The latest test for US democracy is which Americans get to vote and how easily

Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for a titanic struggle

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris deliver remarks after meeting with Asian-American leaders to discuss "the ongoing attacks and threats against the community," during a stop at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., March 19, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo
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American democracy keeps lurching from one existential crisis to another. Republicans and Democrats are now gearing up for a titanic struggle over voting itself.

It is partly an extension of the conclusive but bizarrely unresolved 2020 presidential election.

Despite US President Joe Biden's decisive victory, Republican leaders continue to either bluntly claim or strongly imply that the result was tainted by widespread fraud. Former US President Donald Trump failed to overturn the outcome despite the most sustained effort to invalidate an election in US history.

In fact, the election was one of the cleanest ever, and saw the broadest public participation in a century.

Most Republicans believe Mr Biden won because of fraud, but only because most of their political and media leaders have relentlessly trumpeted this lie.

Mr Trump notes that 74 million Americans voted for him, a considerably larger number than in 2016 (when he still lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million), and mocks the reality that Mr Biden got over 81 million votes. Obviously Mr Trump was an extremely polarising figure who convinced vast numbers to support him but a considerably larger group to vote him out.

That is simply unacceptable to him and many other Republicans.

Whether or not they endorse the "stolen election" mythology, Republicans have launched a massive state-level campaign to restrict ease of, and access to, voting throughout the country.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 17: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) speaks during a news conference about immigration outside the U.S. Capitol on March 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. Diaz-Balart joined fellow GOP members of the House to announce a plan to overhaul the immigration system, which would include giving citizenship to Dreamers, reform the asylum process and creating a 10-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.   Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) outside the US Capitol on March 17, in Washington, DC. AFP

This attack on voting rights is unprecedented, at least since segregation and the systematic denial of African-American voting in the South until the 1960s.

Republican lawmakers in 43 states are pursuing 253 bills to significantly restrict voting access. They claim to be defending “election integrity,” as if there had been a significant degree of fraud in the last election. And, with breathtaking cynicism, they cite doubts among their supporters about the 2020 election, unfounded suspicions that these leaders themselves promoted in stark contradiction of the established facts.

Since Mr Trump's defeat, a number of Republican leaders have effectively dropped all pretences that they seek to limit fraud rather than votes. They have plainly concluded that their only reliable path to national victory under current circumstances is to restrict by all possible means the number of Americans who participate in elections.

To disenfranchise millions of Americans is surely doomed as a partisan strategy

Many of these new state bills seek to end early voting, greatly restrict postal voting, and eliminate Sunday voting (favoured by African-American churchgoers), among other egregious measures. The obvious targets are ethnic minorities and the poor. Money purchases convenience, time and flexibility. The less cash you have, as a practical matter the harder it is to accommodate rigid rules and schedules.

Since there is a strong correlation between poverty and some core Democratic constituencies, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, restrictions that make voting more difficult for poorer people are assumed to be useful to Republicans.

Moreover, African-Americans and other minorities are much less likely to carry the kinds of identification documents some new rules would demand. The racial subtext is unmistakable.

Democrats, too, are confronting the issue, but at the federal level.

The House of Representatives recently passed a sweeping voting rights bill that would nationally mandate measures such as 15 days of early voting, unrestricted postal voting, automatic voter registration, and other provisions intended to maximise the number of Americans who vote.

This horrifies most Republican leaders. Texas Senator Ted Cruz even claims that Democrats are trying to ensure that "illegal aliens" and "child molesters" vote in large numbers. Such absurd hyperbole aside, most Republicans agree Democrats are trying to slant the playing field dramatically in their favour, and they are indeed.

Republican attitudes were summed up by Mr Trump last year, when he warned against "levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again."

As he acknowledged, Republicans now fear they simply cannot prevail if there are high "levels of voting". Following recent defeats, particularly stunning losses in formerly reliably Republican Georgia, the Republicans are seeking at the state level to make voting more difficult.

With equal certainty that high turnout favours them, Democrats are pushing in the opposite direction at the federal level.

Both sides are undoubtedly motivated by what they perceive as politically advantageous. But there is no denying that Republicans are frantically seeking to practically disenfranchise as many qualified voters as possible. With increasing frequency, the mask drops and they openly admit their goal is to lower turnout.

Republicans are, in effect, attacking democracy, or at least voting.

Right-wing anxiety about too many people voting is nothing new. In the 1960s, conservative guru William Buckley insisted the problem in the South was not too few Blacks voting but too many Whites.

A familiar semantic ruse notes that the US was established as "a republic" not "a democracy".

That is true, but only insofar as, at the time of the founding, “democracy” suggested Athenian plebiscites on almost everything, while representative government with a strong default to majoritarian rule was precisely what was understood by a "republic". Now, we call the system a “democracy".

Depending on the fate of the filibuster, as I recently explained in these pages, Republicans may block the voting rights bill in the Senate, and even restrict voter access in some states.

But seeking to disenfranchise millions of Americans – now probably the issue on which, nationally, Republicans are most united – is not only unacceptable and embarrassing, but also surely doomed as a partisan strategy.

What’s being overlooked is that even Mr Trump did better than expected among African-American and Latino men, among others.

So, there is no reason to assume that a principled conservative agenda can't ever defeat liberals, including among minority groups in a diverse and equitable society. But Republicans would have to significantly alter course.

They are probably right to fear that an increasingly authoritarian, philosophically anti-democratic, and effectively white supremacist agenda will ultimately doom their ability to compete nationally in the emerging multi-ethnic and multicultural America.

Yet as David Frum has argued, Republicans appear more willing to compromise democratic principles than these disturbing tenets. That could prove the gravest threat to American democracy since the Civil War.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National