes. It has revived a theory so radical and anti-democratic that the Bush v. Gore majority refused to adopt it. And yet Trump’s lawyers have persuaded four Supreme Court justices, all appointed by Republicans, to endorse this theory in a brazen attempt to disqualify legal ballots.
Trump’s reelection campaign is centered on the belief that the only legitimate votes are the ones cast for him. When he rails against voter fraud, he is actually railing against the fact Democrats are still allowed to vote.
Trump’s complaints are reflected in the litigation that preceded Election Day. GOP attorneys still claim that states must be allowed to make voting difficult to combat voter fraud. But they’ve also adopted a new argument: that the act of making voting easier is unconstitutional. In Minnesota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, Republicans accused election officials of violating the Constitution by easing restrictions on the vote, insisting that the state legislature has a constitutional right to disenfranchise American citizens. In Texas, Republicans were even more explicit, complaining that Harris County infringed upon the equal protection rights of GOP voters by providing drive-thru voting. Why? Because Harris County is heavily Democratic, and making voting more efficient for Democrats violates Republicans’ constitutional rights.
The Harris County lawsuit—which succeeded in shutting down nine out 10 drive-thru voting sites—crystallized Trump’s antagonism toward the franchise. It translated the president’s views into nonsensical legalese. But Trump’s endless denigration of voting isn’t empty talk. His lawyers are fighting in court right now to rig the election against Democrats. His lackeys, like Attorney General William Barr, have concocted phony voter fraud stories and denigrated the validity of mail ballots. His postmaster general slowed down delivery just before a pandemic election conducted largely by mail. His allies in state legislatures have eyed schemes to reject the outcome of their state’s vote and award electors to Trump if he loses. They have done all this during a pandemic, when common sense dictates that voting should be easier and safer. With evident glee, Republicans have forced many Americans to choose between exercising their fundamental right to vote and protecting themselves from COVID-19.
Americans have noticed. The mail slowdown spurred nationwide protests and congressional hearings. Trump and Barr’s conspiracy theories prompted immense backlash. So have the legislative and judicial efforts to make voting more difficult in the midst of a pandemic. Most importantly, a large chunk of the country appears to have recognized for the first time that their vote was in peril. Republicans weren’t just slashing early voting in Black neighborhoods. They were going after every Democratic ballot, using both political and legal tools to suppress votes against Trump. Suburban voters, who’ve fled the GOP in droves, were not safe. Rich white Democrats were not safe. Republicans’ drumbeat of voter suppression seems to have spooked the entire Democratic coalition, along with independents and moderates who leaned against Trump. The president was not really trying to convince them to vote for him. He was trying to stop them from voting against him.
It is a reflection of privilege to be surprised by voter suppression in 2020. Most Americans have been taught that every citizen is free to participate in elections and that the outcome reflects everyone’s choice faithfully and equally. By openly threatening such sweeping disenfranchisement, Trump led millions of people to realize that this ideal is just a myth—an aspiration that is now in grave danger. It’s not just poor people and racial minorities whose rights are in jeopardy this year. It’s everybody who doesn’t plan to vote for Trump.
Nobody can know exactly how much of this year’s unprecedented turnout can be attributed to backlash against Trump’s ham-fisted attack on voting rights. But I can say with absolute certainty that voter suppression has received exponentially more attention this year than in 2016. It was arguably the biggest story of the weekend before the election thanks to the Harris County lawsuit. It dominated the hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, as Democrats demanded to know if she would comply with Trump’s demand that she help him steal the election. It led the news in August and September when journalists exposed the Postal Service’s slowdowns. And it has been a major focus in the closing weeks of the election in light of Trump’s demands that the Supreme Court void ballots that arrive shortly after Election Day.
It’s not hard to see that Trump is testing the waters. If he wins, the next election will be substantially worse. He has already stacked the federal courts with judges who’ll gladly meddle in the election. The guardrails are falling away; by 2024, Trump will be limited only by his own sense of what he can get away with.
If Democrats prevail, they’ll have a brief window of opportunity to chart a different course. They can’t just rebuild what Trump broke but must address the democratic shortcomings that he and his party have exploited. The 2020 American election will not reflect the will of all the people but of the people who manage to overcome obstacles to the ballot box. Despite surging turnout, an unconscionable number of citizens will not have a voice in the outcome. Until we protect these mostly invisible Americans from voter suppression, none of us will be safe.