VOTER SUPPRESSION IS A REAL THREAT TO OUR DEMOCRACY

The biggest threat to the integrity of our elections is voter suppression. Our democracy is built on the principle of one person, one vote, and the right of every citizen to cast his or her vote and have it counted. However, in the 2016 presidential election, hundreds of thousands of citizens were kept from voting by new state laws and procedures that have made it harder to vote.

State laws and procedures that inhibit voting are part of a Republican strategy to win elections at any cost. (This strategy also includes the overturning of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, extreme gerrymandering of legislative and Congressional districts, as well as loosening campaign finance laws to allow wealthy individuals and corporations to spend freely and often anonymously on our elections.)

These voter suppression techniques are designed to reduce voting by low-income and minority citizens, who are more likely to vote for Democrats. The techniques include making it harder to register to vote, purging names of eligible voters from voting lists, permanently prohibiting those with felony convictions from voting even after they have served their time, and making it harder to actually vote.

States have made it harder to vote by reducing the number of polling places, reducing the days and hours for voting, and requiring specific personal identification – and sometimes making it difficult to obtain the required photo identification document. These actions often target communities or neighborhoods that are disproportionately low-income or minority.

For example, Wisconsin passed a restrictive voting law in 2011. Although state Republicans promised that not a single voter would be disenfranchised by the law, the best estimates are that 200,000 – 300,000 eligible voters lacked the photo ID necessary to vote in the 2016 presidential election. And Republican state legislators acknowledged in more candid moments that Democratic voter suppression was the goal. The law also cut early voting days, hours, and locations.

A judge struck down the law as clear voter suppression, but was overruled by a conservative appeals court. A judge overseeing the implementation of the law, repeatedly criticized the state for its failure to provide IDs in a timely fashion and for other actions that inhibited voting. [1] Overall, the result was that 91,000 fewer people voted in Wisconsin in 2016 than in 2012 and the turnout was the lowest since 2000. After the election, many eligible voters’ stories of being unable to vote were reported by the media. [2]

Trump won the election in Wisconsin by just 22,750 votes (less than 1%) and the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts may well have been the deciding factor. In Milwaukee, where 70% of the state’s African Americans live and Democratic voting is strong, 41,000 fewer people voted than in 2012, a 13% drop. [3] It’s possible that some of this may have been due to lowered interest without Obama on the ballot. However, a recent study found that in Milwaukee and Dane counties [4] 11% of registered voters (17,000 people) were deterred from voting by Wisconsin’s voter ID law and 6% (9,000) were prevented from voting by the ID law. Among low-income registered voters (household income under $25,000), 21% were deterred from voting, compared to 7% with incomes over $25,000 and 3% with incomes over $100,000. For white registered voters, 8% were deterred from voting, while for African Americans it was 28%. [5] Statewide it is estimated that 45,000 voters were deterred from voting by Wisconsin’s voter ID law. It is likely that this alone (not including the other voter suppression efforts) switched the Wisconsin presidential election outcome and its 10 electoral college votes from Clinton to Trump.

In Michigan, a Trump campaign official stated prior to the election that they had a three-pronged voter suppression effort underway. The Michigan voter ID law, as in Wisconsin, clearly prevented or discouraged many eligible voters from voting. Furthermore, 55,000 voters had been purged from the voter registration lists based on an error-prone process of matching their names with the names of registered voters in other states. Finally, in Detroit, a recount was cut short despite large numbers of ballots that voting machines failed to read properly, but where the voter’s intent was clear based on a visual examination of the ballot.

Given that Trump won the election in Michigan by 10,700 votes (less than ¼ of 1%), the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts are likely to have been the deciding factor in his victory there, which gained him 16 electoral college votes.

In Pennsylvania, a strict voter ID law was passed in 2012, but was overturned by the courts before the 2016 election. Other voter suppression efforts were identified in 2012 and responses to them lessened their impacts on the 2016 election. However, in 2016, a delay in processing valid voter registrations kept at least 26,000 voters off the list of registered voters on election day, and the number could go higher if further investigation is done. The majority of the identified disenfranchised voters were in the diverse city of Philadelphia.

Given that Trump won the election in Pennsylvania by 44,300 votes (less than 1%), the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts might have been the deciding factor in his victory there, which gained him 16 electoral college votes. [6]

A change in the winner in these three states with 46 electoral votes would have changed the outcome of the presidential election. So, the impact of voter suppression efforts is potentially very significant.

These three states are examples of a broad, decade-long attack on voting rights. Over 20 states have passed new restrictions on voting since 2010. [7] An analysis from the non-partisan General Accounting Office (GAO) examined the effect of voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee in 2012. It concluded that due to their new voter ID laws, voter turnout dropped 1.9% in Kansas and 2.2% in Tennessee. That would represent about 34,000 voters in Kansas and about 88,000 in Tennessee. The GAO’s analysis found that young people, Blacks, and newly registered voters were disproportionately impacted. [8]

The US Supreme Court overturned key portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, claiming that racial discrimination in voting was no longer a problem. However, subsequent events proved them wrong. Within months of this decision, states were passing voter suppression laws that federal courts have noted were “passed with racially discriminatory intent.” [9] A judge struck down a package of voter suppression laws in North Carolina last year, noting that they targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” [10]

Nationally, it is estimated that 10% of eligible voters (13 million people) don’t have an ID that would comply with new state voter ID laws. And although some of the most egregious voter suppression laws have been struck down by the courts, this often doesn’t happen until after the election when the damage has been done.

Voter suppression is antithetical to the principles and integrity of our democracy. Not only does it distort and manipulate the outcomes of our elections, it violates the one person, one vote, foundational equity of democracy and undermines the trust of the electorate in our governments. It makes elected officials less accountable to the people they supposedly represent. It harms our credibility around the world as our elections are seen as illegitimate and rigged. We need to condemn and fight back against voter suppression efforts as undemocratic and truly un-American.

[1]      Berman, A., Nov. / Dec. 2017, “Rigged: How voter suppression threw Wisconsin to Trump and changed the election,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/mag/2017/11/toc/)

[2]      Cassidy, C.A., & Moreno, I., 5/9/17, “In Wisconsin, ID law proved insurmountable for many voters,” Associated Press (http://www.apnewsarchive.com/2017/In_Wisconsin%2C_ID_law_proved_insurmountable_for_many_voters/id-624a00e48a444f2c8fbd2faa07d44ad5)

[3]      Rapoport, M., 8/7/17, “Voter suppression in the mirror and looking forward,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/voter-suppression-mirror-and-looking-forward)

[4]      These 2 counties account for almost 1.5 million of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents.

[5]      Mayer, K.R., 9/25/17, “Voter ID study shows turnout effects in 2016 presidential election,” University of Wisconsin at Madison (https://elections.wisc.edu/news/voter-id-study/Voter-ID-Study-Release.pdf)

[6]      Rapoport, M., 8/7/17, see above

[7]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 10/13/17, “New voting restrictions in America,”  New York University of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america)

[8]      Bump, P., 10/9/14, “Voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee dropped voter turnout by over 100,000 votes,” The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/10/09/gao-voter-id-laws-in-kansas-and-tennessee-dropped-2012-turnout-by-over-100000-votes/?utm_term=.6f7fb4686bcf)

[9]      Coons, C., & Austin-Hillery, N., 6/30/17, “The threat to American elections you don’t know about but should,” Time (http://time.com/4837622/voter-suppression-democracy-senator-chris-coons/)

[10]     Cassidy & Moreno, 5/9/17, see above

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