As New York Republicans went to the polls for their primary April 19, some opponents of Donald Trump clung to the hope that Ted Cruz, or perhaps John Kasich, might deny Trump a few delegates in some of the state’s congressional districts. One reason for that hope was New York’s highly restrictive voter registration rules, which required party-changers to register as Republicans many months earlier in order to be eligible to vote in the GOP primary. Some crossovers who intended to vote for Trump, the thinking went, would discover when they arrived at the polls that they could not do so.
The #NeverTrumpers were hoping, in other words, that rules limiting voter participation might help their cause.
Likewise, during the primary season some anti-Trump Republicans paid close attention to the GOP delegate-selection process in Colorado, Wyoming, and North Dakota, the three states that chose not to have presidential preference votes in 2016. Winning there depended on the participation of a relatively few highly motivated Republicans who worked through precinct, county, district, and state caucuses. Yes, several thousand Republicans participated in conventions there, but there’s no doubt Colorado, Wyoming, and North Dakota had less voter participation than nearly all states with primaries. For #NeverTrumpers, fewer voters equaled higher hopes.
Trump called the system in those states “rigged” and accused some Republican leaders of trying to frustrate the will of the voters. “It’s about the voters, it’s not about the bosses,” Trump said the week of the New York primary, which he won with 60 percent of the vote. “We’re going to show that it’s about the voters. I win all of the time when it’s up to the voters.”
Now Trump has effectively clinched the Republican nomination, and one conservative voice against Trump has radically upped the ante on limiting voter participation. In a May 20 Washington Post op-ed, David Harsanyi, a senior editor at The Federalist, argued that millions of voters are so ill-informed that they cannot be trusted to make responsible decisions and must therefore be “weeded out” â?? barred from voting “for the good of our democratic institutions.”
“By weeding out millions of irresponsible voters who can’t be bothered to learn the rudimentary workings of the Constitution, or their preferred candidate’s proposals or even their history, we may be able to mitigate the recklessness of the electorate,” Harsanyi wrote.
Harsanyi proposed a test for voters along the lines of the test given to immigrants seeking to become United States citizens. The test would pass constitutional muster, Harsanyi said, because it would somehow “ensure that all races, creeds, genders and sexual orientations and people of every socioeconomic background are similarly inhibited from voting when ignorant.”
Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other impediments to voting have been ruled unconstitutional by courts or outlawed by legislation for many years.
Harsanyi is by no means the first conservative to suggest a test for voting. After Harsanyi’s article appeared, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg tweeted, “I’ve been making a similar argument for years,” linking to pieces from 2007 and 2014.
Others have proposed similar ideas. And in general, as Trump’s victories accumulated, some in the #NeverTrump world displayed a deep frustration with, if not outright animosity, toward the nation’s voters. In March, National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, a determined Trump opponent, expressed his hope that the constitutional structure of checks and balances might somehow stop a Trump victory, since it is “designed to frustrate ‘We the People’ when the people fall into dangerous and violent error of the sort with which they are now flirting.”
The various discussions of Trump and voting raise questions about the position conservatives and Republicans have taken on the most contentious voting-related issue of recent years, the fight over voter ID. For a long time, conservatives and Republicans have advocated commonsense measures to ensure the integrity of elections. Those measures boiled down to one thing: a voter should be able to prove who he or she is when voting. The solution, voter ID, was not only reasonable but publicly supported and approved by the courts â?? after all, if one has to present ID to board a plane or buy Sudafed, why is it overly burdensome to require the same to vote?
Democrats have long responded by accusing conservatives and Republicans of attempting to suppress the vote. Conservatives and Republicans strongly denied the charge. But now, with the new conservative/Republican arguments made in the context of Trump’s rise â?? a test for voting, limited-participation elections, condemnations of democracy in general â?? it’s hard not to wonder whether Democrats were right about the other side all along. There are clearly some conservatives and Republicans who dislike the voters’ choice â?? Trump â?? so much that they would limit the voters’ right to choose.
One last issue. The Democratic charge of GOP voter suppression almost always came with an allegation of racism â?? the accusation that Republicans were specifically trying to disenfranchise minority voters. Now, however, conservative and Republican voter-limitation talk comes in the context of Trump’s victories in the GOP primaries, which mostly did not involve minority voters. So perhaps the best way to describe what is happening is that Trump’s success has brought to the fore an anti-democratic streak that has long been present in some conservatives and Republicans.