Voter Turnout Is Surging -- And Mitch McConnell Is Terrified

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks through the U.S. Capitol. 

Recent findings that voter turnout broke a century-old record last year and could cause another “100-year storm of voters” in 2020 must play on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s worst fears.

Not only did the annual America Goes to the Polls report, put out by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project, show historic jumps in Latino and youth voter turnout. The report also found that voter-friendly policies, such as same-day and automatic voter registration, are vastly boosting turnout. The top ten states with the highest turnout—averaging 61 percent—were also the ones that made it easiest for voters to cast ballots. By contrast, the ten lowest-ranking states had turnout averaging in the low forties.

This is one of the leading reasons McConnell is so hostile to HR 1, the package of democracy reforms that House Democrats recently approved unanimously, with nary a GOP vote. The legislation does far more than facilitate voting, of course. It also sets out to overhaul the political money, ethics and lobbying rules, among other changes. But a big part of the so-called For the People Act is about removing barriers to the polls. 

The bill would require states to allow voters to register the same day that they vote, and to automatically register eligible voters when they interact with government agencies, making registration “opt out” instead of “opt in.” It would also promote online voting, early voting, and registration on college campuses. And it would encourage employers to offer paid time off for voting, by making Election Day a holiday for federal workers.

Such measures could dramatically boost voter turnout—which is precisely what has put McConnell so on edge. The idea of “another paid holiday” for “a bunch of government workers” amounts to “a power grab” on the part of Democrats, McConnell fumed on the Senate floor. His objections to the bill, which he dubs the “Democratic Politician Protection Act,” include its public financing provisions, and a Federal Election Commission overhaul that he argues would hand control to one party.  

But McConnell’s real problem with the bill, he acknowledged at a press conference on the eve of last month’s House vote, is that it would help Democrats win more votes. “What it really is, is a bill designed to make it more likely that Democrats win more often,” McConnell declared. “Nothing else.” 

Low-turnout elections favor Republicans, the conventional wisdom goes, in part because GOP voters tend to skew older and turn out more reliably, while younger, more ethnically diverse voters are likely to favor Democrats and vote more sporadically. Such presumptions tend to be overblown, say voting experts, but Republicans have nevertheless devoted decades to suppressing the vote via voter purges, voter ID laws, and other restrictions that ostensibly combat fraud, but that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color and other Democrat-friendly blocs.

Such GOP tactics are still in full swing, as evidenced by Texas officials’ recent botched attempts to remove thousands of eligible voters from the rolls, efforts in Kansas to reinstate barriers to registration that have already been thrown out in court, and a bid by Florida officials to sabotage a ballot initiative that recently restored voting rights to most former felons in that state.

But a funny thing is happening while national Republicans fret about Americans actually voting. State legislatures—including in some deep-red states—are suddenly embracing many of the same voter access measures that are at the heart of HR 1. These include same-day voter registration, which consistently boosts turnout from 7 to 12 points, and which has been approved in the District of Columbia and in 19 states, including Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. It will take effect in three more states by 2020.

Automatic voter registration is also taking off. In 2016, Oregon was the only state with automatic voter registration. By the end of this year 17 states and the District of Columbia will have it in place, including Alaska, Georgia, and West Virginia. Election officials like it because it saves time and money, and improves the accuracy of the voter rolls. States have been enacting democracy reforms at “dizzying speed,” writes Myrna Pérez, of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who counts 589 “pro-voter” bills in 41 states.

This should come as no surprise, given that two-thirds of Americans say “everything possible should be done” to make it easy for citizens to vote. Democrats are keenly aware of the popularity of democracy reforms, which helped them regain the House majority, and are a central theme in their presidential primary. In addition to HR 1, House Democrats are advancing a voter protection bill—the Voting Rights Advancement Act—that would restore federal supervision to states with a history of voter discrimination. A majority of House members have signed on, all Democrats.

All that promises to make things increasingly awkward for McConnell, who has vowed to block HR 1 from coming to the Senate floor. Next week Democrats are expected to trot out the Senate version, sponsored by New Mexico’s Tom Udall, to much fanfare. At last month’s Senate press conference to discuss the House bill, one reporter asked McConnell point blank: “Why is incentivizing people to vote a power grab?”

McConnell responded somewhat testily, interrupting to ask: “Well, what is the problem? We had the biggest election turnout since 1966 last year.” In fact, when measured against the voting-eligible population, turnout last year was higher than at any point since 1914, at 50.3 percent, according to the America Goes to the Polls report. More than 118 million Americans voted, and the report’s authors predict record turnout again in 2020—thanks in part to state policies that are making it easier to vote. McConnell’s obvious horror at such a prospect speaks volumes.

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