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.


  1. I lived in Florida during that infamous 2000 “recount”; the daily news in Tampa and St. Pete newspapers and local news channels reported the blatant purging of votes AFTER the election. The worst was a locked closet full of absentee ballots someone on the “recount” committee “found” but discarded saying “they didn’t arrive in time to be counted”. During the “recount” there were voters coming forward who were not allowed to vote; told they were listed as convicted felons or deceased on the Florida voter rolls. The purging is not only preventing registration; it is an all-encompassing movement to prevent or discount votes from specific districts where specific voters live and vote.

    “Just how democratic are our elections?”

    And using the above term regarding our elections in the wrong context will be read by some to mean voting for Democrats. There is a widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of “democracy” in people who have no understanding of basic civics; just look at the caliber of Trump voters who remain staunch Republicans through all of the current escalating insanity in OUR White House. Trump says one thing, changes it, denies both, repeats one or the other and “WH” denies it all…who exactly is the “WH”?

  2. This is all good information and certainly something that needs to be addressed by the media and local voting administrators, but what can we do as the voting public aside from verifying our registration information?

    Every day there are more and more insane acts from the corrupt Trump administration that pull our focus and our outrage. (Yesterday it was the burning Amazon, an insult to the Danish Prime Minister and anti-semitic tweets.) To be brutally honest, I am suffering from outrage burnout as are many others I know. Maybe it’s by accident or maybe it’s by design, but the steady stream of mayhem emanating from the White House has completely overwhelmed me. I just can’t be furious 24/7. How do we decide the most pressing issues leading up to 2020 so that we can focus appropriately?

    Yes, I vote and I help register others (especially in my urban neighborhood), and I have been supporting a democratic candidate financially as much as I can. I try to read about and understand what’s happening in this country, but the number of areas where my attention is needed — and my outrage is warranted — has exploded and I feel stuck.

    I regularly read this column and enjoy the thoughtful responses, but I seldom see suggestions for how to change what’s happening. It’s easy to bitch and snark about the lunatic in charge but what I think most voters need — myself included — is some guidance from those with expertise in the inner workings of government on what to tackle first. I’m not asking for others to do my homework, I just need a place to start.

  3. “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.”

    Andy Austin; the place to start can be found in the above quote from Sheila today. And the best time to start is in the 2019 November election or the 2020 November election will be lost before Democrats have a nominee.

    Altering or repealing the Electoral Collage and gerrymandering are both vital in all presidential elections; but those elections always begin by selecting the representative nominee from each party along with their selection of a running mate. We were all aware of the reports/rumors that Trump and Pence didn’t want to win the presidency or didn’t believe they would/could win the presidency…but here we are with both of them. The news article by Brian Howey I referred to on Monday also contained this little gem; believe it or not but don’t just dismiss it, please. “On election night 2016, author Michael Lewis (financial journalist and author of non-fiction books) wrote that minutes after Trump won the presidency, Karen Pence rejected a kiss from her husband. “You got what you wanted, Mike. Now leave me alone.” she reportedly said.” “The Pence calculus for winning the White House was to take a four-month risk in running with Trump. After they lost, he would get a Fox News show, campaign for Republicans and collect IOUs, then emerge as the front runner in 2020.” That all sounds plausible when you consider his primary function appears to be the cameo appearances Pence makes standing behind Trump for photo ops. “The First Order of Election Business” in the 2016 presidential race should have been a closer inspection of Pence and his personal agenda based on his performance as Indiana’s governor. He is simply being drug along behind Trump like an incomplete abortion; having no obvious function in the position of Vice President. He doesn’t even draw the attention of flies.

    While the current long list of Democratic presidential wannabes is preparing for another debate; we must also be looking at the Vice Presidential selection, 2nd in command to the most powerful position on earth. Ignoring this selection in 2015 brought us Rev. Pence and his evangelical following.

  4. Andy and anyone else out there suffering from outrage fatigue, it is useless to get mad. It is useful to get to work. If you are registering others, you’re already doing something. Sign up to help people get to the polls on election day or on other early voting days. Turnout is critical, especially in traditionally red states like Indiana. When turnout is high Democrats generally win because, even in a state like Indiana, there are just more Democrats than Republicans.

  5. In these big data days it is simply inexcusable that counties can’t find a system to insure that all voters in their jurisdiction are registered and all registered voters are offered a convenient means to vote.

