Tag Archives: vote suppression

The First Order Of Election Business

Americans may not have settled on a candidate to oppose the madman in the White House, but there is widespread agreement that the 2020 election will be a critical test of our national character.

It will also be a test of our electoral structures. Just how democratic are our elections? How easily rigged?

I’m not even talking about the threat of Russian interference. I’m talking about the glaringly obvious susceptibility of our elections to corruption–gerrymandering, of course, but also voter ID laws, and other vote suppression tactics.

It took the Guardian rather than an American news operation to do a front-page story on research by the Brennan Center.

US election jurisdictions with histories of egregious voter discrimination have been purging voter rolls at a rate 40% beyond the national average, according to a watchdog report released on Thursday.

At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, according to a studyby the Brennan Center for Justice. The number was basically unchanged from the previous two-year period.

While the rate of voter purges elsewhere has declined slowly, jurisdictions released from federal oversight by a watershed 2013 supreme court ruling had purge rates “significantly higher” than jurisdictions not previously subjected to oversight, the Brennan Center found in a previous report.

That trend has continued, the watchdog said, with the disproportionate purging of voters resulting in an estimated 1.1 million fewer voters between 2016 and 2018.

It will come as no surprise that the increase in purges began almost immediately after Shelby County v Holder in 2013, a decision that eviscerated the section of the Voting Rights Act that had subjected counties with histories of voter discrimination to federal oversight. The ruling was incredibly naive–it reminded me of Lee Hamilton’s comment that the Supreme Court needs fewer graduates of elite law schools and more justices who’d run for county sheriff. It simply ignored evidence of contemporary voter suppression tactics– strict voter identification laws, partisan gerrymandering and aggressive voter purges.

Voter roll purges are regularly undertaken to account for voters who move or die. But critics say that aggressive and unfair purges of voter rolls in recent years – such as a purge of 107,000 voters in Georgia in 2017 by the then secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who was subsequently elected governor by the electorate he had culled – have warped democracy.

“As the country prepares for the 2020 election, election administrators should take steps to ensure that every eligible American can cast a ballot next November,” the Brennan Center said in a statement. “Election day is often too late to discover that a person has been wrongfully purged.”

The Brennan Center study points to the critical importance of Stacy Abrams’ new initiative. (Abrams, of course, was the Georgia gubernatorial candidate cheated out of a likely win by Brian Kemp.) As The Atlantic  has reported

Stacey Abrams was catapulted into the national spotlight in 2018, when the former state representative came within 54,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race, in an election marred by extensive reports of voter suppression. But despite the wave of calls urging her to parlay that political stardom into a presidential (or Senate) bid, Abrams will instead focus on fighting voter suppression through a new initiative called Fair Fight 2020, which, as she put it, aims to“make certain that no one has to go through in 2020 what we went through in 2018.” …

“I think what her experience this past year revealed was, regardless of how dynamic of a candidate you are, how much mobilization that you implement—particularly to mobilize voters who may not vote regularly and could not or have not voted at all—the effort to suppress the vote was, in her case, insurmountable,” says Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University. “I think it would be a mistake for any presidential candidate not to think about it.”

American voters–and the American media–regularly focus on personalities, polls and other “horse race” metrics, giving short shrift to the systemic environment that all too often determines outcomes– and even shorter shrift to coverage of partisans who game those systems.

It isn’t just the anti-democratic Electoral College.

If Americans somehow manage to overwhelm these anti-democratic processes–if we manage to elect rational, ethical policymakers committed to fair elections, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

 

Words Utterly Fail….

A few days ago, I posted about the excellent bill Congressional Democrats have introduced to begin the overdue cleanup of corrupted democratic processes. The bill includes curbs on gerrymandering and safeguards against vote suppression, among other things.

The one element of the bill that I figured was unlikely to be controversial was the proposal to make Election Day a national holiday. Good government groups have been lobbying for this for years. I mean, how can you argue against making voting easier for people who work long hours and have other problems getting to the polls?

Mitch McConnell–aka the most evil man in America–just answered what I thought was a rhetorical question. He has labeled the proposal “a power grab.”

I suppose if you are convinced that facilitating citizens’ ability to cast their votes will lead to  higher vote totals for your political opponents–if you know, in your heart of hearts that you and your party are historically unpopular– that might seem like a power grab…Still, it’s hard to imagine McConnell offering this argument with a straight face.

There has been a lot of outrage expressed in the wake of McConnell’s chutzpah, but I think Ed Brayton’s response at Dispatches from the Culture Wars is my favorite.

The man who refused to allow even a committee vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee for nearly a year so a Republican could appoint the next justice is accusing someone else of a power grab? The fact that he wasn’t immediately struck dead by lightning is powerful evidence that there is no god (or that god is a first-class jerk, take your pick). This is Trumpian-level lack of self-awareness and shamelessness. I can’t imagine how the man sleeps at night, other than on a pile of money.

McConnell was recently described by a historian as “the gravedigger of American democracy,” a description he has clearly earned. (Even Donald Trump, who never met a greedy thug he couldn’t relate to, evidently told aides that McConnell was “meaner than a snake.”)

