Grand theft voting rights
Reports of voter suppression are rampant this year, but the lack of democracy in the “world’s greatest democracy” has deep roots, writes.
AS SOON as it became clear that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes in the 2016 election, he started looking for a pretext to explain his failure to pass the most basic test of democratic legitimacy.
Trump conjured up the most outrageous and transparent lies to explain his loss, grumbling about widespread voter fraud and blaming “the millions of people who voted illegally” for depriving him of a popular vote victory.
But these lies were more than an incurable megalomaniac trying to save face in front of a skeptical world. Soon after his inauguration, Trump moved to act on his lies, creating a commission to “investigate” the nearly non-existent phenomenon of voter fraud.
He recruited Kansas Secretary of State and current gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach — a frequent Breitbart contributor with white supremacist ties who also happens to be the Grand Wizard of Republican voter suppression efforts — to lead it.
The commission was drowned in lawsuits and forced to disband before it could achieve anything concrete. But it was emblematic of the way in which Trumpian bravado — which on its face can appear to be a stark departure from the more sedate form of traditional Republican statesmanship — corresponds comfortably in practice with well-established conservative policies.
The results of the 2016 election were deeply marred by Republican-led voter suppression efforts, and the upcoming 2018 midterms stand to follow much the same pattern.
That’s because despite all the advances in voting rights that have been made since the days when only educated, property-owning European males could legally participate in the U.S. political system, the manipulation of laws by the ruling parties to prevent people from participating in the political process remains common today.
Voter suppression is an openly racist and elitist affront to the basic principles of democracy, but though most of today’s overt voter-suppression efforts are the work of Republicans, aimed at depressing turnout by constituencies who traditionally vote Democratic, it’s a mistake to limit the discussion of voter suppression solely to the racist New Jim Crow tactics of the right wing.
Increasing the ability of the public to participate in the democratic process through the ballot box is the goal of all those who wish to fight voter suppression efforts. But this inevitably leads to a whole raft of questions about whether the current system is democratic to begin with.
TODAY IN Georgia, the Republican-controlled state government has suspended 53,000 pending voter registration applications on the eve of the midterm elections, 70 percent of which belong to African Americans.
This comes on top of a purge, led by current Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, that had nullified the registration of over 1.4 million voters in the state since 2012.
Such voter purges have been common in Republican states for years, facilitated by programs such as Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck, a wildly inaccurate voter-purging system created in Kansas in 2005 by none other than Kobach. Crosscheck is responsible for millions of purged voters to date, and was probably more of a deciding factor in Trump’s 2016 election victory than fake news, Russian hacking and “double voters” combined.
In North Dakota today, a discriminatory voter-ID law threatens to disenfranchise thousands of Native Americans and could determine whether Republicans retain control of the Senate in November.
In other states, Republican officials are using similar tactics to target ethnic minorities and the poor in order to ensure that the preferred candidates of the party’s xenophobic, nationalist base are elected to office.
There are so many voter suppression tactics in use today that you need an encyclopedia to keep track of them all.
In addition to Crosscheck-style mass purges, there is voter caging, another form of purging whereby partisan operatives create lists of selected groups of voters in order to legally challenge their registration and disqualify them from voting.
The tactic is a favorite of Republicans going back to at least the 1980s, and is usually done by sending out bulk mailings to left-leaning minority voters. If the mailings are returned as undeliverable, this then serves as evidence that can be used to legally challenge the voter’s registration and purge it.
In 2004, Republican operatives in Florida were caught red-handed when an e-mail between officials of the George W. Bush campaign leaked, containing a “caging list” with 1,886 voters on it.
IN ADDITION to caging and other overt purging efforts, partisan state governments have been increasingly passing strict voter-ID laws like the one in North Dakota, especially since 2013, when the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder struck down section 4(b) of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protected the rights of voters in states of the former Confederacy by requiring a federal review of changes to election law in those states.
Banning people with criminal records from voting, even after they’ve served their sentences, is another tried-and-true voter suppression tactic, operating hand-in-glove with policies designed to criminalize African Americans and other groups — a combination pioneered in the post-Civil War South.
This suppression tactic was used to great effect in Florida during the 2000 election, when 58,000 alleged felons had their voter registration purged by Florida’s Republican government, led by then-Gov. Jeb Bush — whose brother George became president thanks to his questionable victory in the state.
As Ari Berman noted in the Nation, a lawsuit filed by the NAACP against the Florida government at that time eventually “turned up 12,000 voters who shouldn’t have been labeled felons. That was 22 times Bush’s 537-vote margin of victory.”
Closing all but one of the polling stations in a minority area is also a tactic that is commonly used by Republicans. In Dodge City, Kansas, Republican state officials recently moved the city’s only polling station outside of the city limits, miles away from the city center, to a place that’s inaccessible by public transportation.
The population of Dodge City is 60 percent Latino, and, as the Kansas ACLU pointed out, the “polling site serves 13,136 voters, making it one of the most burdened polling places in the state of Kansas.”
THE RESTRICTION of the right to vote has been an important feature of American elections since the country was founded over 200 years ago.
But direct voter suppression is merely one way that the ruling parties limit and control the political process for their own benefit. If our goal is to expand democracy, then we must also examine the other sides of the problem.
Unjust ballot access laws, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, preserve a repressive two-party system, despite popular support for a viable third party, by unduly restricting who can appear on the ballot.
In most states, prospective third parties must expend significant campaign resources to gather large numbers of signatures in order to even have a place on the ballot. In order to maintain their legal status as a party, their candidates must often secure large vote percentages in each election.
Constitutional structures such as the Electoral College, which was designed to protect the Southern slave aristocracy, intentionally and unfairly skew the balance of electoral power in favor of white, rural Republican voters.
And then there are the systems of federal congressional representation themselves, which were crafted by and for a wealthy colonial elite under radically different social conditions than those existing today.
In the Senate, because each state, no matter how small, gets two senators, it’s possible for just 17 percent of the U.S. population to elect a Senate majority.
And Article V of the Constitution, which governs the amendment process, states that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate,” meaning that the Senate literally cannot be reformed under the current Constitution.
To describe such a legislature as a “democratic institution” is to achieve a Trumpian magnitude of dishonesty.
But it’s not only the Senate. The geographical distribution of the population, combined with the Congressional district system, means that the House, too, gives outsized power to rural voters. And because representation in the House and in state legislatures is apportioned through electoral districts drawn by those in power, partisan gerrymandering has been a perpetual tactic used to skew the democratic process.
Just 9 percent of the population selected Trump and Hillary Clinton as the presidential candidates in party primaries in 2016, and Trump won the election with the votes of just 27 percent of eligible voters.
The truth is that majority rule has never existed in the United States, because it is barely even possible under the current system.
Fixing the American political system and ending the suppression of democracy in all its forms will require nothing less than a revolutionary overhaul that scraps the current Constitution and creates entirely new political structures that are truly democratic.