Perhaps the pandemic offers a fitting analogy to the condition of our politics as Americans try to recover from the trauma of Jan. 6 – when we came dangerously close to the onset of an anti-democratic Trump-ocracy.
The loss of more than 500,000 of our fellow citizens, their lives snuffed out by COVID-19, has been a cataclysmic shock to the nation, an epic of sorrow and suffering. But even for those who have survived infection by the virus, there’s no guarantee the story will have a happy ending. They may join the ranks of the “long-haulers,” coping with pernicious after-effects on and on into an uncertain future.
The peaceful transfer of executive power that lies at the bedrock of our system of government could well have been thwarted when a brutal mob assaulted the U.S. Capitol, as if a lethal virus were attacking our civic heart.
Thanks to brave police officers, that same evening senators and representatives were able to emerge from their places of shelter and complete their certification of Joe Biden as president-elect. Vice President Mike Pence did his duty, presiding over the count of electoral votes after having dodged thugs who avowedly sought to hang him.
Trump went on to undergo trial by impeachment for siccing those “Stop the Steal” insurrectionists on Congress. Despite the Senate’s failure to convict – with most Republicans grasping at the nonsensical argument that an ex-president could not be subjected to such a trial – House prosecutors made his culpability for the attack crystal-clear.
So our system survived. But from his gilded base of operations in Florida, Trump maneuvers to reassert his hold on the Republican Party and to dictate its future course for his own ends.
All the while, he keeps peddling the bogus narrative that the election in November was stolen from him by pro-Biden cheaters. The long-haul effects of this infection of lies will challenge the most capable of our civic physicians.
Even while Congress begins its necessary probes of the Jan. 6 crisis and while dozens of criminal cases wind through the courts, it seems that many Republican officials taking their cues from Trump are more concerned with tightening election laws.
During last year’s campaign, Trump was candid in asserting that enhanced voter options such as mail-in absentee ballots would work against him and other Republicans. He dismissed the health risks faced by many voters during the pandemic if they showed up at the polls in person.
In North Carolina, though, a far-sighted State Board of Elections worked to make voting safer and more convenient for all while maintaining security. With Republican legislators agreeing to important changes, the number of absentee-by-mail votes ballooned. Local elections boards bent over backwards with anti-virus precautions to accommodate in-person voters.
The upshot here was a solid Republican performance capped by Trump’s capture of the state’s 15 electoral votes. GOP legislators kept their hold on the General Assembly and the party’s candidates swept every contested appellate judgeship. Gov. Roy Cooper’s re-election was one of the Democrats’ few bright spots.
Calm before a storm?
Note that amid all of Trump’s claims of election fraud in several swing states, he and his allies somehow didn’t get around to complaining about the North Carolina results. And that might help explain why, as the 2021 legislative session begins gathering steam, there have yet to be any conspicuous efforts here to reverse 2020’s voting rights gains.
So far, at least. North Carolina’s Republican chiefs in recent years have not been shy about trying to limit the votes of people perceived as likely to lean Democratic. It was this state’s GOP-controlled legislature, after all, that drew a federal court’s rebuke for voter-suppression measures targeting African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.”
And it’s hardly a confidence-builder for voting rights advocates concerned about 2021 backsliding to see that a national group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, wants election rules adjusted with an eye toward promoting “ballot security” and “restoring public confidence.” In the abstract there’s nothing wrong with the group’s goal of making it “easier to vote and harder to cheat” – except that it buys into the false premise that cheating has been a problem.
North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore are involved with the group’s legislative campaign arm. It may be just a matter of time before they tell their caucuses to get with the program – if they’re determined to fix something they have no good reason to think is broken.
A key organization in the drive to secure voting rights for all eligible citizens, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, recently tallied more than 165 bills pending in 33 states to make voting more difficult. The surge is driven by Republican charges of fraud in the elections just past, although some 60 lawsuits failed to make those charges stick.
The Washington Post followed up with a survey of proposed voting restrictions. Georgia – where the victories of two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in January special elections gave Democrats narrow control of the chamber – could be ground zero.
The Republican pushback there includes measures to reduce early voting on Sundays, a popular option especially among African-American church-goers. It was those voters who helped elect the Deep South’s first Black Democratic U.S. senator, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, over a candidate who had tied herself to Trump.
Witness rule in play
North Carolina’s virus-era voting adjustments notably included making it easier to vote absentee. The process of applying for an absentee ballot was streamlined, the requirement for two witnesses was reduced to one, and a person who made a minor error in completing the ballot, such as giving an incomplete address, was given a chance to fix it. If there’s further controversy here over election rules, it could well hinge on whether changes of that sort are allowed to remain in effect.
In fact, the switch to one witness – a key step in making absentee voting more convenient while still safeguarding security — was set by law to apply only to elections held during 2020. There will be less of a health rationale for extending it as the pandemic fades. But in terms of encouraging more people to vote, the rationale will remain strong.
Another flash point could involve a requirement for some kind of photo identification to be submitted along with an absentee ballot. That would mirror a photo ID requirement for in-person voters that’s been held up because of challenges in federal and state courts.
Voting rights advocates argue that the rule is discriminatory because certain groups of voters are less likely to have the necessary IDs or are likely to have a harder time getting them. Not coincidentally – given that the rule is a favorite Republican cause – voters in those groups tend to lean Democratic. A state-level lawsuit seeking to have the rule thrown out is scheduled for trial in April.
It’s sad but true that through the years, politicians in both parties have used voter suppression tactics, many of them tied to discrimination by race, to shape the electorate in their favor. Now such tactics typically are linked to exaggerated, groundless claims of fraud.
In that category, “Stop the Steal,” our ex-president’s cynical mantra, takes the cake. Those who set North Carolina’s election rules – rules that should guarantee convenient access to the ballot box for all eligible citizens, no matter their partisan preferences — can’t allow this kind of toxic mistrust to warp our democratic system.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches, which first published this commentary.