Don’t Blink
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Don’t Blink

Glossary: Voter Suppression

This is part of glossary of people, institutions, and concepts that reviews their recent history and frames their relevance to this story

Republican control at the state level has also been a result of a systematic voter suppression which in turn has enabled Republicans to further consolidate that control. The natural attrition of votes due to what has traditionally been recognized to be irregularities — showing up at the wrong polling place, forgetting to re-register when you move, not following sometimes confusing instructions on ballots, not ordering mail ballots in time, mailing in ballots too late for them to be processed for counting — has always disadvantaged Democrats. Their voters are younger and frequently come from racial minorities who move a lot and are more distracted by the stresses of their lives. Correction of many of these kinds of mistakes frequently involves following up after submitting a provisional ballot, something that requires considerable persistence. Even the fact that for 19th Century reasons Election Day is a Tuesday reduces turnout and disadvantages Democrats. And traditionally, young people and persons of color, who when they vote, vote for Democrats, are simply less engaged with what is often an unresponsive political process and vote less.

Not voting at all are the 11.3 million undocumented residents in our midst, including the 3.6 million of them who entered the U.S. before the age of eighteen. The average age of this last group is twenty-five and the average age at which they entered the country was six. In other words, they are young adults who on average have been in the country for nineteen years. 97% of them are either in school or working. If allowed to vote, they presumably also would vote disproportionately for the Democrats.

In recent years, and particularly as Democrats have lost the protections of the Voting Rights Act, these inherent Republican advantages from traditional legal and other obstacles to voting have been supplemented by laws calculated with “surgical precision” to suppress Democratic turnout. Voter rolls have been purged, the number of inner city voting precincts have been reduced, registration requirements have tightened, voting hours have been reduced, and requirements for vote-by-mail have been made more onerous. The guiding purpose of it all has been reduction in turnout in general, which alone is presumed to help Republicans. However, Republicans have been particularly zealous about restrictions more narrowly targeting potential Democratic voters. Lifetime bans on persons who at any time in their lives have been convicted of felonies, a group disproportionately drawn from people of color, has been a particular favorite.

The ostensible reason for these various voter suppression tactics has been combating voter fraud or, to use the language favored by court opinions that have upheld these restrictions, protection of voting “integrity” or “regularity.” However, we live in the 21st Century, not late 19th Century Boston or New York where proverbially half the people on the voter rolls were dead, the saloons thrived on Election Day, and urban bosses bought you a pint for every time you showed up at another precinct to vote. It defies common sense that random individuals would bother to engage in voter fraud and implementation of a more widespread, systematic scheme of fraud would require far too many participants to go undetected, or even be worth the effort except at a level that would require the involvement of untold numbers of people. Studies that have looked at the potential for “voter fraud” have found that it could at best have a prevalence of one for every million votes. Draconian procedures to address it make about as much sense as covering cities with iron domes to protect them from meteorites.

Florida, a longtime swing state where every vote has always mattered, provides vivid examples of what voter suppression can do and how shamelessly it is pursued by the Republicans. The lifetime ban there on voting by anyone ever convicted of a felony, enacted as part of Jim Crow, has been estimated to disenfranchise every fifth Black voter since any drug possession was historically a felony. A 1999 effort to identify supposed felons on voter rolls using extremely loose methods resulted in a purge from the rolls of 60,000 people, the great majority of whom had never had a conviction. Forty per cent of the people targeted by the purge were Black. The number of presumed Democratic voters disenfranchised far exceeded the margin that vaulted Bush to the Presidency. Had ex-felons been allowed to vote in the 2018 midterm election, the Democrats would almost certainly have prevailed in the votes for governor and U.S. Senator which were decided, respectively, by 32,463 and 10,033 votes. In the same election a statewide referendum to amend the State Constitution to end the ban on ex-felons who had served their time passed with 64.5% of the vote. Undaunted, the Republican legislature voted to implement the constitutional amendment by requiring ex-felons who had served their prison terms to also repay all fines, restitution orders, and fees that were levied against them at the time of their convictions, with interest, something that people who go to prison almost never are able to take care of and that the courts do not enforce. For most of the ex-felons this would involve thousands of dollars. It is estimated that the new law will leave disenfranchised approximately 770,000 people, half of whom are Black.

Going into the next round of redistricting in 2021, Republicans in Florida have the governorship they narrowly won in 2018 and the solidly Republican legislature wrought by gerrymandering and the partisan sorting of the population. Aside from some updating to tighten their grip, they presumably will re-up with the current system for another decade.

All of this gives rise to something that one can call a “margin of voter suppression.” Considered broadly, it is a centerpiece of the Republican program of control that deprives Democrats of the votes of millions of people who make our economy work, pay their taxes, and even serve in our military.

Partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts have been ripe for an across-the-board challenge under the Equal Protection Clause for decades. This would be no more of a stretch than the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education’s overturning the “separate but equal” standard of Plessy v. Ferguson. Implementation of the Equal Protection Clause has always effectively just been a matter of political will. The clause sat there unused for almost a century while Jim Crow thrived in the South because the political will in the larger society and thus in the judiciary was lacking. Today, the political will experienced by the highest ranks of our current judiciary is driven by Republican partisanship. Bringing the Equal Protection Clause to bear on the anti-democratic regime of the Republican minority will require a liberal majority on the United States Supreme Court, something that we currently don’t have, in large measure because of gerrymandering and voter suppression. Indeed, one can even imagine a future national Voting Rights Bill intended to curtail voter suppression by the states that the current Supreme Court would find unconstitutional for one reason or another.

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The battle for American democracy will be a contest of will. This serial publication gives a blow-by-blow recounting of one boomer’s nightmare about how the election will cease to be a simple exercise in vote-counting. Part fiction, pure wargame.

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