Voting and elections divide republicans and democrats like little else. Here’s why

  • By Philip Ewing/NPR

Republicans and Democrats seldom agree on much in 21st century politics — but one issue that divides them more than ever may be voting and elections.

The parties didn’t only battle about whether or how to enact new legislation following the Russian interference in the 2016 election. They differ in the basic ways they perceive and frame myriad aspects of practicing democracy.

Republicans’ and Democrats’ vastly different starting points help explain why the politics over voting and elections have been and likely will remain so fraught, through and beyond Election Day this year.

Sometimes it sounds like the politicians involved barely live in the same country. It has become common for one side to discount the legitimacy of a victory by the other.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has scrambled nearly everything about life in the United States, makes understanding it all even more complicated. Here’s what you need to know to decode this year’s voting controversies.

The Rosetta stone

The key that unlocks so much of the partisan debate about voting is one word: turnout.

An old truism holds that, all other things held equal, a smaller pool of voters tends to be better for Republicans and the larger the pool gets, the better for Democrats.

This isn’t mathematically ironclad, as politicians learn and re-learn regularly. But this assumption is the foundation upon which much else is built.

Traditionally, Republicans tended to support higher barriers to voting and often focus on voter identification and security to protect against fraud. All the same, about half of GOP voters back expanding vote by mail in light of the pandemic.

Democrats tend to support lowering barriers and focus on making access for voters easier, with a view to encouraging engagement. They support expanding votes via mail too.

The next fight, in many cases, is about who and how many get what access via mail.

All this also creates a dynamic in which many political practitioners can’t envision a neutral compromise, because no matter what philosophy a state adopts, it’s perceived as zero-sum.

Or as former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, told NPR, there are no “fair” maps in the discussion about how to draw voting districts — because what Democrats call “fair” maps are those, he believes, that favor them.

No, say voting rights groups and many Democrats — the only “fair” way to conduct an election is to admit as many voters as possible. Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has charged authorities in her home state with suppressing turnout, named her public interest group “Fair Fight Action.”

Access vs. security

The pandemic has added another layer of complexity with the new emphasis it has put on voting by mail. President Trump says he opposes expanding voting by mail and his allies, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, call it rife with opportunities for fraud.

Even so, Trump and McEnany both voted by mail this year in Florida, and Republican officials around the country have encouraged voting by mail too.

Democrats, who have made election security and voting access a big part of their political brand for several years, argue that the pandemic might otherwise discourage people from going to old-fashioned polling sites.

If there’s rough agreement about that away from the White House, there are many disputes about the specifics— what practices will be permitted based on what the parties perceive as beneficial for them.

A study by Stanford University found that voting by mail yielded a small but roughly equal increase in turnout between the parties.

It isn’t clear yet how much voting by mail might expand by Election Day but it’s the subject of lawsuits around the country; apart from the politics, absentee ballot-printing is a boutique business and its capacity will be tested — as may that of the Postal Service.

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