Trump has promised to stop evictions — but the GOP has a powerful incentive not to

Trump may not like the optics of evictions, but Republicans know they may demoralize voters and suppress turnout

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published August 6, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Eviction notice on door of house (Getty Images)
Eviction notice on door of house (Getty Images)

Like the seasoned reality TV star that he is, President Trump is again creating a spectacle that distracts the masses from the nearly unbearable triple threats posed by a deadly pandemic, a downward-spiraling economy and emboldened agents of the state terrorizing the nation. Every single day, Trump claims he's done something he hasn't and will do something he cannot. Every few weeks he signs a nonsensical or illegal executive order so he can have a ceremony and pretend he's governing. Meanwhile, 156,000 Americans have died dead while he claims things are getting better every day. Republican recalcitrance — despite what the Trump administration claims — stands to materially harm millions, with the aim of benefiting the party electorally.

By now it is evident to all who are paying attention that Trump's re-election plan hinges on sabotaging the U.S. Postal Service, appointing a crony who can jam up the system and prevent mail-in ballots from arriving on time, then declaring victory based on the Election Day results, knowing that many swing states don't count mail-in ballots that arrive late. While that appears to be the main line of attack, as years of concerted GOP efforts across the nation have illustrated, voter suppression is a complex scheme that includes several separate tactics. 

With the expiration of federal protections — and the $600 supplemental unemployment benefit — millions of people across the country are suddenly unable to pay rent and are at imminent risk of eviction. Setting aside the sheer human misery mass eviction will entail, it is also an unexamined new avenue for voter suppression. 

"A lot of people are going to be evicted, but I'm going to stop it because I'll do it myself if I have to," Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday. "I have a lot of powers with respect to executive orders, and we're looking at that very seriously right now." It's not clear what authority he has to do so. 

Trump has said that he and the Republicans support reinstating eviction protection for renters who live in buildings with federally backed mortgages, but Senate Republicans' belated opening bid in negotiations, after the moratorium on evicting renters ended last Friday, included no such protections. Despite Trump's promises, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday evening: 

Even though [Treasury Secretary Steve] Mnuchin offered an eviction moratorium until the end of the year, the White House offer did not include other homeowner and rental assistance that Democrats have demanded, so the housing portion of the talks remains unresolved, a Democratic aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the talks.

At the behest of Democrats, the CARES Act included a 120-day moratorium on evictions for tenants living in rental housing covered under the Violence Against Women Act, which includes Section 8 public housing, the rural housing voucher program, and anyone renting in buildings with federally backed mortgages. Some states and cities also issued their own individual eviction moratoriums, but around 30 of those moratoriums have expired since May, according to The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Renters now have as little as 30 days after the expiration of the resolution to repay back rent or face eviction. The CARES Act protections for renters specifically ended on July 25 and now renters in areas with no local protections are poised to be booted from their homes in the middle of a pandemic and ahead of the largest vote-by-mail effort in U.S. history. Successful voting by mail, after all, depends on voters with known mailing addresses who are registered well in advance of the election. 

This potential wave of mass voter disenfranchisement comes as new voter registration has already dropped dramatically amid the coronavirus pandemic, largely because most state DMV offices shut their doors and voter contact programs paused. The number of new voters registered across 11 states in April 2020 decreased by 70% compared with April 2016, according to a report from the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research. Swing states like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona have seen at least a 50% voter registration reduction, compared to four years ago. 

By withholding eviction protection from their proposed package, Republicans in Congress appear to be attempting to use the next round of pandemic relief as their latest voter suppression vehicle, adding disenfranchisement to the host of life-altering problems faced by thousands of newly-houseless Americans.

Comparatively, homeowners have received more assistance just as home sales are booming. The CARES Act allows any homeowner with a federally-backed mortgage to get a forbearance, meaning they can skip up to 12 months' worth of mortgage payments. Meanwhile, mortgage rates are currently the cheapest on record and new mortgage applications just hit a level not seen since 2008. As Trump indicated back in March, he and the Republicans have successfully taken advantage of the pandemic to pick winners and losers in the economy. Next up: the elections. 

Mass evictions help Republicans electorally, even if not politically. Obviously the optics aren't great — and Trump, with his so-far-empty promises to protect renters, is keenly aware of that — but there is evidence that suggests it is still a good bet for the GOP. 

Data show a disparity in voter participation between renters and homeowners. In 2016, 67% of homeowners voted versus just 49% of renters. Another analysis of 2016 data shows that neighborhoods in Reading, Pennsylvania, with more evictions often had lower rates of voter turnout. Trump won Pennsylvania's 20 Electoral College votes after edging Hillary Clinton by just 44,000 votes — out of more than 6 million cast. 

"All else being equal, if you live in a neighborhood with high eviction rates, the voting rate is significantly depressed," Princeton sociologist and eviction scholar Matthew Desmond explained.

Perhaps that's why the Republican governor of New Hampshire, John Sununu, recently vetoed a bill giving tenants who owe back rent at least six months to pay it back in installments. 

Assuming that we have a COVID-19 resurgence in the fall as predicted, we may also have closures of county clerks' offices, courthouses, notaries and other departments required in some states to either register to vote or to vote absentee by mail. Meanwhile, some cities, like New Orleans, have already opened their housing courts to begin eviction proceedings.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

MORE FROM Sophia Tesfaye