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Voting And Elections Divide Republicans And Democrats Like Little Else. Here's Why

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the state's primary election on Tuesday in Atlanta.
Ron Harris
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the state's primary election on Tuesday in Atlanta.

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 also 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 seems as if 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.

And 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 relearnregularly. But this assumption is the foundation upon which much else is built.

Traditionally, Republicans have 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 the process rife with opportunities for fraud.

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

Democrats, who have made election security and voting access a big part of their political brand for several years, argue that the pandemic might 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 across 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.

How common is voter fraud?

It exists, but it's very rare.

Despite anecdotal cases of people voting fraudulently in person or suspicious ballots appearing in the mail, most of the time, in most places, the way elections in the U.S. are processed is legitimate.

Since the pandemic, some Republican officials at the state level have acknowledged that the party's language around fraud may now be putting voting at riskby amplifying fraud concerns out of proportion.

Read more from NPR's Miles Parks about the integrity of voting by mail.

Trump sometimes says that large numbers of people vote illegally in the United States, but a panel he appointed to investigate that ostensible problem could not substantiate it. Listen to an interview with a member of that commission.

Still, anecdotal cases of fraud crop up across the country.

Voter suppression

Activists frequently call out what they term suppression.

In a dispute this spring in Nevada, for example, Democrats sued to stop the state from sending mail-in ballots only to people who had voted in recent elections rather than to all registered voters.

Democrats said the state's plan would disenfranchise some citizens by leaving them out of the primary; Republicans argued that states' voter rolls are often inaccurate and that sending out ballots to everyone could lead to the ballots getting lost or winding up in the wrong hands — opening up the prospect for fraud.

Voter rolls are often the focus of disputes for these reasons.

People die, move — and move out of state — and so authorities periodically need to delete names. How frequently that happens, and for what reasons, can become controversial and the kernel of legal and political warfare between the parties.

Likewise with voter identification documents.

In Texas, for example, the Republican-dominated state legislature deemed that handgun licenses were acceptable identification at the polls — but student IDs, even those issued by the state's own universities, were not.

For all the discussion about the effect of voter ID laws, however, a study last year found that whatever impact those laws might have is offset by increased organization and activism by nonwhite voters — leading to no change in registration or turnout.

Another battleground is early and absentee voting. Rules vary by state, with some requiring more explanation than others as to what's permissible.

Bitter lessons

The parties today have arrived at this moment after years of what they would argue were bad experiences with elections at the hands of their opponents.

Republicans, among other things, sometimes point to what they believe was cheating in the 1960 presidential race. Alleged Democratic chicanery, in this telling, threw the results to John F. Kennedy and cost the race for Richard Nixon.

Fraudulent IDs, undocumented immigrants voting, people being "bused in" on Election Day remain consistent themes when Republicans talk about elections.

Democrats look to the decades of Jim Crow discrimination that kept many black voters out of elections.

More recently, they look at the Supreme Court's 2000 decision that handed the outcome of that election to George W. Bush over Al Gore. The court halted the counting of ballots that Democrats argued could have changed Florida's results, swinging the state to Gore.

Abrams' group perceives what it calls a deliberate campaign by the establishment to purge Georgia voter rolls of mainly black or Democratic voters.

Problems with voting in Georgia's primary in June underscored those problems and that history, Abrams and other critics said.

Matters of principle

Many party leaders describe at having arrived at their positions based upon principle. Republicans are more likely to argue that casting a vote is a privilege of citizenship to be earned and safeguarded with restrictions and security.

They also point to what they call the principles of federalism and the need for people to be engaged at the state and local level with the conduct of elections — not for broad mandates from Washington.

Democrats are more likely to argue that voting is a right and that the barriers to casting a ballot should be as low as practical. President Lyndon Johnson and Democrats in the 1960s used the Voting Rights Act and federal power to dismantle racist state laws designed to prevent African Americans from voting, but those actions were later weakened by the Supreme Court.

Some current Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have called for new action by Congress and the federal government that could involve new funding, legislation and administration from Washington.

Whatever the outcome of this year's election, these disputes over elections themselves likely will continue well into the future.

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.