  6. Andy – thanks for speaking out. Your angst is widespread. Sounds like you are doing the right thing locally. If you (or any other of Sheila’s gang) have some more time and/or energy, we at CommonGoodGoverning are working across the nation to elect servant leaders in the US House/Senate to turn our Titantic country away from the berg threatening our democracy. We do not have a website or Facebook page, but Sheila can get you in touch.

  7. If we’re going to have any chance at electing “rational, ethical policymakers committed to fair elections” (or fairness in any other social context), we’re first going to have to convince a lot of eligible voters to get past the false equivalence of “both parties are the same.” I’d argue that keeping that myth alive is a critical adjunct to the more overt voter suppression tactics of purges (“gotta comply with HAVA, you know”), voter ID laws, and reductions in polling places and early voting. As long as people believe their vote won’t matter, they’ll stay home and continue to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution. The difference -especially the moral difference- between the parties should by now be glaringly clear. It’s past time for indifferent voters to allow themselves to be blinded by their own cynicism.

    A propos this discussion, I find myself in rare agreement with George Will on something other than disability rights and baseball, when he says, in his August 5th column on the vulgarian’s rhetoric and domestic terrorism, “Today’s long — and perhaps occasionally lethal — national embarrassment will continue at least until Jan. 20, 2021. If it continues longer, this will be more than an embarrassment to the nation, this will be an indictment of it.”

  8. Pete, the problem with “Big Data” is it doesn’t always give the answers our politicians want — fact-driven analysis doesn’t care about partisan politics. It’s why the NRA prevents Congress from even studying gun control. Independent studies might show there are simple solutions.

    And Lester, if you don’t have a website or Facebook page or a Twitter account, you don’t exist. You’re a rogue organization. I hate to remind you, but our POTUS governs via Twitter, and this is 2019.

    While the voting rolls have been scrubbed, that in of itself is not a sign of voter suppression. Maybe they need scrubbing. Maybe they are full of people who no longer live in the precinct.

    To me, voter suppression is placing obstacles in the way of voters or making their votes provisional or just plain tossing votes.

    No matter, we still cannot get 75-80% of registered voters to cast a ballot. Is that truly “voter suppression” or is it more about the laziness/disinterest of voters?

  9. Shelby may prove to be worse than Citizens United and the combination of the two lay waste to Baker v. Carr (1962). Suppression and money v. one man – one vote, and suppression and money are winning, and with the present composition of the Supreme Court, will continue to win, especially if Trump (with Mitch’s assistance) gets another vacancy to fill before he exits on January 21, 2021. To do: Support automatic voter registration legislation at state levels, talk to newly authorized voters, vote.

    I followed the Georgia atrocity (aka an election) in 2018 in which the Secretary of State blatantly stole the office of governor – for himself. That election should have been set aside and a new election held and all the votes counted. Abrams may have lost that judicially ordered second election but at least it would have been one I could abide. Perhaps in retrospect Madison should not have left elections up to the states (contra: Bush v. Gore). When and if we ever have a constitutional convention this is an area (along with others, notably the Second Amendment) in need of a redo that fleshes out Baker for the ages.

  10. Patrick, I will disagree with George Will’s comment that the 2016 election was an embarrassment, but he says if Trump is re-elected it will be an indictment.
    I say that the 2016 election was an indictment, an indictment of every person who voted for Trump. They were not tricked. They were not bamboozled. They, like everyone else saw Trump for what he is, only for the Trump supporters they LIKED what they saw. They liked the “in your face” racism, greed and crookedness. They cheered his violent language, his crudeness, and his gluttony. They did not flinch when he bragged about grabbing pussy or when he publicly put his hands all over his own daughter’s body. They liked it when he bragged that he could kill someone on 5th Avenue and no one would care. And how do we know this about his supporters? Because they still support him even after he has lied and lied and lied, after he has destroyed our country’s relationships with our once allies, and even after he destroyed thousands of families, separating children from their parents and locking up those children in cages.
    The 2020 election is this country’s chance for justice, and if we do not achieve that then we will all go down together.

  11. Now that it is legal, I am reclaiming my birth citizenship to have both US and Danish options.
    I no longer feel safe after living here since 1960. I worked and paid for any benefits I might require.
    Though my American grammar is perfect, I cannot count how many times I have been asked why I have a name from “the old country”.
    I vote and encourage others to vote. I support candidates and help others learn civics.
    And yet, here I am: distressed, discouraged and, as strong as I thought I was, frightened.

