Is it really so hard, so hard that America just can’t handle it? Voting, I mean–smooth democratic elections with all citizens able to easily cast their ballots and with every ballot fairly counted. Is that too much for people to ask?
After all, the mechanisms for assuring universal suffrage are well known, and the logistics are not exactly rocket science. Speaking of which, modern technologies could be our friend here–helping us vote by mail, or even by email. That’s what David Wolf did back in 1997 when he became the first astronaut to upload a secure email ballot from space to Mission Control, Houston, which passed it to his local election officials. Hello … if astronauts can express their democratic choices while whizzing around Earth, shouldn’t the rest of us be able to have our say in neighborhood polling places or, if we choose, from our own homes?
Of course–that’s democracy. But it’s one thing to have voting rights and quite another to be able to exercise those rights. Today, in a coordinated, methodical, richly funded scheme, corporate- minded and right-wing candidates are being “elected” not by winning votes, but by preventing votes.
Little known fact: In more and more races, the GOP doesn’t have broad enough appeal to fairly produce an election majority, so it has resorted to rigging the system so a minority prevails. As far-right tactician Paul Weyrich once bluntly put it: “I don’t want everybody to vote. …Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Thus, the right’s electioneering strategy is to shrink turnout by blocking its opponents’ core supporters–particularly African Americans, Latinx people, Native Americans, union members, and young people–from even entering polling places. This scheme is more than voter suppression–it’s straight-out election sabotage.
Leave it to sour Republican leader Mitch McConnell to flat-out deny the existence of that elephant in America’s voting space: “There’s very little tangible evidence of this whole voter-suppression nonsense,” he recently grumbled. Well, yeah–if, like Mitch, you squeeze your eyes shut real tight and plug your ears with corporate campaign cash, you’ll see, hear, and speak no evil of the corrupt practices occurring right in front of us. Otherwise, it’s easy to see how hyper-partisan Republicans have intensified their efforts to steal targeted peoples’ right to vote: Over the past decade, half the states have erected hundreds of new barriers. In a crass perversion of language, they couch their theft as “protecting the integrity of the ballot,” but–to re-aim McConnell’s dismissive word–that’s nonsense … and morally abominable.
How the Right rigs elections
Many voter suppression techniques have been around a long time, and some even get regular media coverage, but in this month’s Lowdown, I want to highlight some of the newer and lesser known repressions spreading across the country.
Periodically, election officials need to tidy up their voting rolls by removing the names of people who’ve died or moved out of jurisdiction. Recently, though, GOP governors, judges, and election officials have turned this simple feather- dusting chore into a supersonic leaf blower blasting masses of living, eligible voters out of the system. They’re targeting precincts with lots of young, poor, immigrant, and other Democrat-inclined constituents. If these people, for whatever reason, miss several election cycles, they are no longer considered “voters” and can be purged from the rolls.
Another insidious tactic is to eliminate people whose voter registration cards do not exactly match the spelling, address, etc. on other state records. Under these “no match/no vote” laws, a missing comma, middle initial, or hyphen can cancel your voting rights. In 2018, less than a month before the general election, Georgia’s GOP secretary of state, Brian Kemp, used this exact-match pretense to place a hold on 53,000 voters, 80% of whom were in minority groups. By the way, Kemp was at the same time running for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, and his “winning” margin closely matched the number of would-be voters he nullified.
Sometimes, though, purging backfires. Last year, Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s new handpicked election chief, David Whitley, abruptly ripped more than 90,000 people from the voter rolls, loudly claiming they might not be citizens. Donald Trump rushed to praise him for “proving” that voter fraud by south-of-the-border immigrants was rampant. But then the proof went poof–when it was revealed that the thousands of people with Latinx surnames that Whitley had “exposed” were in fact Texans, US citizens … and eligible to vote. It was so embarrassing that even the state’s rabidly partisan GOP senate blushed, refusing to confirm Whitley as secretary of state, thus forcing him from office before his official start.
Nationwide, states have removed 17 million Americans since the 2016 election, an unusually high number, with no accounting of how many were living, legitimate voters.
To get his way in business, with women, etc., Trump has always been fiercely litigious, and now he’s counting on his legal fixers to rig the system for his re-election. As of August, his campaign and the Republican Party had amassed a $20 million war chest for voting-related lawsuits, with many already filed in the battlegrounds of Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
In Florida, for example, they’ve sued to stop postage-paid return envelopes. In Pennsylvania, they’ve sued all 67 counties to allow GOP-hired, out-of-county “poll watchers” who, it is feared, will castigate and challenge voters. And they’ve sued California and Nevada to keep them from mailing ballots to all eligible voters.
Trump himself sees these courtroom efforts to restrict access to the polls as crucial. He told Politico in June, “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win [them] …I think it puts the election at risk.” Funding this Republican legal attack on voters is a who’s who of billionaires, bankers, coal moguls, and corporate barons including Johnson & Johnson heir Woody Johnson, money manager Charles Schwab, and the Ricketts family of TD Ameritrade, Rolling Stone reported in July. By suppressing our voting rights, these oligarchs hope to keep Trump & Co. lining their pockets.
Over and above legal machinations, one of the GOP’s tried-and-true vote-suppression techniques is deploying squads of partisan muscle into non-white, immigrant, and other Democratic-leaning neighborhoods and precincts. These “poll watchers” single out voters they view as “suspicious” and accuse them of trying to vote illegally. They aren’t subtle. Sometimes packing guns, badges, cameras, arm bands, etc. to pose as official ballot police, they literally pull people out of line to loudly demand proof of eligibility. It’s ugly and frighteningly autocratic … and yet legal in many states.
