The GOP’s blatant disregard for democracy

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In August 2020, Missourians commanded their leaders to expand the state’s stingy Medicaid program. They wanted adults at or near the poverty line to be eligible for government-funded health-care assistance, for that assistance to include all birth control and family planning services, and to ensure their leaders wouldn’t create new obstacles for potential Medicaid recipients going forward. By a margin of 53 to 47 percent, voters approved adding those provisions into the Show-Me State’s constitution.

Last week, the state’s GOP leaders declared that they will ignore their constituents.

Gov. Mike Parson (R) announced Thursday that Missouri won’t expand its Medicaid program after all — that the will of the voters had been overridden by Republican legislators who simply refused to appropriate any money for the initiative. Those legislators, in turn, made it plain for months that they didn’t respect the results of the statewide vote.

“Even though my constituents voted for this lie,” State Rep. Justin Hill (R) said in April, “I am going to protect them from this lie.”

This is just the latest example of the GOP disregarding some of the central tenets of democracy.

Americans in recent months have rightly been embroiled in a debate over attempts by GOP lawmakers in swing states like Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and Iowa to make voting more difficult for Democratic constituencies. They are following up on former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him by making it easier for a Republican candidate — perhaps Trump himself — to take back the White House in 2024. No surprise there: Even rank-and-file Republican voters say the party can best win elections by changing the rules instead of doing the hard work of persuading Americans.

But the party’s antipathy toward democracy won’t just have consequences for national elections. The Medicaid debate in Missouri shows yet again that state and local Republican officials across the country aren’t much inclined to respect the will of the voters, at least not when that will gets crosswise with their own.

This became obvious after the 2018 midterm elections. In Michigan, Republicans in the state legislature stripped powers from the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state after Democrats won those posts. The same thing happened in Wisconsin, where Democrat Tony Evers had just won the governorship. Both states were following the lead of North Carolina, where GOP legislators in 2016 responded to the election of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper by cutting the size of his administration and limiting his appointment powers.

In Florida, voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure restoring voting rights to former felons who had completed their sentences, probation, and parole. (The state requires a supermajority of 60 percent approval to pass such measures; the voting rights measure got 64 percent support.) The measure would have made more than 1 million of Florida’s citizens newly eligible to vote. Republicans in Tallahassee neutered the initiative by requiring those ex-convicts to pay all their court fees and fines before they could fill out a ballot.

When legislators can’t defeat progressive ideas, judges can. Last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved medical marijuana program in a lawsuit brought by Mary Hawkins Butler, the long-time Republican mayor of Madison. Judges said the law that enables voter initiatives in Mississippi is flawed and out of date — something that was also true, but apparently not a problem, when voters approved a GOP-favored voter ID law in 2011.

These efforts to undermine election results have real consequences. In Missouri, for example, Parson and his allies in the legislature have decided to walk away from more than $1 billion in federal funding to help expand the Medicaid program. As a result, more than 270,000 residents making less than $18,000 a year won’t get the help they need to pay their medical bills — they’ll be unnecessarily left vulnerable to illness and injury.

All of this undercuts the Republican Party’s Trump-era efforts to rebrand itself as a party of the people: If citizen-led initiatives to change the laws and constitution of a state don’t qualify as “populist,” then the term needs to be retired. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has been toying with economic populism for awhile now; he could beef up his cred if he publicly lobbied his GOP buddies back in Jefferson City to change their minds and jump-start the Medicaid program. Then again, we already know what he thinks about respecting the will of the voters.

There is a danger here of a cascade effect. Winning elections is difficult, arduous work that can take years of effort. Losing is discouraging, and probably more so when you technically win but lose anyway because of a sneaky rule change. If it feels like the fix is in, it might be more difficult to rally donors and volunteers for future campaigns. In the end, Republicans may not need to suppress or overturn the votes of their opponents, but simply dampen Democratic spirits a bit. After all, nobody wants to play a rigged game.

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