When most people think about the significance of the 2018 midterms, they think about the House of Representatives. Democrats, propelled by voter antipathy toward President Donald Trump, retook the chamber for the first time in eight years. The breakthrough ended two years of complete Republican control of the federal government. It also paved the way for Trump’s eventual impeachment in the Ukraine scandal last fall.
As the 2020 election nears, however, it seems like the most decisive result of the last cycle may not have been at the federal level. Voters also went to the polls in 2018 to elect a variety of state and local officials. In certain key states that Trump had won in 2016, they opted to elect Democrats to critical positions—posts crucial to the preservation of voting rights. Democrats ultimately flipped governorships in seven states, as well as the secretary of state’s office in Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan.
Those relatively unheralded results will have a profound effect on voting rights ahead of the 2020 election. In some states, the Democratic gains will provide a bulwark against potential degradations of the electoral system in the months leading up to the November vote. In others, they will provide an opportunity for Democrats to push back on restrictive measures and ensure that more Americans might have a voice in choosing their next president. Either way, it could be a grim sign for Trump’s already flagging reelection chances.
Trump is increasingly showing signs of fear about greater voter participation in November. In a series of Twitter posts this week, he railed against officials in Nevada and Michigan for their plans to send vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter in their states. “Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” he wrote on Wednesday. “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
There is little truth to the president’s assertions. In 2018, Michigan voters approved Proposal 3, a sweeping ballot initiative that sought to improve the state’s electoral system. Among the reforms was no-excuse absentee voting, which allows a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot for any reason or none at all. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told local news outlets that her office used federal election-assistance funds allocated by Congress in the coronavirus relief bill to pay for the mass mailings themselves. Benson, along with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, was among the Democrats who won a statewide election for the first time in 2018.
It’s unclear how or if Trump could freeze any federal funds for Michigan over the move; the president often makes threats he cannot actually carry out. While “voter fraud” is a frequently deployed canard in right-wing rhetoric, the actual practice is a vanishingly rare phenomenon in the United States, with only a handful of recorded instances in recent decades amid hundreds of millions of ballots cast. Trump’s handpicked commission on the subject disbanded in 2018 without finding evidence that it is a widespread practice. Voter fraud is more often used as an excuse to enact restrictive measures like voter-ID laws, which can have the practical effect of disenfranchising thousands of otherwise-eligible voters.
Wisconsin is a classic example of how the specter of “voter fraud” can affect elections more than the phenomenon itself. The state’s voter-ID law, which first went into effect in 2016, likely kept thousands of younger and impoverished voters from casting a ballot. For state Republican officials, this was a feature and not a bug. “We battled to get voter ID on the ballot for the November ’16 election,” Wisconsin’s then–Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, said in a 2018 radio interview. “How many of your listeners really honestly are sure that Senator [Ron] Johnson was going to win reelection or President Trump was going to win Wisconsin if we didn’t have voter ID to keep Wisconsin’s elections clean and honest and have integrity?”
Buoyed by the nationwide wave election, Democrats Tony Evers and Josh Kaul defeated their Republican incumbents. There are few steps they can take on their own to advance voting rights: Wisconsin Republicans maintain a tight grip on the state legislature, thanks to severe gerrymandering, and the state board of elections is responsible for running and supervising elections instead of the elected secretary of state. The state Supreme Court, which has devolved into a partisan mess over the past decade under its conservative majority, is poised to remove thousands of voters from the rolls at right-wing activists’ behest later this year. But the situation would likely be worse if Democrats could not veto new legislation or defend existing laws against legal challenges. This month’s primaries are a haunting example of how much worse things could be.
The 2018 midterms also gave counterexamples of what happened when Democrats fell short in their efforts to capture key statewide offices. Earlier this week, Republicans in Georgia canceled an election scheduled for later this year for a state Supreme Court seat, instead allowing Governor Brian Kemp to appoint a new justice for the next two years. Kemp won in 2018 in a tumultuous race that he also oversaw as the then–secretary of state, marred by long lines at the polls and confusion over state voter-ID requirements. In neighboring Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis and other state Republicans have worked strenuously to block Amendment 4 from taking effect. The ballot initiative, which was approved by voters in the 2018 election where DeSantis also took office, paved the way for over one million Floridians with felony convictions to be reenfranchised. A legal battle over legislation to blunt the initiative’s impact is working its way through the courts.
It’s no secret that Republicans benefit from a more constrained electorate. To that end, conservatives are pouring millions of dollars into projects aimed at reducing voter turnout in the upcoming election. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the Republican National Committee, recently freed from four decades of court orders that banned it from carrying out campaigns that reduced minority participation, plans to recruit 50,000 poll watchers to observe polling places this November. Among the most sought-after recruits by conservative groups are veterans and ex–police officers for “inner-city” polling places and Native American reservations, according to a recording of a conservative strategy session obtained by The Intercept earlier this year.
Trump also understands that his grip on power requires less democratic participation. In March, for example, House Democrats proposed measures in the pandemic relief bills that would allow universal vote-by-mail in the November election. They met with stiff opposition from Republicans writ large and especially the president himself. “The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump told reporters in March, referring to one of the Democratic bills. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” It was the GOP approach to elections in a nutshell. To them, democracy is where elected officials get to pick their voters, instead of the other way around.