And it’s going to be bigger than ever this November, because its one legal restriction has been lifted. Back in 1982, Republican thuggishness had gotten so out of hand that a federal judge imposed a consent decree to stop some of the crudest intimidation methods. But, with the Trump campaign’s support, that ban was withdrawn in 2018, and this year’s presidential election will be the first in four decades to allow no-holds-barred voter intimidation.
It’s “a huge, huge, huge, huge deal,” exulted a top Trump campaign lawyer to a Republican group last November. He promised that the party’s 2020 poll patrol programs would be “much bigger … much more aggressive [and] much better funded.” Indeed, the national party has been recruiting and training up to 50,000 partisans to confront voters in 15 key states! Adding to the mayhem, True the Vote, a manic fringe group of Trumpeteers, is signing up a freelance militia that includes off- duty police and veterans to enforce “ballot security” in communities of color. The group leader explained the scheme at a February meeting of Republican operatives: “You get some [Navy] Seals in those polls, and they’re going to say ‘No, no. …This is how we’re going to play this show.”
Don’t want Black people to vote? Or tribal members on reservations? Or students on campus? Simple: Eliminate their polling places. Or just slash the budgets for voting machines, poll workers, and early voting in their precincts, creating punishingly long lines and waits. COVID can turn this systemic disenfranchisement lethal. In Georgia’s June primary, for example, poll closures and machine malfunctions created 7-hour waits for many Black citizens to vote, with lines so long in Atlanta that the New York Times deployed drones to measure them. Officially responsible for the chaos, the Republican secretary of state promised “an investigation”–cold comfort to the thousands already denied their right to vote or forced to abandon social distancing.
The Lowdown has been puzzled by Trump’s crazed hostility to the US Postal Service–by his fevered demands that the most effective and popular agency of government shut its 31,322 offices. But now we see why: USPS workers could securely handle our ballots in the coming election, making it easier and safer for America to vote. But that would increase turnout and democracy –two things Trump hates. Bizarrely, in May, he even screeched about the danger of roving bands of children: “Kids go and they raid the mailboxes, and they hand them to people that are signing the ballots down the end of the street. You don’t think that happens?” Except, of course, it’s only happening in his head.
Vote-by-mail totally discombobulates Donald. Desperate to save himself from letter carriers, he (1) personally killed a bipartisan congressional provision in March that ensured America’s crucial mail service would survive the pandemic, and (2) installed one of his rich funders as postmaster general in May. Louis DeJoy’s first action was to sabotage timely mail delivery by drastically cutting postal workers’ hours and then by removing mail-sorting machines and street-side letter boxes. Thus, America’s globally admired mail system is being wrecked by an unhinged president determined to keep you and me from using it to vote.
Throughout his exemplary life of democratic activism, civil rights icon John Lewis hurled his heart, soul, and head (literally!) into fighting for people’s voting rights. In 1965, on the front line with Martin Luther King, Lewis was among the marchers whose heads were busted by Alabama state troopers for daring to insist that African Americans be allowed to vote. Just a few months after that bloody encounter was televised to a horrified nation, the Voting Rights Act passed. It ushered in a remarkable era of progress: Black voter registration jumped nearly 70% the next year. In short, the law was working, finally increasing Black voter participation.
Until 2013, when our Republican-majority Supreme Court rose up to eviscerate it. Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, a partisan legal hack who had pushed to stifle minority voting since his days as a Reagan White House operative, the Court decreed the law unnecessary because “Our country has changed.” How? While minority-voter protection used to be needed, “There is no longer such a [racial] disparity,” Roberts wrote. Golly, they say the law should be blind, but it shouldn’t be clueless!
Sure enough, right after Robert’s astonishing expression of ignorance, every state that had been subject to the law raced to pass new voter restrictions, while also closing 1,688 polling places, making it harder for African Americans to vote.
The court clamp down has since accelerated. This year alone, Roberts and his robed Republican brothers have voted in lockstep in four other big cases to disenfranchise the electorate–especially people of color–to help the GOP win elections. In each case, Roberts’ five-man majority rushed to judgment, not bothering to hear arguments and offering no precedents or reasoning to justify its exclusionary, anti-democratic edicts.
Just before he died in July. Rep. Lewis wrote: “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it, because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
Democracy is us
Yes, Russia, China, and Who Knows Who are directly “meddling” in our elections. And, yes, we presently have a crackpot in the White House who imagines himself America’s perdurable Czar. (Asked recently if he would accept the voters’ decision in the election, he imperiously replied: “I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no.”).
But the danger of America’s looming democracy crisis is much more than an accumulation of travesties. And it won’t go away even if we send Trump away. America’s core democratic malady is this: The majority of our social, political, and economic leaders are simply not committed to the egalitarian principles that constitute a democracy. They cynically say “VOTE!” but they obviously don’t mean it. As we can plainly see, much of the nation’s executive, legislative, and judicial leadership at all levels is actively taking money and direction from plutocrats to undermine, endanger, and hogtie voters. For their part, Republican officials are aggressively hostile to democracy generally and to voting rights specifically, while much of the Democratic establishment passively refuses to prioritize and vigorously fight to make voting easy and even joyful for all.
As usual, that means it’s up to us–all of us who really believe in grassroots democratic governance. Perhaps you personally face no voting barriers, but when Black, Latinx, poor folks, the elderly, students, and other constituencies are shut out, we are all deprived–for our right to majority rule is diminished by every person who, one by one, is excluded. Please join the growing, nationwide movement of activists striving to protect everyone’s right to vote–and realize America’s full democratic possibilities.