A lesson for Republicans: Voter access is good politics

As the nation watches the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack lay out the details of its investigation, there is a consistent thread in witness testimony from the committee’s hearings: there was no evidence of widespread fraud in 2020. Several Republican officials have rejected the basis of these claims in their statements before the committee. 

It’s an unfortunate turn of events that so many of my fellow Republicans have allowed allegations of fraud—often rooted in conspiracy theories—to become proof positive of the need to restrict voting access. And it may do much more harm than good for Republicans’ electoral fortunes.

As a Republican who oversaw elections in Kentucky as secretary of state, I fought tooth and nail to earn the trust of my constituents. And when I was up for reelection myself, I faced the will of the voters on election night and won my election decisively despite the incumbent Republican governor losing by 17 points. Now out of office, I continue to work to improve our elections in Kentucky and around the country.

Contrary to political conventional wisdom, expanding voting access does not automatically better outcomes for Democrats. In fact, Stanford scholars found no partisan advantage to voting by mail. Not only that, there are endless counterexamples that show how policies that make voting easier have actually worked to the benefit of Republicans.

For all of former President Donald Trump’s complaints about the 2020 election being stolen, he  still received a staggering 74 million votes—more than any other candidate in U.S. history not named Joe Biden. Record turnout does not have a partisan bias. What matters, as always, are the candidates and the arguments they make to address voters’ concerns.

The 2020 election was by far the most accessible election, with millions of Americans utilizing early and mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A whopping 46 percent of voters say they voted absentee or by mail. What happened? Republicans picked up seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, took control of two state legislative chambers, and gained almost 300 net state legislative seats on Democrats. 

I saw this firsthand in Kentucky, as Kentucky lawmakers empowered our Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state to adapt our long-standing election practices to conduct an election in the midst of a pandemic. When the votes were counted, Kentucky hit an all-time high in voter turnout, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell sailed to his biggest victory ever, and Republicans further added to our previous record-setting margins in the state legislature. As a result, we made several of those changes permanent, including early, in-person voting, drop boxes with security measures, and an online portal to request an absentee ballot for those eligible. This fall, I am confident that Kentucky voters will use these new options to send even more Republicans to our state legislature.

Similarly, the story of the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election wasn’t one of Democrats riding high turnout to snuff out any chance for Republicans to win. Instead, it was a story of something that is true in every election: the candidate with the ideas and message that best addressed voters’ concerns prevailed. Virginia saw record-high early voting and the highest turnout for a gubernatorial election since 1997. And there is plenty of reason to believe this level of turnout was an asset for now Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), not a liability.

Even this year’s primaries show how more people voting can be a positive for Republicans. Georgia, a key battleground state, saw its GOP primary early voting numbers surge this year, surpassing that of Democrats. Overall GOP primary turnout was higher too. This is further evidence demonstrating that the GOP restricts voting at its own risk. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have common sense reforms that try to introduce more security—voter roll list maintenance is a perfect example—but balancing security and access doesn’t need to be a binary choice.

Republicans face a massive political opportunity going into the 2022 midterm elections—that is, if we resist the temptation to cry wolf about election fraud. There is no reason we Republicans need to resort to Machiavellian tactics or, even worse, blatant lies, to pick up seats across the country. We need to simply focus on our ideas for the future and point out the opposing party’s record while in office these past two years.

In fact, such a focused message going into more open elections may even give us a better chance of winning the American people’s support.

Trey Grayson is a Republican who served as Kentucky’s secretary of state from 2004 to 2011. Grayson serves as an Advisory Board Co-Chair of the Secure Elections Project. 

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