The Memo: On voting, public has a more nuanced view than partisans

The Memo: On voting, public has a more nuanced view than partisans
© Greg Nash

President BidenJoe BidenCDC chief clarifies vaccine comments: 'There will be no nationwide mandate' Overnight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden urges local governments to stave off evictions MORE is warning of “election subversion.” Texas Democrats have fled the state rather than vote on a Republican-backed voting bill. And former President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE maintains his steady drumbeat of fictions about fraud in the 2020 election.

The issue of voting rights is hot and getting hotter. Partisans on both the left and right contend American democracy is under existential threat.

But polling suggests the public at large takes a more nuanced view. While the loudest voices make blanket claims, a significant swath of the public answers questions about voting rights and ballot security with a resounding “it depends.”

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The electorate at large does not buy dire Republican warnings that elections need to be more secure.

Most Americans think that making voting easier and more convenient should be the priority.

Yet, there are limits to that dynamic. 

Voter ID laws, which many Democrats have opposed, are popular. That’s perhaps because many Americans don’t see an especially onerous burden on that score, given how many unexceptional tasks require some form of identification.

Other proposals at the most permissive end of the spectrum also fall flat with voters. 

For example, an overwhelming majority of adults — an almost 3-to-1 margin — opposed the mailing of absentee ballots to all voters rather than only those who ask for them, according to a March poll from The Economist-YouGov.

The layered views lead some political insiders to wonder if the rhetoric coming from both right and left is leaving significant numbers of voters behind.

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“This is definitely being driven by activists on both sides, whether the folks on the left who are using hyperbolic language or the folks on the right who are in many cases just reacting to the last election,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas. “We’re on solid ground to say that what people in the middle — independent-minded voters — think depends on the details.”

Steinhauser’s state is in the national spotlight after more than 50 Democratic members of the state House left Texas for Washington on Monday. In doing so, they deprived their Republican counterparts of a quorum with which to pass legislation that would ban 24-hour voting and require new ID standards for voting by mail, among other measures.

Nationally, polling suggests there is genuine fear about voting restrictions, especially as Republicans push legislation across the nation. 

Fourteen states enacted 22 new laws restricting access to the ballot between the start of the year and mid-May, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll released at the start of this month asked respondents whether it was more important to pass new laws making it easier for people to vote lawfully or harder for them to vote fraudulently. 

Sixty-two percent opted for the first option and just 30 percent for the second. 

That’s good news for Democrats.

Similarly, broad access to early voting is popular across a range of polls.

But the question of voter ID is very different. Seventy-six percent of Americans favor making it mandatory to show some form of government-issued photo ID in order to vote, the Pew Research Center noted in March — a figure that included 61 percent of Democratic-leaning voters as well as 93 percent of those who lean toward the GOP.

The Pew survey also found that there has been a drift toward more restrictive positions on some issues, driven by Republicans.

In 2018, 71 percent of Americans were in favor of people being able to vote absentee without offering a specific reason why they were doing so. In the next two years, that figure fell by almost 10 points among the general population and by 19 points among Republican-leaning voters.

Biden’s speech on Tuesday in Philadelphia was his response to a growing clamor from progressive activists to meet what they see as a defining moment.

Progressives have pushed hard for the For the People Act, which would mandate federal minimum standards across a host of election-related issues. 

However, the bill’s advocates have been thwarted so far by the blanket opposition of Republicans in the Senate, as well as two moderate Democrats: Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDemocrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done MORE (W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaOn The Money: Justice Department says Trump's tax returns should be released | Democrats fall short of votes for extending eviction ban Senate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge MORE (Ariz.).

Many figures on the left are pushing Biden to throw his weight behind eliminating the Senate filibuster in order to enact more robust protections for voting. But he has not done so thus far and made no mention of the issue during his Tuesday speech.

He did highlight the fact that Attorney General Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandDOJ sues Texas over Abbott order restricting transportation of migrants Graham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar Garland floats legal action over Abbott immigration order MORE will be leading the Department of Justice to challenge a number of state-level laws that he holds to be unjust.

“There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today,” Biden said. “An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are.”

That wasn’t nearly enough for some progressives.

“On voting rights, President Joe Biden is failing to meet the moment,” Adam Jentleson of Battle Born Collective said in a statement soon after the speech. 

Jentleson again called for reform of the legislative filibuster. Protecting voting rights, he said, “was always going to be a steep hill to climb but it is much steeper without active, personal engagement and leadership from the president.”

Yet, at the same time, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee (RNC) accused Biden and the Democrats of “theatrics” on the issue. RNC communications director Danielle Alvarez added, “Republicans are engaged in state-led efforts to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

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Even though the administration of American elections is largely decentralized, Democrats are looking for a national fix.

But they face an enormously difficult task in finding one that can surmount Republican opposition, satisfy their own coalition and take into account the complex views of the public at large.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.