Arkansas State Capitol

Assessing the work of the Arkansas legislature, now a solidly Republican legion, calls to mind many descriptors — moronic, wacky, cunning, cynical, deceitful, immoral, mean, devilish — depending upon whether you’re talking about the laws or near-laws punishing racial, religious, ethnic, sexual or gender minorities, or children and women, or else the laws protecting slaughter and mayhem by gun-toting patriots. The Arkansas Democrat–Gazette’s prolific Republican columnist Rex Nelson had a few other tags the other day for your consideration: “clownish,” “Know Nothings,” “coffee-shop loudmouths.” He was talking about Republicans.

The courts will in due time take care of many, perhaps most, of those idiocies because Republican justices going back to Roe v. Wade have declared those kinds of discriminatory acts unconstitutional.

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But all those appellations would apply as well to another, but potentially more dangerous campaign by Republican lawmakers in Arkansas and in many other GOP legislatures — to impair that most fundamental of American rights: the right of citizens to choose their government by voting. The flood of bills and acts to discourage voting all had dual purposes: to come to the aid of Donald Trump, who can’t accept his landslide loss, and to see to it that Republicans don’t lose again. They are a continuation of the greatest treason in 160 years, the presidential summoning of a mob to overwhelm the nation’s Capitol, cancel a democratic election and the rule of law, and keep a defeated president in office, perhaps for life.

Richard Nixon came within 112,000 votes of beating John F. Kennedy in 1960, but few Republicans anywhere — not even Nixon — claimed that the election was stolen from him. Al Gore actually beat George W. Bush by 500,000 votes in 2000 but shrugged and congratulated Bush for having won the Electoral College, which hands extra votes to states with few inhabitants, like Wyoming and Alaska, and which four other times in history has made the loser the president.

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Trump lost decisively in 2016 and again in 2020 by a landslide. Ten million more Americans voted against Trump than for him on Nov. 3. But he and his slavish party claim that he actually won big and that dark, unidentifiable saboteurs somehow stole millions of votes from him.

There may be sensible people who, in spite of his thoroughly immoral life and serial failures in his personal, business and governmental phases, preferred Donald Trump to Joe Biden or any of the also-rans, but it is hard to believe that anyone beyond the religiously transfixed — the “cult of personality,” as Liz Cheney now calls much of her party — actually believes that Trump won the election. In four years as president, Trump’s job-approval rating, as recorded by the ancient and thoroughly reliable Gallup Poll, never in a single week reached as high as 50 percent. He left office Jan. 20 with an approval rating of 34 percent. No president in the history of polling ever had such a continually wretched performance in the judgment of American voters, just as no president since Herbert Hoover racked up a more disastrous economic record. From long before the 2020 campaign started until Election Day, every reliable national poll, including Fox News’ survey at the end, showed Trump losing to Biden. Pre-election polls showed Trump losing in Georgia and Arizona, the battleground states that he has counted on to demonstrate that he won the election big.

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Never was there any doubt about what he would do on election night. A psychopath cannot be defeated at anything; he can never admit defeat, to being wrong, to having told an untruth, to having screwed up on anything. On Trump’s very first election night in 2016 — the Iowa Republican caucuses — when Sen. Ted Cruz defeated him, Trump claimed that Cruz somehow had stolen votes that were intended for Trump and he wanted a new election, knowing that it was impossible. He repeated the charge over and over and then warned on the day of the general election that Democrats were herding buses full of unregistered immigrants from Massachusetts and New York into New Hampshire to vote against him and other Republicans, a bit of nonsense that even New Hampshire Republicans ridiculed. Other Republicans won New Hampshire that day. All the immigrant bandits apparently voted for other Republicans, but not for Trump.

Every American who followed the news at all beyond Trump’s tweets and Facebook posts and Fox News had to know what was coming in 2020.

Especially Arkansans. After the crafty Texan (“Lyin’ Ted Cruz” Trump called him) won the Arkansas Republican primary on March 1, 2016, by a 9,000-vote margin over Trump and the rest of the field, Trump complained that he had won Arkansas but Cruz had stolen it. Republicans controlled the Arkansas election machinery. No one believed such nonsense then; now nearly every Republican accepts Trump lies as gospel.

