OPINION: The Devil Went Down to Utah

Sen. Mike Lee speaks at a conference in 2015. Photo credit Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0

So… we need to talk. Just this Wednesday, Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, called the national voting rights legislation H.R.1 a bill “written in hell by the devil himself.”

Which, you know, seems pretty extreme. There must be something really crazy in this bill, something so problematic and disagreeable that it would warrant such incensed rhetoric.

The trouble is, the bill, which is likely to come before the Senate this year, actually seems quite reasonable, putting into place policies most Americans would likely agree on.

First, H.R.1. would make it easier to register to vote and stay registered. Agencies like the DMV would save you the hassle and automatically register you to vote when you get your driver’s license (unless you ask them not to), you’d be able to register to vote on election day if you needed to and states would have to make sure you’re actually gone before they remove you from the voter rolls.

Second, the bill would make sure you can vote before election day if you need to and force states to address long wait times.

Third, the bill would heighten election security by creating systems for identifying, reporting and fixing vulnerabilities, as well as standards for election vendors.

Fourth, the bill requires candidates to disclose all their campaign contributions and creates public financing for elections where the government would match small donations to candidates, thereby reducing the role of wealthy donors, lobbyists and Wall Street in politics.

And finally, the bill would ban district maps that favor one party over the other. Under the current system, state legislatures control their own redistricting, which means that representatives can choose which voters will elect them (instead of the other way around) and divide them up in ways that favor their own party over others. This process, called gerrymandering, also has the side effect of making elections less competitive, so if you’re frustrated that the same people keep getting elected, this is a big part of why.

So, to sum it up; the bill makes it easier to vote, easier to register, increases election security, reduces the influence of big money in politics and prevents politicians from gaining an unfair advantage through gerrymandering.

For a bill written by the devil himself, I certainly would have expected something more dastardly and evil. Mandatory abortions maybe? Banning Christianity? I mean, the devil must be getting soft… really soft. Or maybe he’s just a big fan of voting rights. I don’t really know the guy all that well — as a Democrat and a journalist, I’ve only met him a few times at our induction ceremonies.

 So I am still left with the question: why did Senator Lee say what he said? Hyperbole or not, he certainly seems worked up about it. As it turns out, there is a very, very good reason: the Republican Party hasn’t been fighting fair.

In a vile, decades-long legacy, the Republican Party has consistently tried to stop people (especially minorities) from voting. Why? Because the Republican voting base is smaller (they’ve lost 7 out of the last 8 presidential elections by measure of the popular vote), but they turn out more consistently. This means that when fewer people vote, Republicans tend to do better. Back in March last year, former President Trump gave the game away: speaking on a previous voting reform effort, he said, “The things they had in there were crazy. They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” This is, of course, an exaggeration, but it isn’t exactly a good look for a politician to want fewer people voting.

That’s not the only way they haven’t been playing fair though: state Republicans, who controlled the majority of state legislatures in the 2011 redistricting, and will again for the 2021 redistricting, have used that power to create for themselves a sizable gerrymandered advantage. Some Democrat-controlled legislatures do the same thing, but considering they are fewer in number and more likely to have anti-gerrymandering laws already, Republicans come out on top. Election statistician Nate Silver’s “The Gerrymandering Project” estimates that the current set of gerrymandered districts gives Republicans a roughly 7% advantage nationwide in elections.

And suddenly, the game is up. It’s easy to understand why this is a bill “written in hell by the devil himself,” why it is “rotten to the core,” why he hates “every single word in H.R. 1, including the words ‘and,’ ‘but,’ and ‘the.’”

Because if there is one thing cheaters hate more than anything else, it’s being forced to play fair.