McConnell has defended his opposition to making Election Day a holiday by claiming it would cost money, because it would require government workers to be paid. In Mitch’s world, the country can easily afford to give billions in “tax relief” to corporations, but can’t manage continuing to compensate government employees for one extra day off.

Hoosiers like to make fun of folks from Kentucky, characterizing them as not-too-smart hillbillies. I’ve always maintained that bigotry–even geographical bigotry–is always wrong. But to the extent that there is  evidence for that characterization of our neighbors to the south, it is that they have repeatedly voted for Mitch McConnell.

As Long As I’m Revisiting The Constitution

A couple of days ago, I suggested investing the Electoral College with some of that “original intent” conservative jurists love to apply to our anything -but-original problems. Today, I’m revisiting–or to be more accurate, actually visiting for the first time–another part of the Constitution.

I’m going to file this under “you learn something new every day.” Or perhaps under “Well, this is certainly interesting.” (Or even more likely, “I must be missing something!”)

I don’t know why I haven’t ever focused on the language of Section 2 of the incredibly important Fourteenth Amendment. That section reads:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State. (emphasis supplied)

Later Constitutional amendments extending the franchise would obviously mandate a somewhat different and more expansive reading of Section 2, but the language certainly would seem to provide a possible remedy to the rampant vote suppression being documented in several states.

This is not a subject I have previously researched, so I’d be grateful to any election lawyers–or other knowledgable folks– out there reading this who might answer the following questions:

  • Has there ever been litigation on the basis of this Section?( If so, please cite; if not, I assume the difficulty in establishing evidence of the percentage of votes suppressed would account for the lack.)
  • Who would have standing to bring a lawsuit? (It would seem to me that anyone improperly prevented from voting in a state would have standing, but the Court has narrowed standing doctrine in several ways–unfortunate ways, in my opinion–so perhaps not.)
  • What would count as probative evidence of the percentage of legitimate votes suppressed, the efficacy and intentional nature of suppression tactics, and how would a plaintiff acquire and verify such evidence? (Would the evidence compiled in Stacy Abrams’ new lawsuit suffice?)

If the evidentiary problems could be surmounted, wouldn’t this section provide a fitting remedy for the games currently being played by the GOP?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, for example, Georgia lost a couple of Congressional seats as a result of Brian Kemp’s egregious voter suppression tactics?

If lawsuits based on Section 2 are tenable, I would think simply bringing those suits–even if they were ultimately unsuccessful–would have a salutary effect. Perhaps the threat of losing representation would make some of those Republicans who are enthusiastically engaging in anti-democratic efforts to keep “some people” from voting (yes, Mississippi, we’re looking at you) might have second thoughts…..

I’m obviously missing something, but I’m not sure what. That said, I’m sure one of my more erudite readers can supply the answer.

 

Poll Taxes Were So Last-Century…

Tis the season–of voter suppression.

Vote suppression, of course, can’t be disentangled from the racism that was the subject of yesterday’s post. Efforts by the GOP to keep folks from the polls, after all, tend to be focused on black folks, and that has been true ever since poll taxes were instituted to keep former slaves from exercising their franchise.

Today’s Republicans are far more inventive–and far more overt. From Voter ID laws that are aimed at solving the  virtually non-existent problem of in-person “voter fraud,” to the chutzpah of Brian Kemp in Georgia, the GOP is pulling out all the stops to keep people of color from the polls. (And thanks to the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, there are lots of stops to pull out.)

The New Yorker has an article titled “Voter-Suppression Tactics in the Age of Trump” that is well worth reading.It begins with a story.

African-Americans used to tell a joke about a black Harvard professor who moves to the Deep South and tries to register to vote. A white clerk tells him that he will first have to read aloud a paragraph from the Constitution. When he easily does so, the clerk says that he will also have to read and translate a section written in Spanish. Again he complies. The clerk then demands that he read sections in French, German, and Russian, all of which he happens to speak fluently. Finally, the clerk shows him a passage in Arabic. The professor looks at it and says, “My Arabic is rusty, but I believe this translates to ‘Negroes cannot vote in this county.’ ”

As the article notes, this old joke has a new saliency. It’s true that–thanks to litigation–literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses meant to disadvantage minority voters have all been declared illegal. But new strategies have replaced them.

One need look no further than the governor’s race in Georgia to see their modern equivalents in action. The race between the Republican, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, and the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the state House of Representatives—who, if she wins, will be the first black female governor in the country—is a virtual tie. But Kemp has invoked the so-called exact-match law to suspend fifty-three thousand voter-registration applications, for infractions as minor as a hyphen missing from a surname. African-Americans make up thirty-two per cent of the state’s population, but they represent nearly seventy per cent of the suspended applications.

This isn’t Kemp’s first effort at disenfranchising minority voters. Historian Carol Anderson has written a book titled “One Person, No Vote,” in which Kemp is prominently profiled.

