It's not voter suppression, stupid. The GOP's new — and old — weapon is vote nullification

Republicans have put in place criminal sanctions and huge fines for decisions undertaken by election officials

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 14, 2021 9:22AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and George W. Bush (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and George W. Bush (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It's quite a relief to see President Biden overseas acting like a normal president after the last four years of embarrassment on the world stage. Our traditional allies also appear to be exhaling for the first time since November of 2016 because they know that the U.S., with all of its flaws, is at least in the hands of someone who has a grasp of the job requirements. The latest Pew survey shows that the people of other countries are relieved as well. The numbers have done shifted 180 degrees since Trump left office. 

They can't be completely reassured, of course, since Trump continues to insist that he is the true president in exile as he issues pseudo-tweets from his lavish golfing palaces and continues to spread the Big Lie. Things are still weird enough here in America that I'm sure the rest of the world still has its guard up. As anyone following events closely knows, there is something very nefarious going on around the country that could upend this brief moment of semi-normality. And while it's taken a while for many in the media to grasp the novel nature of this latest threat, they are now getting up to speed. Take Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post, who wrote an editorial over the weekend in which he compared the Republicans to termites, "destructive but largely unseen, anti-democracy forces around the country are gnawing at the foundations of America's free and fair elections."

State by state, the termites are trying to change the rules to allow Donald Trump or someone like him to succeed in 2024 where Trump tried and failed in 2020: to steal an election that he lost.

That's putting it starkly — but honestly: It is exactly what Republicans are planning to do.

Most importantly, Hiatt and others in the media are belatedly grappling with the reality that the civil rights groups and Democratic Party officials who have been fighting for the right to vote for years don't have a lot of experience dealing with this specific type of assault on the franchise. Voter suppression is sadly familiar in American political life. Vote nullification, however, is not. And that's what all these new laws and regulations are designed to do. If the vote doesn't go their way, they are putting mechanisms in place to simply nullify the results through a complex set of "legal" maneuvers.

For the most part, at least since the civil rights movement, local and state elections officials have operated in a non-partisan fashion, But Trump's all-out attempt to cajole, threaten and intimidate officials into stealing the vote for him in close states has opened the floodgates to anti-democratic activity all over the country. Republicans may not have folded in 2020 but they are making sure there are legal means to do it in 2022 and 2024. And some of those means are just rank intimidation. They have put in place criminal sanctions and huge fines for decisions undertaken by election officials and are handing power to partisan players in legislatures across the country. The consequences are already being felt, as the AP reports in an article amusingly headlined, "Exodus of Election Officials Raises Concerns of Partisanship"

After facing threats and intimidation during the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath, and now the potential of new punishments in certain states, county officials who run elections are quitting or retiring early. The once quiet job of election administration has become a political minefield thanks to the baseless claims of widespread fraud that continue to be pushed by many in the Republican Party.

Trump's despicable behavior is the proximate cause of all this, of course. He has accused his political rivals of doing what he and his henchman are planning to do going forward. It's enough to give you a migraine. But I happened to be reading the new biography of the GOP éminence grise James Baker III by the New Yorker's Susan Glasser and the New York Times' Peter Baker this weekend and was struck by the fact that we have thought so little about the precedent that the entire GOP establishment set when they pulled out every stop to make sure George W. Bush prevailed in the 2000 election despite his loss of the popular vote, something which had only happened once, more than a century before.

From the very beginning, Baker insisted that the system was rigged because the rules stated that manual re-counting done by representatives of both parties, overseen by non-partisan officials and even eventually sanctioned by judges themselves, was an attempt to "divine the intent of the voter." Baker also accused the other side of wanting to keep counting until they magically found the votes they needed. The famous "Brooks Brothers Riot" was all about intimidating voting officials into stopping the count — and it worked.

It was a very close election in Florida, which just happened to be run at the time by Jeb Bush, and there is a mountain of evidence that Baker and the rest of the Republicans ruthlessly used every lever they had available, some of it hugely unethical. For example, the Baker book reveals that he got word of a critical Florida Supreme Court decision before it was announced. Baker was sure from the very beginning that the Supreme Court would decide the outcome, something which most legal scholars assumed was completely out of the question, and he plotted the strategy on that basis. They were not willing to count the votes under the laws that existed in the state before the election.

In 2000, the Republican establishment was in charge of the vote nullification process and they brought in all their heavy hitters including three lawyers who are now on the Supreme Court. They were methodical and professional and the entire party banded together to make it happen. In 2020, it was Trump and a motley crew led by Rudy Giuliani while the establishment sat it out. Everyone professed astonishment that he would undermine the electoral process this way. But it wasn't exactly unprecedented, was it?

Considering what they did when it was someone they all wanted to see in the White House, from the lowliest intern pounding on the doors of that counting room in Miami to the five Republicans Supreme Court justices, I don't think we should be too surprised that Republicans are happy to let Trump and his MAGA crew rig the election apparatus in important swing states. They know it will come in handy someday. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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