The Republican National Committee isn’t leaving anything to chance ahead of this year’s midterm elections. The GOP is running two seemingly disparate plays at the local level, in the hopes of either siphoning voters away from Democrats or blocking Democratic votes from being counted.
Last week The American Prospect reported on the RNC’s latest grassroots initiative — the opening of close to two dozen community centers in cities and rural areas around America. Rather than relying solely on dominating the airwaves, these centers aim to go hyperlocal, popping up mostly in minority localities where residents may believe that Democrats overlooked them or took their votes for granted in 2020:
This wasn’t a soft sell: The centers beckon potential voters with everything from movie nights to free dinners to holiday parties to gun safety trainings, thrown by local organizers and paid for by your friends at the RNC, which has dedicated millions of dollars to the program. If those tactics sound familiar, that’s because they were once used to great effect, by groups as varied as the Black Panthers in Oakland or Democrats in New York’s Tammany Hall.
At these free events, voters are given the general Republican spiel and a healthy mix of misinformation about the issues these communities face, according to activists and Democratic politicians in Robeson County, North Carolina, where a center caters specifically to the area’s Native American population. Despite seeming so innocuous, and the apparent success it’s having in bringing in potential new Republican voters, the RNC has been weirdly secretive about its community centers initiative. The Prospect’s Alexander Sammon had difficulty getting anyone from the RNC, even local staff members, to talk with him about the efforts underway in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and other states.
Meanwhile, according to Politico, the RNC is also training an “army” of poll workers to carry out elections in battleground states such as Michigan. Poll workers are the faces you see when you step into your local elementary school or town hall to vote on Election Day; they’re the ones “setting up and preparing the polling location, welcoming voters, verifying voter registrations, and issuing ballots” as the U.S. Election Commission puts it.
Each half strengthens the likelihood of a Republican victory in November, while hedging against the failure of the other.
Politico reports that according to recordings of an RNC staff-led meeting in Michigan, the GOP plan for these newly recruited poll workers involves “utilizing rules designed to provide political balance among poll workers to install party-trained volunteers prepared to challenge voters at Democratic-majority polling places, developing a website to connect those workers to local lawyers and establishing a network of party-friendly district attorneys who could intervene to block vote counts at certain precincts.”
(An RNC spokesperson insisted to Politico that its trainings were merely “attempting to rectify an imbalance in favor of Democratic election workers in large urban areas, particularly Detroit, a city that votes reliably Democratic by more than 90 percent.”)
At first, the two projects could seem almost antithetical. On closer look, though, they’re interlocking components in a hyperlocal strategy that will either see minority voters cast ballots for the GOP or potentially find their votes discounted. Each half strengthens the likelihood of a Republican victory in November, while hedging against the failure of the other.
To be clear: From an organizing standpoint, there’s a lot to admire about the GOP’s community center plans. It’s the stuff of classic retail politics, small-d democratic through and through. Honestly, the community centers seem like the kind of thing that Democrats should be doing nationwide, especially in the areas that the RNC is targeting.
But there’s nothing good to be said about reports that Republicans seek to seize control of the voting process, a plan that can’t be disconnected from the distinctly anti-democratic efforts that former President Donald Trump and his acolytes have spent the past two years promoting. A flood of complaints from duly appointed poll workers offers a way to disrupt local elections in Democratic strongholds that could shift the outcome in Senate races in 2022 — and potentially the presidential race in 2024.
In theory, though, the two prongs of the GOP’s ongoing strategy could potentially cancel each other out. If these newly turned-out minorities in states like Georgia and North Carolina are then brought out to the polls only to find their votes questioned — or even canceled — that seems like its own goal on multiple levels. And what happens if, say, the GOP-drafted poll workers are deployed on Election Day and see perfectly normal voting practices?
The GOP is cynically engaging voters in areas where they feel they can win while reportedly preparing to invalidate votes in areas they feel they can’t.
But it’s all too easy to picture what the worst-case scenarios of what these RNC efforts could look like. The long-term harm to our democracy in both Republican initiatives is dependent on the willingness of the GOP to lie to voters and volunteers who have bought in to the party’s warnings of widespread voter fraud. If rather than training poll workers to be neutral, the Trump-fueled suspicions about “voting integrity” are encouraged and enflamed, the result could be chaos in precincts around the country.
And if minority voters — especially those in poorer areas like Robeson County — are lied to about how GOP policies will affect them, then they’ll be less likely to hold Republicans to account for decades of both willful neglect and targeted reductions in government aid. Democrats, meanwhile, will be faced with the challenge of convincing those voters that Republican attempts to suppress votes nationwide are real at the same time that the GOP appears to be actively courting them.
The Republican Party is trying split the difference here, cynically engaging voters in areas where they think they can win while reportedly preparing to invalidate votes in areas they think they can’t. But that’s no way to foster a democracy. What we’re seeing play out on the local level is a hustle, pure and simple, where the GOP is trying to win by the rules if they believe they can even as they prepare to cheat if they believe they can’t.