Imagine having $20 million and using it to oppose voting rights. That is what the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Trump campaign announced they will do in response to voting rights lawsuits my firm and I filed on behalf of the Democratic Party and progressive groups such as Priorities USA. While normally candidates and parties insist that high voter turnout is good for them, the Republicans are bypassing that fiction and going all in to shrink, rather than expand, the electorate. Already, signs point to a massive Republican effort to prevent voters of color and young voters from voting in 2020.
A Trump political advisor in Wisconsin was recently caught on tape bragging about the fact that “traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places” and advising Republicans to “start playing offense a little bit.” He alerted: “That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.”
Republicans are planning a “bigger,” “more aggressive,” and “much better-funded program,” because this November will be the first presidential election since 1980 that the RNC will be unencumbered by a court-monitored consent decree prohibiting gross forms of voter suppression. Though voter suppression runs deep in the Republican Party, without this consent decree, the RNC can “start playing offense” and operationalize voter suppression like we haven’t seen in 40 years.
Shortly after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the RNC formed its National Ballot Security Task Force — a group whose mission was to suppress voters, particularly minority voters. Their first target was the off-year gubernatorial election in New Jersey. As part of its program, the RNC’s National Ballot Security Task Force engaged in illegal voter-caging — mailing sample ballots to individuals in precincts with a high percentage of minorities and then creating lists of voters to challenge based on those whose mail was returned as undeliverable. On election day, the RNC posted signs near minority precincts that read:
To further the intimidation, the RNC hired off-duty sheriffs and police officers to intimidate voters by standing at polling places, with guns and police radios visible, in minority precincts. These officers wore black armbands with “National Ballot Security Task Force” printed on them.
The RNC’s plan worked. Tom Kean, the Republican candidate, won that election by fewer than 1,800 votes. In response, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) sued the RNC for violating the Voting Rights Act. Presumably, in order to avoid the embarrassment that a trial would bring to the party, Kean, his political aide Roger Stone (yes, that Roger Stone) and the RNC settled by entering into a consent decree — essentially a contract with the DNC enforced by the court — that would prohibit the RNC from engaging in these types of activities in the future.
Republicans were sued for violating this agreement several times. In a lawsuit involving voter suppression efforts in a 1986 Louisiana congressional election, the RNC was forced to disclose an internal memo that stated “This program will eliminate at least 60,000-80,000 folks from the rolls…If it’s a close race…which I’m assuming it is, this could keep the black vote down considerably.” The RNC was again sued for violating the consent decree in connection with the 1990 North Carolina Senate election and the 2004 presidential election in Ohio. Each time, the Republicans were found to have engaged in voter suppression tactics aimed specifically at minority voters.
Despite this checkered past, following the election of President Barack Obama in 2009, the RNC went to court seeking to lift the consent decree. Among the reasons cited by the RNC was the fact that President Obama was Black: “[W]ith an African-American President, and an African-American Attorney General, the laws that are already on the books regarding voter fraud, voter intimidation, and voter suppression are going to be actively pursued by this Justice Department.” The RNC also argued that since its own chairman, Michael Steele, was Black, the RNC would be unlikely to engage in minority voter suppression.
Though the court rejected the RNC’s motion to lift the consent decree, the RNC did get one form of relief ― an expiration date for the decree of Dec. 1, 2017.
Desperate to have the decree lifted, in 2016 the RNC did everything it could to distance itself from its decades of voter suppression efforts. Instead of the party engaging in false mailers or illegal caging operations, those efforts were left to the Trump campaign itself and allied organizations like Roger Stone’s StopTheSteal.org. When a lawsuit was brought after the election to extend the decree, the RNC distanced itself from the activities of Trump and Stone — claiming to have nothing to do with their voter suppression efforts.
It worked. On Dec. 1, 2017 the consent decree expired.
Republicans took their first public action this year in Michigan, where they specifically intervened in court to oppose a lawsuit to help student and African-American organizations provide rides to the polls and help ensure absentee ballots are delivered on time to be counted. The Republicans are also fighting an effort in Michigan to stop untrained election officials from discarding absentee ballots based on allegedly mismatched signatures without giving the voter notice and an opportunity to fix it.
These are just the early fights. As we’ll soon see, $20 million goes a long way to make voting harder ― especially when you just need to “play offense a little bit” and suppress 79,646 votes across three states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to ensure Trump’s reelection.
With the consent decree lifted, the Party of Lincoln no longer needs to maintain a public facade of supporting voting rights. Now, it can say the quiet part out loud — it wants to prevent certain citizens from voting largely based on the color of their skin, where they come from and how old they are. As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” On voting rights, Republicans showed us who they are, and it’s time we believe them.