You can understand why Republicans in traditionally Republican Georgia and Arizona were obliged to contest the results and even the repeated recounts since Trump had to carry those states to have even a remote chance of staying in office. They owed it to him to back his lies. But what motivates the Arkansas party and its lawmakers? Like nearly every Republican running for office, Trump carried Arkansas easily with 62.4% with not a hint of fraud or misconduct anywhere in the state. Like nearly every other state last spring, Arkansas expanded the times and ways to vote in 2020 because the pandemic was going to keep even Trump voters away from the crowded precincts on Election Day. Trump benefited from the expanded voting in Arkansas even more than Biden, raising his share of the vote from 2016 by 2 percent while Biden’s share exceeded Hillary Clinton’s by only 1 percent. It was the largest vote turnout in Arkansas history — 88,000 more than in 2016 — and it benefited Trump and other Republicans at least as much if not more than Biden and Arkansas Democrats. That was true in most of the rest of the country.

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So why were Arkansas Republicans in such a panic to shut off voting in future elections by restricting access to absentee, early and mail voting and to empower state (Republican) officials to take over when there is a little dispute over counting ballots in one of the six or seven counties where a Democrat can compete for an office? 

Part of it is national. Only once in the last 33 years has the Republican candidate for president won the popular vote, which determines the winner in every other electoral contest from freshman-class president to Congress. National demographic trends do not encourage a better outlook for Republicans in future elections.

But Republicans learned an important lesson in 2000. Florida, a 50/50 state with a large share of Electoral College votes, was crucial for George W. Bush’s election. Reducing the turnout in Democratic strongholds was the critical strategy to put Florida in Bush’s column. In heavily Black urban areas, the numbers of voting places and voting machines were reduced. On election night, the lines at overwhelmed precincts ran for blocks and far into the night for voters, mostly old or Black, who were determined to stay and vote. Thousands who went to the polls after work just went home. The Republican headquarters in Washington sent a squad, including Arkansas’s dirty tricks expert, Tim Griffin, to Florida to try a few strategies, like voter caging, to reduce the turnout. Knowing the frequency with which people moved, they got the addresses of registered voters in Democratic-leaning Black communities and sent them mail, which was to be returned if the voter was not currently at that address. The returned envelopes from old addresses, including those of men in uniform, were given to the county voter registrar to cancel the registrations. Voters learned too late that they were ineligible. In the end, the Republican majority on the Supreme Court halted the recounting of votes from precincts where overwhelmed voting machines malfunctioned and declared Bush the winner in Florida. The unhappy but gallant Gore conceded and congratulated Bush.

After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the Florida example gave the GOP a strategy for the future: discourage Blacks from voting. Voter fraud became the cry in Republican-controlled states and it resounds today in half the states, including Arkansas. Voter fraud — illegal voting by individuals — has never been a problem in Arkansas or anywhere else, for the simple reason that there is no impetus for an individual, unless he or she has something personal at stake in the election, to risk the crime of going to a precinct and pretending to be someone else who isn’t showing up that day, forging the person’s signature and casting an illegal vote. The few instances of actual voter fraud in the 2020 election turned out to be for Trump, like the Colorado man who allegedly murdered and disposed of his wife, obtained an absentee ballot for her and then cast it for Trump. He was sure that his wife had loved Trump as much as he did and would have voted for him.

Requiring people to produce an official identification with a photo and follow other rigmaroles was supposed to keep people from trying to cast an absent person’s vote. Blacks, especially women, were known to often have no driver’s license or passport, nor the will to fight through the steps at a polling site to mark a “provisional” ballot if they didn’t have photographic proof that they were the person they claimed to be.  

On the other hand, election fraud — the illegal handling of votes by election officials such as the sheriff or county clerk — was endemic in the state for a century until voters amended the Arkansas Constitution in 1964 to end the poll tax and other strictures aimed at deterring Blacks from voting. People would qualify and register once and then be eligible to vote in every election for the rest of their lives. The constitution specified that neither the legislature nor local officials could ever add any other requirement to vote, like all the Jim Crow voting laws passed in the 1890s and afterward had done to discourage minority voting. Republicans amended the constitution in 2018 to weaken the voter-registration law to allow such requirements as photo IDs to vote. The legislature has added a few more in a hapless attempt to discourage Democratic-leaning voters.

Many fewer Americans will cast ballots in 2022 and 2024, but none of the voting laws here, Georgia or elsewhere will prevent a single instance of election fraud. The Democratic nominee in 2024 — Biden or someone else — will not get the 81 million votes he got in 2020, but neither will Trump, the unlikeliest nominee, or some stand-in like Marjorie Taylor Greene, get the 74 million votes that Trump boasted about. Barring some economic or physical catastrophe, the betrayed American electorate will not reward Republicans for their perfidies.

That is my happy thought for today.