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Ballot Blockers

Voter Suppression Is the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Secret Sauce

Forced-birth advocates know their ideas are broadly unpopular with the public. That won’t matter if the public doesn’t get to have a say.

A protester holds a placard during the third annual Pennsylvania March for Life.
Paul Weaver/Getty Images
A protester holds a placard during the third annual Pennsylvania March for Life.

The Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that frozen embryos are human beings under state law staked out a new ideological claim that threatens the future of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, treatments. This is tragic. What it reminds us about the right’s plans for our future is horrifying. But their trajectory is locked in, as are the means by which they plan on accomplishing their goals: They will continue to pursue policies that few Americans support because their vision is an America in which people who don’t agree with them just don’t get to vote.

Those who care about reproductive freedom have been justifiably outraged about the impact of a ruling enshrining the concept of “extrauterine children.” (Aren’t we all extrauterine children, really?) IVF clinics in the state have already closed. The decision itself moves the Overton window even further to the right in terms of what “pro-life” means in the public imagination—the more the forced-birth movement can force us to argue about whether a frozen fetus is a person, the more the public thinks that this is a legitimate, live debate with two equally valid sides. (And the more we will see coverage like this from The New York Times.)

Still, even some elected Republicans have been astonished by this blatantly theocratic intrusion into a medical procedure that’s increasingly popular and relatively uncontroversial outside the forced-birth movement. It’s almost tempting to think there could be a damaging backlash against conservatives—just look at their numerous defeats at the ballot box post-Dobbs! (Trump, ever canny about the populist urge, has encouraged Alabama to “preserve access” to IVF.)

This is the wrong way to read the Christian nationalists’ perversely unpopular policy pushes. They are not concerned about overreach and backlash, because they are not concerned about instituting policies that have popular support. They are not concerned with winning elections. Here, they find themselves largely in alignment with the rest of the conservative movement, which has long benefited from a slew of electoral conditions—some baked into the Constitutional cake, others teased from its depths—that limit the ability of those who disagree with them to actually have a say in how they are governed, even in cases where large majorities of voters decline to give their consent.

The Founding Fathers did not envision an America in which everyone had equal representation, so on that front, those who believe in equal access to the ballot have been fighting from a disadvantage for over two hundred years. When progress was made, it was often paid for with blood. And Republicans have endeavored to beat back almost every forward step, chiefly through a commitment to gerrymandering that’s so ludicriously self-dealing that the maps wrought from years of rigging and re-rigging the game as Republicans and Democrats do battle with district borders now almost defy Euclidian geometry. (See Wisconsin’s “non-contiguous” district maps here.)

Solidifying minority rule is part of the ugly feedback loop that enables the repression of bodily autonomy, as lack of access to reproductive care just compounds the systemic barriers to fully participate in democracy. Remember, majorities in almost every state—including Texas, Alabama, and Florida—believe that abortion should be legal in “all or most” cases. (Only in seven states do most voters disagree—and even there, the most uneven split is 42–58.) In Ohio, a statewide ballot initiative enshrined the right to an abortion in the Ohio Constitution; Republicans started looking for workarounds a week later, and Republican candidates for the Ohio Senate nomination have come out in favor of a federal ban. States’ rights for thee and not for me, or something.

These subversions of popular will can get wildly granular: The Tennessee state House of Representatives just passed a bill preventing local jurisdictions from sending back to the legislature any lawmaker previously expelled for “disorderly behavior.” The bill is a procedural temper tantrum over the House Republicans’ ineffectual dismissal of two representatives whose pro–gun control activism (and, let’s face it, the fact they were Black) drew conservative ire but who had such solid local support they were both reinstated by district councils (and have now been reelected).

Obviously, the primary method for ensuring minority rule has been to place voting rights under attack. Here, the GOP has proceeded, in recent years, to unleash a well-funded effort to roll back voting rights across the country—an enterprise that has received maddeningly little scrutiny from the public at large and, for that matter, the media. Its success in quashing ballot accessand launching new attackslikely stems at least in part from how very few financially secure white people have to worry about losing their voting rights, as opposed to their visceral understanding of attacks on reproductive care.

Those Republican electeds vowing to protect access to IVF are as delighted as the most vehement anti-choice activist to undermine the right to voteat the most fundamental level, after all, they are broadly anti-choice. Americans as whole express a somewhat less hysterical level of cognitive dissonance: While they support access measures like early voting, absentee ballots, and automatic registration, there is also substantial support for restrictions such as voter ID, automatic voter roll purges, and limiting the number of absentee ballot drop-offs and even polling locations. Funny how the restrictions with the most support are the ones that would least impact the most comfortable parts of the electorate.

Ron DeSantis’s career shows both the limits and the possibilities of this approach. On the one hand, his cringey presidential nomination run likely showed the liabilities of a campaign premised almost entirely on “fighting the woke mind virus.” On the other, his reelection as governor occurred after he successfully pushed back Florida’s popular extension of voting rights (voted forward in the same statewide election that gave him his very narrow initial victory)—illustrating that a campaign, nay, a whole gubernatorial term, that consists of restating LibsofTikTok posts doesn’t have to be popular if you get to pick your voters.

Moderate Republicans—or, more correctly, any Republican that confesses even a hesitant doubt about the crushing of access to reproductive care; at this point, again, that includes Donald Trump—actually benefit from the uproar that these decisions engender. They can distance themselves from the toxic policies under discussion, but they benefit just as much from squeezing the electorate back into the demographic with which the country began.

Extremists will overreach; that is the nature of extremists, and the forced-birth movement is no different. We must be careful, however, not to confuse normie alarm at their own lives being disrupted with any movement toward undoing systemic oppression. Every time a moderate Republican expresses alarm at the broadening power of the forced-birth contingent, they need to be asked about restoring the will of the governed. It’s frustrating that MAGA militia understand the power of this question more intimately and recall it more forcefully than most Democrats currently in power: The foot soldiers of the Republicans’ minority-rule agenda self-identify as the true representatives of what “the people” want; the bravado that had them hurling flag poles at police officers on January 6, 2021, stemmed from their erroneous conviction that there were more of them than us.

But there aren’t, there really aren’t. The uproar over the IVF decision indicates some cognitive dissonance on the part of moderates, and that needs to be challenged. Still, a more optimistic takeaway is that progressives can be bolder in promoting their agenda. Reproductive justice is a mainstream idea; perhaps it is not too far a leap to representative justice. One thing is for sure: The minority-rule scheme is self-perpetuating; forcing people to continue to fight for previously hard-won rights reduces the opposition to further encroachment. The disconnect between what the people want and what policies Republicans insist on rolling out will only get more vast as they dream up new ways to subvert democracy; if we don’t close the gap, we will fall right in.