As Senate Republicans argue against a pair of bills Democrats are pushing to protect voting rights, they’re making a novel argument: That sky-high turnout from the 2020 election proves that it’s easy to vote, so there’s nothing to worry about.
It’s true that 2020 had booming turnout: 67 percent of all eligible voters, the highest turnout rate in more than a century. But that was fueled at least in part by a significant expansion of voting access that Republicans are now trying to roll back at the state level.
National Republicans are arguing that because turnout was so high in 2020 there’s no need for federal legislation to protect voting, ignoring the plain fact that their state-level brethren are doing everything they can to roll back the changes that helped make 2020’s turnout so in the first place.
Two senior Senate Republicans pushed those arguments on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“There's no election crisis in this country. This last election [had] thebiggest turnout in American history in 120 years. You have to go back to the year 1900 to find a time when the election turnout in an American election was equal to or exceeded what we had in 2020,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a member of Senate GOP leadership, argued Tuesday.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn echoed those sentiments, citing a survey from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center that found that 94 percent of voters said their own voting experience in 2020 was very or somewhat easy.
“I don't think you can get 94% of the people who agree that the Earth is round anymore. But here we have 94% of the voters who voted with ease in 2020. This is a stark contrast with the claimed assault on voting rights that we've heard so much about from our colleagues on the left,” Cornyn argued.
But Republicans in a number of states, including Arizona, Georgia, Iowa and Cornyn’s home state of Texas, have since the 2020 election passed legislation that in many ways big and small will make it harder to vote in future elections. Other GOP-controlled states are looking to follow suit. And in many other states, Republican officials who made one-time expansions to voting access because of COVID have made it clear they’re planning to go back to more restrictive laws in future elections.
The data from the last election suggests that state-level changes in voting laws do have a big impact on turnout. The states that made voting easier in 2020 by expanding mail voting access generally saw a much sharper increase in turnout than those that didn’t. A VICE News analysis found the states that showed the biggest jumps in voter turnout were almost uniformly states that also made it dramatically easier to vote, while those that saw the lowest turnout increases were all ones where it’s hard to vote—and where lawmakers kept onerous rules in place like bans on mail voting in spite of the pandemic. All five states that didn’t allow mail voting in 2020 were in the bottom 10 in overall turnout—including Cornyn’s home state of Texas.
Democrats are pushing a pair of bills to counteract those efforts and make other voting changes. The Freedom to Vote Act would require states to have early voting, allow people to vote by mail, have election-day voter registration, require disclosure from dark-money political groups, and many other changes. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would fill the holes the Supreme Court has blown in the 1965 Voting Rights Act in recent years.
Both bills are expected to fail because there aren’t 60 Senate votes to pass them over the filibuster, but Democrats are making a renewed push to put them in the spotlight and try to shame Republicans for their opposition this week, with a speech from President Biden on Tuesday and a Senate floor vote expected on Wednesday.
Biden sought to raise the stakes on the bills’ vote during his Tuesday speech in Atlanta.
“Every senator, Democrat, Republican and independent, will have to declare where they stand not just for the moment, but for the ages,” he said. “Will you stand against voter suppression? Yes or no? That's the question they’ll answer. Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no. Will you stand for democracy? Yes or no.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was quick to note the flaw in Republicans’ logic.
“My good colleague from Texas says 94% of voters said voting was easy in 2020. So why don't we keep it that way? Isn't it true that all of the changes that we are arguing about are post-2020?” Schumer said. “We agree 2020 worked out okay. I guess my friend is saying The Big Lie is false, because Donald Trump said it was fraudulent, the election results.”
Cornyn made another specious argument as well, heaping praise on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to argue new safeguards aren’t needed while ignoring the fact that the Supreme Court has gutted that very law that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act aims to fix, first by knocking down one of the law’s key provisions in 2013 then by drastically limiting the scope of another part of the law in a summer 2020 decision.
“The Voting Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in our nation's history, is alive and well. I think the Voting Rights Act has done more to change our country for the better than any other piece of legislation that I can think of,” Cornyn said. “So to be frank, the facts simply don't support our Democratic colleagues’ alarming rhetoric about the state of voting in America. This narrative of widespread voter suppression is nothing more than a scare tactic to achieve a political outcome.”
Cornyn, Thune, and every other current Senate Republican who was in office back then voted for the Voting Rights Act’s reauthorization in 2006, which included the provisions that gave the Justice Department the power to reject voting law changes it deemed problematic in parts of the country with a history of racially motivated voter suppression—a power that the conservative Supreme Court has since gutted.
Neither bill is going to pass—Democrats would need to lower the 60-vote margin the filibuster requires to pass most legislation in order to do so, and a handful of Democratic senators have made clear they’re unwilling to do so for this or any other bill. Republican lawmakers also hammered Democrats for wanting to make those filibuster changes, a fair criticism. But Republicans’ policy arguments against the bills show how flimsy their justification is for opposing these bills on their merits.