In 2004, Republicans in Ohio and 10 other states successfully pushed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. This wasn’t a coincidence – it was a concerted effort on the part of groups affiliated with the George W. Bush re-election campaign to drive conservative turnout in these states and aid the President’s re-election effort. Some analysts argued that the gay marriage ban in Ohio was the key factor driving Bush’s narrow victory there – a victory that gave the President his electoral college margin.
Now, with what promises to be an ugly and fiercely contested presidential election looming less than a year and a half away, supporters of Donald Trump seem to be eyeing a similar strategy.
Groups led by pro-Trump figures are pushing constitutional amendments in Florida and other crucial battleground states that would ban non-citizens from voting in those states. These efforts are just ramping up, but since they’re targeted at states where non-citizens are already banned from voting, they seem aimed at juicing turnout among the President’s immigration-hostile base voters.
The effectiveness of this tactic remains debatable – many political scientists have argued that the 2004 gay marriage bans did not affect turnout nearly as much as pundits believed. But there’s no doubt that the President will lean heavily on his tried and true tactic of demonizing immigrants and other people of color over the next 16 months.
Focus on Florida
The state of Florida once again projects to be among the most closely contested battlegrounds in the country come Election Day 2020. The Sunshine State and its 29 electoral votes will be one of the biggest prizes up for grabs, and with Florida’s famously close elections (Trump won the state by 1.2 percentage points in 2016) any marginal advantage could prove decisive.
Thus the “issue” of non-citizen voting. The advocacy group Florida Citizen Voters has collected more than 1.3 million signatures from Floridians, more than double the amount needed under state law to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The proposed amendment is about as simple as they come – changing the current wording of the state constitution to read “only a citizen” can vote (the current language says “every citizen” can vote).
This has prompted a certain amount of head-scratching in the state, as it is already illegal for non-citizens to vote in Florida. The state Supreme Court, which is composed exclusively of judges appointed by Republican Governors, will have to review the amendment to determine if it’s misleading to ask voters to make something illegal that is already illegal.
Supporters of the amendment are casting it as a preventive measure, arguing that it is necessary to prevent local governments in the state from allowing non-citizens to vote in the future.
There’s good reason to doubt this argument. The public champions of the amendment are strong Trump supporters and members of the President’s Mar-A-Lago golf club. Gina Loudon, part of the husband and wife team serving as the public faces of the Florida effort, is a local talk radio host who published a pro-Trump book in 2018 and received a congratulatory tweet from the President.
Gina Loudon’s husband chairs Citizen Voters Inc., a non-profit organization pushing similar measures across the country. Citizen Voters Inc. plays a crucial role in this story – the Loudons and other organizers have used the organization for fundraising. And since the group is a non-profit, it is not required to disclose its donors.
Between January and June, the non-profit donated $4.7 million to the political committee organizing the effort in Florida. The Loudons have refused to disclose their donors, though they insist none of their money comes from foreign sources.
A Nationwide Campaign
But while the highest profile measure is being fought in Florida, advocates have plans for a more ambitious effort.
Tim Mooney, a Republican strategist living in Arizona, is helping organize the Florida drive. But he told The Washington Post (link above) that he was looking to push similar constitutional amendments in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio and West Virginia.
West Virginia, Nebraska and Missouri are deep red states without widely watched federal elections in 2020. However, the other states on that list are either important presidential battlegrounds, feature potentially competitive Senate races or both.
There’s every reason to believe that bans on non-citizen voting would win at the polls, especially in Republican-leaning states. While some extremely progressive municipalities (including San Francisco, Chicago and a handful of towns in Maryland) allow legal non-citizen residents to vote in certain local elections and some left-wing thinkers have argued in favor of non-citizen voting, there is no serious constituency in favor of non-citizen voting.
But while the amendments would be heavily favored on their own merits, the question of whether they would truly drive turnout for the President is much more debatable. Analysts already expect massive turnout in 2020, and it would seem to be a fairly narrow group of voters who would turn out to vote on a state constitutional amendment banning non-citizen voting but not a presidential election.
Still, the fact that the effort even exists at all is noteworthy and illustrates just how far Trump supporters are willing to go to find an advantage for the President.