In 2012, after the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, in Atlanta, discovered that many of its clients who were naturalized citizens were not on the voter rolls, despite having registered, the group raised the issue with Kemp’s office. “In a show of raw intimidation,” Anderson writes, “Kemp ordered an investigation questioning the methods that the organization had used to register new voters.” In 2014, Kemp investigated the New Georgia Project, a voter-registration initiative that Abrams had founded. In a similar vein, officials in Jefferson County last week ordered a group of African-American senior citizens off a bus taking them to an early-voting site, on the ground that the transportation, which had been organized by the nonpartisan group Black Voters Matter, was a “political activity.”

The article characterizes these and similar (if somewhat less blatant) efforts elsewhere as an attempt to place a white thumb on the demographic scale.

Georgia is far from the only state making an effort to curtail–rather than encourage–voting.  The Brennan Center reports that ninety-nine bills designed to diminish voter access were introduced last year in thirty-one state legislatures. And as early voting has started, we are seeing reports of machines that “flip” voters choices from Democratic candidates to their Republican opponents.

If and when Congress is controlled by elected officials willing to put the interests of the country above the partisan interests of their party, reinvigoration of the Voting Rights Act and measures to protect the franchise need to be priority number one.

Meanwhile, massive turnout next Tuesday will be needed in order to overcome gerrymandering and the various voter suppression and misinformation efforts that are being employed by Republican politicians who want to win at all costs–even if one of those costs is the integrity of our democracy.

 

People Without Power

I’m old enough to remember the 60s slogan “Power to the People!”  And I’ve lived long enough to see “the people”–at least the people who vote– overpowered.

I’ve written periodically about the various ways in which America’s systems have become undemocratic–about gerrymandering, vote suppression, the Electoral College–but Ezra Klein puts it all together in a truly chilling essay for Vox. 

Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court by an unpopular president who won 3 million fewer votes than the runner-up. He was confirmed by a Senate majority that represents a minority of the country. He was confirmed despite most Americans telling pollster after pollster they did not want him seated on the Supreme Court.

As Klein points out, a constitutional system built in America’s founding era, structured to address the issues of that era, is currently making the country both less democratic and less Democratic.

Since 2000, fully 40 percent of presidential elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote. Republicans control the US Senate despite winning fewer votes than Democrats, and it’s understood that House Democrats need to beat Republicans by as much as 7 or 8 points in the popular vote to hold a majority in the chamber. Next year, it’s possible that Republicans will control the presidency and both chambers of Congress despite having received fewer votes for the White House in 2016 and for the House and Senate in 2018.

Kavanaugh now serves on a Supreme Court where four of the nine justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in his initial run for office, and where the 5-4 conservative majority owes its existence to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary decision to deny Merrick Garland a hearing. This Court will rule on the constitutionality of gerrymandering, voter ID laws, union dues, campaign finance, Obamacare, and more; that is to say, they will rule on cases that will shape who holds, and who can effectively wield, political power in the future.

When it is all put together, it amounts to a bloodless coup. (“Bloodless” in the sense that the GOP has taken power without force of arms. Not so bloodless if you think of people who are dying for lack of access to medical care although majorities favor Medicare-for-All, or consider the rising suicide rate being attributed to despair, or factor in the deaths that will occur as a consequence of ignoring climate change.)

Sandy Levenson teaches Constitutional law at the University of Texas, and has been warning about waning democracy and American government’s lack of legitimacy for several years. The article quotes him warning “At some point, people will get so angry that they will either talk about secession or start engaging in more direct measures, whether it takes the form of rioting or violence.”

Klein’s article goes into some detail about the original reasons for our unrepresentative systems–the compromises that were “baked into” the Constitution in order to get it ratified. As he points out, any free political system must determine how to ensure that different interests can engage in balanced competition. The problem in our system is that what we balanced for–large and small states– is no longer what’s competing.

The compromises made to calm the divisions between places is exacerbating the divisions between the parties, as Republicans dominate rural areas while Democrats cluster in urban centers.

By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.

It is not difficult to imagine an America where Republicans consistently win the presidency despite rarely winning the popular vote, where they control both the House and the Senate despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats, where their dominance of the Supreme Court is unquestioned, and where all this power is used to buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering and pro-corporate campaign finance laws and strict voter ID requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance.

For those inclined to dismiss this analysis as overheated, Klein says

If this seems outlandish, well, it simply describes the world we live in now, and assumes it continues forward. Look at North Carolina, where Republican legislators are trying to change the state Constitution to gain power over both elections and courts. Look at Wisconsin, where state Republicans gerrymandered the seats to make Democratic control a near impossibility. Look at Citizens United, which research finds gave Republicans a 5 percentage point boost in elections for state legislators. Look at Georgia, where the GOP candidate for governor currently serves as secretary of state and is executing a voter purge designed to help him win office.

Klein references a number of changes that are being proposed, but whatever we might think of those changes, they won’t even be considered unless Democrats can overcome the odds and win control of both the House and Senate.

Pundits are always insisting that whatever election is imminent is “the most important of our lifetime.”

This one is.