In reporting on last week’s Supreme Court ruling leaving North Carolina’s nine-day grace period for mail-in ballots intact, the Associated Press adopted a curious framing presenting it as a partisan issue. In a tweet, the AP announced the decision as “a win for Democrats.”
Similarly, a CNN headline about the Supreme Court’s October 19 decision to allow Pennsylvania to count legally-cast mail-in ballots so long as they were postmarked by election day also referred to the decision as “a win for Democrats.” Likewise, CNN correspondents Abby Phillip and Jim Sciutto adopted the same framing in tweets about court cases in Texas and North Carolina, respectively.
Yes, in a very literal sense, the rulings in these cases were victories for Democrats. In each instance, the case for limiting ballots was made as part of Republican lawsuits. And yes, given this year’s increased Democratic emphasis on alternatives to in-person voting during a pandemic, it’s likely that a decision to throw out mail-in ballots would hurt Democrats electorally. But stepping back, it’s both disturbing and remarkable that these news organizations are reporting in a hands-off way on what is very clearly a Republican attack on democracy itself.
Too often, the press has adopted the Republican framing of voter suppression as a value-neutral partisan strategy as opposed to an effort to undermine democracy.
For decades, conservative politicians have danced around the rationale behind thinly veiled attacks on voting rights. Republican politicians have championed so-called “voter ID laws” on the basis that these are needed to prevent voter fraud, which is extraordinarily rare. Though these laws may dampen minority turnout, their proponents have always insisted this is only a coincidence and not the intended effect of such legislation. Similarly, Republicans have a long history of trying to reduce the number of early voting days, purging rolls of “inactive” voters, eliminating same-day voter registration, and restricting mail-in voting options.
There have always been a few conservative activists willing to admit that Republicans use voter suppression as a strategy to win. Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council co-founder Paul Weyrich once famously said, “I don’t want everybody to vote. … As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Politicians, on the other hand, have usually been savvy enough to shy away from such honesty about their intentions. Then Donald Trump came along. Whether Trump means to be candid about his motivations or not, he does still regularly raise the false specter of voter fraud and has admitted that if voting were made easier in the U.S., Republicans would lose.
In a March appearance on Fox & Friends, Trump explained his opposition to a COVID-19 relief bill backed by House Democrats because it included provisions that would make voting easier. “The things they had in there were crazy,” he said. “They had levels of voting that if you agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
In August, Trump doubled-down on this principle and defended his administration’s efforts to hamstring the U.S. Postal Service. When he spoke about his opposition to a Democratic bill providing emergency funding to the agency, Trump said, “If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. They just can’t have it.”
By continuing to frame its reporting about attacks on democracy as a partisan issue, the press is exhibiting a form of pro-conservative bias.
Perhaps there’s been a sense that if journalists decry voter suppression, that will be seen as a form of bias in favor of Democrats. The opposite is true. By refusing to accurately describe attacks on the basic tenets of democracy, journalists are favoring the people carrying out these campaigns. As headlines go, “Supreme Court ruling a win for Democrats” could be more accurately described as “Supreme Court rejects a Republican-led attack on voting rights.” Yes, that would be a very negative headline for Republicans, but it wouldn’t be a biased one.
Believing that anyone who casts a ballot should have their vote counted shouldn’t be a partisan view, but it wouldn’t be the first time that something that should be completely uncontroversial has been turned into a partisan hot potato. The fact that in 2020, journalists are still asking politicians whether they believe in the scientific consensus on climate change is a major example. This is the same approach journalists have taken in addressing Republican-led efforts to undermine democracy, and it’s crucial that the press snaps out of it immediately.
If Tuesday’s election drags out into a protracted legal battle based on one side believing that all votes legally cast on or before Election Day should be counted and the other side making an argument that some of those votes should be thrown out, journalists need to provide an honest description of what happens. A situation where one side wins by invalidating or refusing to count legally cast ballots wouldn’t be a partisan battle, it would be a coup. It may be uncomfortable for media organizations to report these facts with the brutal honesty they deserve, but that’s a necessary part of a free press and Fourth Estate in a functioning democracy.