February 20, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The other ‘Great Replacement’

When the GOP embraced conspiracy theories, voter fraud fantasies, and class war, they replaced people who vote with an electorate that doesn't always – or can't always – vote, writes Claire Bond Potter.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: The following, sent to Editorial Board subscribers only, first appeared in Political Junkie, Claire’s fabulous newsletter.

I have always loved voting. When I was a kid, my mother would take me into the voting booth with her, close the curtain, make her choices, and then l got to pull down the handle of the voting machine. With a clang, the votes were cast, and the curtain popped open, ready for the next voter.

Except when I was in college, before 2020, I had almost never voted absentee. This was mostly because I was first a graduate student, then a college professor: elections usually fell around two-thirds of the way through the term. So I remember voting for Obama in a New Haven school in 2008; standing in line in Brooklyn, days after Hurricane Sandy, to vote for him again; and being lined up in the cold on 18th street in Manhattan on the day we thought we were all going to elect the first woman president, as a gay waiter from the gelato place across the street came down the line with little paper cups of espresso. 

Then came the pandemic: I think the last vote I cast in person was for Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primary, and since then I have only voted by mail and drop box, since Massachusetts is a state where you don’t have to be disabled, sick or out of town: you can vote before the election for no reason at all. In 2020, we all did it to not get covid. In 2022, I did it because I was going to be at my job teaching in New York. And now I do it — because I know it has been done! Even if I am suddenly called out of town, or sick, or have a writing deadline, I know I have voted. I miss voting in person, but the upside is that I can now also spend Election Day getting out the vote, knowing that my own ballot is waiting to be counted.

The Suffolk County Republican Party did not have that luxury, as they learned last week in the special election held in NY-03 to fill George Santos’s seat. And it suggests a factor that could help to defeat Donald Trump in the fall: MAGA political strategists have pursued and wooed culture-war voters who don’t believe in mail-in ballots – and then don’t show up at the polls.

By championing policies that limit the franchise, breed distrust in the electoral system, and devalue voting – and at the same time, building their electoral strategy around a base that is least likely to show up on voting day – they have created a problem that will only intensify as Trump and his allies chase conservative voters who care about democracy from the GOP.

You might call this the other great replacement: Republican culture wars strategies that have caused high-propensity voters to migrate to voting Democratic, and low-propensity voters who are motivated by culture wars issues and conspiracy theories to attach themselves to the GOP. 

In other words, the MAGA movement has replaced people who vote with people who go to rallies, buy flags and hats, watch Fox News, but don’t vote. As Republican political consultant Ryan Girdusky (who knows Queens and Long Island as well as or better than anyone) tweeted, “Republicans are looking at the results in PA, OK, and NY and are saying what’s going on. Why are we performing so badly?” 

The answer, as Girdusky explains:

“We lost high propensity (mostly college educated white voters). We gained lots of low propensity voters who don’t show up. And the weirdness around conservative culture (T-Swift is a CIA plant, election was stolen, arrest women for having abortions) is only making these people run away more. It’s hurting up and down the ballot almost everywhere we go. And the fact that low-propensity voters won’t vote early because they believe in nonsensical conspiracies about voting machines means we can’t make up for it with election day turnout. It’s happening everywhere and could happen in November.”

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And why are the working-class voters the GOP recruits low-propensity voters? One reason is that they have been coached by Trump and his surrogates to believe that politics is a sham, the system is rigged, and that elections are not really how leadership and political questions should be decided.

But the other reason has to do with working-class lives, which are difficult, stressful and ask adults to stretch their resources, finances and energy beyond capacity. People who work one hard job, or multiple jobs, don’t have time to stand in line to vote. Then, if you add an unexpected event – let’s say a nor’easter that clogged the roads with icy slush, closed the schools, forced working parents to find (or take the day off to be) emergency child care, and supervise Zoom school — all of a sudden you have a situation in which the voter base that the party is counting on doesn’t have the capacity or the will to cast their ballots.

This is why, as CNN political analyst John Black wrote in 2021, measures passed by states that make Black voting more difficult also suppress the votes of exactly the poor, white, working-class people that the GOP is trying to mobilize. And it is why conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 election mean that now, Republicans are far more likely to be vulnerable to poor turnout than Democrats are.

The Pew Research Center reported last week that the divide on mail-in voting is real, but it is a partisan question: no policymaker really believes that making it harder to vote is better for democracy. Nevertheless, a surprising number of Americans agree on the following things, across party lines:

  • Requiring paper ballot backups for electronic voting machines (82 percent).
  • Requiring people to show government-issued photo identification to vote (81 percent). Here, I would suggest that making identification more accessible, and affordable, possibly through the United States Postal Service, would lower potential barriers to the franchise here.
  • Making early voting available for two weeks prior to Election Day (76 percent).
  • Making Election Day a national holiday (72 percent).
  • Allowing convicted felons to vote after serving their sentences (69 percent).
  • 78 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans favor making Election Day a national holiday, as it is in other countries.

In other words, Republicans may have a bigger problem in November 2024 than we previously understood. By championing policies that limit the franchise, breed distrust in the electoral system, and devalue voting – and at the same time, building their electoral strategy around a base that is least likely to show up on voting day – they have created a problem that will only intensify as Trump and his allies chase conservative voters who care about democracy from the GOP.

And by the way – what if Congress took all those bullets, and bundled them into a new Federal Voting Rights Act?

Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.

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