For I was thirsty, and Georgia gave me something to drink.
I borrowed that line from Matthew 25:35 and modified it to fit current events. I was looking for a way to dramatize a potentially dull subject: the nearly 250 new election laws that Republican legislators in 43 states have introduced recently. Georgia came to my rescue.
That state was the first one, actually, to enact its legislative package, which introduces an astonishing crime: If you choose to take Matthew seriously and give me something to drink — even plain water — within 150 feet of a polling place, you can go to jail. That provision brought a storm of national attention the lawmakers probably didn’t expect.
To be fair, the Georgia bill — like all the others — has many less-Draconian provisions. But, most of those involve limits on polling places, voting times, mail-in ballots and drop boxes that, along with other tricks, would almost surely make voting harder and lines longer, especially in heavily Black and other districts where folks tend not to vote Republican.
The GOP says such laws are needed to restore faith in the electoral system, even though that faith doesn’t seem to need restoring. In a late-January Morning Consult poll, 65 percent of voters considered the 2020 elections to have been free and fair. Still, only 32 percent of Republicans held that view, possibly because of the GOP’s strenuous efforts to overturn the results by claiming widespread fraud.
Those claims, of course, were thoroughly discredited, even by Republican election officials and GOP-appointed judges. The vote was one of the cleanest, most efficient in American history, despite a COVID-caused surge in mail-in ballots. As election experts have maintained for decades, voter fraud in the U.S. is virtually nonexistent.
So, why the fuss? Republican officials across the country are reacting to the violent backlash unleashed by our former president over the 2020 vote. They may not accept his claim that it was stolen, but they don’t want get “primaried” by some Donald Trump-endorsed challenger — a fate Georgia’s secretary of state is now facing. So, passing laws that boost GOP prospects seems like a safe response.
In addition, Republicans are contending with an existential crisis. In the past three years, they have lost the House, the Senate and the presidency. The GOP “base” is growing older, whiter and more exotically conservative. Meanwhile, voters in general are increasingly young, nonwhite, liberal and centrist. But, instead of trying to attract these potential customers, Republicans are making it harder for them to vote.
Also, easier for GOP-controlled legislatures to impose new ballot rules, resist federal oversight and even throw out election results they dislike. Provisions to those effects are buried in several of the new bills. Republicans argue that states do a better job of election management because they are closer to the people.
And yet, many of the new laws also give legislatures power to override election rules set by localities, which you’d think are even closer to the people. Inconveniently, cities are more likely to be run by Democrats than legislatures are.
So, the real goal here is to perpetuate the rule of a minority party that no longer commands popular support.
University of Washington political scientist Jacob Grumbach recently examined the performance of all 50 states over the past 16 years on various measures of democratic health, including ballot access, voter registration policies, gerrymandering and civil rights. He found that all the states where democracy had weakened during that period had one thing in common: Republicans gained full control of the state government.
The GOP seems to be giving up on the democratic process. Conservative columnists and think tanks have been pushing the line that the U.S. is “a republic, not a democracy.” (It’s both, of course.) Republicans are also flogging the notion that making voting easier is a dangerous move.
That’s an old argument. It was used to perpetuate slavery and, after that, to thwart Black enfranchisement, women’s rights and civil rights generally. A number of historians and commentators, including our new president, are calling the GOP’s voter-suppression campaign the new Jim Crow.
I have Republican friends. They’re fine, fair-minded people. But, what their representatives in 43 states are doing is enough to make us think the party no longer believes in democracy. Or even the Bible.
It certainly doesn’t believe in Matthew 25:35. Just thinking about that makes my throat go dry.