President Joe Biden yesterday condemned a "21st century Jim Crow assault" on voting rights, epitomized by election legislation in states such as Georgia and Texas. Republicans, he warned, have launched a "concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote." The Democratic lawmakers who have fled Texas to deprive the state legislature of a quorum and thereby prevent passage of new restrictions on voting likewise speak in apocalyptic terms about the mortal threat that such measures pose to democracy. Republicans, meanwhile, claim they are actually defending democracy by preventing fraud and ensuring the integrity of the vote.
Both sets of claims should be viewed with skepticism. As usual, the positions staked out by Democrats and Republicans are better explained by partisan interests than any commitment to principle. Political advantage is also a more parsimonious explanation for new voting restrictions than the racist impulses that Biden claims are driving the legislation.
Two of the proposed changes in Texas would put an end to drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, options that Harris County (which includes Houston) offered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who opposes those policies, says the legislature needs to assert state control over election procedures, consistent with the Constitution.
What's wrong with drive-through voting? In an interview with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace this week, Abbott offered two objections. He said drive-through voting violates "the sanctity of the ballot box" because "other people in the car" might "have some coercive effect on the way that you would cast your ballot." He added that "the bumper sticker [on] the car right in front of you" could violate state "prohibitions on electioneering close to where people cast their votes."
What about 24-hour voting? "We need to have poll watchers and monitors," Abbott said, and "it's hard even for a county to get people to be watching the polls 24 hours a day."
Since I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican, I have no dog in this fight. But these seem like pretty weak excuses to me.
Does that make Abbott racist? Wallace suggested as much. He noted that "there was no allegation of any fraud" in connection with drive-through or 24-hour voting and that most of the voters who used those options in Harris County last fall "were people of color." While "you say you want to make it easier to vote," Wallace told Abbott, banning these options is "going to make it harder to vote." Those observations preceded the question that Abbott was trying to answer: "Why make it harder for some Texans to vote unless the point is to suppress voting by people of color?"
Abbott could have responded by saying that the point is to suppress voting by Democrats, regardless of their complexions or ethnicity, but that would have given the game away. So instead he had to rely on the lame justifications that he actually offered. Still, does anyone seriously think that Abbott would oppose drive-through and 24-hour voting if he believed Republicans were especially likely to take advantage of those options? Or to put it another way, would Abbott take the same position if "people of color" overwhelmingly favored his party, just because he has a personal animus against black voters? Likewise, Democrats probably would not be so keen to defend Harris County's innovations if they did not anticipate an electoral advantage.
Partisans are not always good at predicting the electoral impact of specific voting methods. Before Donald Trump's irrational attack on no-excuse voting by mail, there was no real evidence that the policy consistently favored one party over the other. And since older Americans were disproportionately inclined both to use that method and to vote for Republicans, it made sense for Republicans to support expanded use of absentee ballots, as many of them did. Even Trump seemed to dimly understand that angle, since his general opposition to absentee voting included an exception for Florida, a state where that option was especially likely to help him and other GOP candidates.
Trump's fear of absentee voting probably became a self-fulfilling prophecy by discouraging Republicans from using that method. Some Republicans who otherwise would have voted by mail may not have voted at all in the midst of the pandemic. If so, Trump helped deliver the Democratic edge he was worried about from the beginning, giving Republicans a political motive to oppose a voting method they once embraced. But as with the argument about drive-through and 24-hour voting, the relevant consideration for Republicans is which party benefits, not which racial group favors a particular voting option. In 2020, Biden voters were twice as likely as Trump voters to cast absentee ballots, but black voters were less likely than white voters to use that method.
While Texas already has strict rules for voting by mail, Abbott brags that its early voting policy compares favorably to the rules in Delaware, Biden's home state. "If you look at the hours of voting that Texas provides, it is far more hours of voting than exists in the state where our current president voted," he told Wallace. "They had exactly zero hours of early voting. It's far easier to vote in the state of Texas than it is in Delaware, and yet nobody is claiming that there is some type of voter suppression taking place in Delaware."
Why is Abbott so keen on early in-person voting? Possibly because he thinks it favors the GOP. Survey data indicate that Texans are about evenly split when they are asked whether they favor the Democratic Party or the Republican Party (a fifth say neither). But according to an analysis published in late October, 30 percent of early general election voters in Texas had a history of voting in Republican primaries, compared to 23 percent who had voted in Democratic primaries.
In addition to banning drive-through and 24-hour voting, the bills Texas legislators are considering, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, include several other new rules, such as a stricter ID requirement for absentee ballots and a provision that bars election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications.* The bills also give more latitude to partisan poll watchers, who would be able to observe more of the process and would be harder to remove for alleged misbehavior.
Are these good ideas? I'm not sure. But it might be useful to have a calm debate on their merits rather than a Manichean struggle between two parties that each claim the other is determined to destroy democracy.
*CORRECTION: The post originally said "absentee ballots."