  12. Theresa,

    While I agree with your sentiments, the other factor that the cheating Republicans depend on is voter sloth. In 2016 over 92 million voters stayed home, because both candidates sickened them. In 2018, the voter turnout for a mid-term was a near record and yet it barely nudged 50% of the electorate. 2018 showed what is necessary. Even in Redneck Nation’s headquarters in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, massive voter turnout kicks Republicans in their tender parts and returns real representation to Congress and state governments. Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t vote.

    Todd, myself and others have all complained about the Democrats and their poor organization and campaign strategy, but getting a TRUE voter turnout landslide will echo the true voice of the people….and the people will say, NO MORE REPUBLICANS.

  13. Todd – respectfully disagree – CommonGoodGoverning is a completely grassroots, all-volunteer organization with a laser focus on its work. We have grown from 1-550+ in two years by reaching out to concerned citizens, not by “advertising” or pontificating on social media. We are working 24-7; not Tweeting. We are not tech shy ; we work internally within a Slack private network.

    Vernon – Right, right ON. Our (and many others’) prime focus in 2018 was turnout of the seldom or non-voters (especially minorities and young people). Both finally improved in 2018; we will redouble our efforts in the same direction for 2020.

  14. Andy, might I suggest a place to start—offer rides to polling sites on Election Day. Perhaps start with those you’ve registered in the past? It may seem insignificant. However, I felt pretty good about getting just a few people to their voting locales who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to cast their ballot. I didn’t ask their party affiliation; I wasn’t assigned by either party, if memory serves. If we each do just a bit more than we think we can, a whole lot more can be accomplished.

  15. JoAnn Green: “…if we manage to elect rational, ethical policymakers committed to fair elections, they’ll have their work cut out for them.”

    It’s much worse than that: they’ll have their WAR cut out for them.

    A new Democrat majority in House and Senate will only last a few days, not even till the celebration is over. That is all the time it will take for the same moneyed interests that run things now to buy a half-dozen new Democrats.

    Blackmail will gather up another two or three Democrats for the power elite.

    Threats (and samples) of violence–waking up with a donkey head in your bed–will bend a few other Democrat Congresspeople to the will of the moneyed class.

    And if the war the power elite wages against fair government requires a few murders, or a lot of murders, to finalize their regaining of control, then that too will happen.

    The new Democrat president, the new cabinet, and especially the new Attorney General are going to need to be tough, courageous, persuasive, disciplined and severe discipline-enforcers in order to hold the new Congressional majority to its task in the face of all the opposition “offers they can’t refuse”.

    If Dems nominate anyone who is short of those toughness qualities, we are lost even if we win.

    This time, even if the Democrat presidential nominee is uncomfortable having a strong, manly man VP, we cannot have a VP candidate who is soft, gentle and sissy-like. Dems need to go to the old enforcer style VP. Shut your eyes and listen to the 2016 voice of Senator Tim Kaine, and regardless of what he says, his sweet voice only told voters, enemies, and Hillary that “I am a political and personal eunuch; nothing to fear from me”.

    November of 2020 is not the end of this war; it is only the opening salvo. Every rollback of a Trump law or directive will be a fight to the death, and if a win, it will be an ongoing fight against continuous counterattacks.

  16. To: Andy Austin @ 7:08am
    “the number of areas where my attention is needed — and my outrage is warranted — has exploded and I feel stuck.”

    ” I seldom see suggestions for how to change what’s happening. It’s easy to bitch and snark about the lunatic in charge but what I think most voters need — myself included — is some guidance from those with expertise in the inner workings of government on what to tackle first. I’m not asking for others to do my homework, I just need a place to start….”

    Andy, I feel your frustration. Perhaps my solution will help you with this dilemma. I used to disregard the “good” in order to secure the “perfect” agonizing over how to secure the “perfect” candidate for each office on the ballot. You may be chuckling already because you know that was an exercise in futility.

    I realized that I would fail in my job if I made selections based on my superficial view of the personality or qualification of a candidate. Ultimately this decision satisfied me:

    I searched for and read the party platforms for the Dems and GOPs. My overview was that the GOP’s platform on the issues was excessively restrictive of personal freedom and the Dem’s was more progressive, more liberal. To that I considered Pence’s history in Indiana politics with which I could not abide and Trump’s obvious disqualifying issues.

    It took only a split second to cast my ballot. Mrs. Clinton won the popular election by a landslide ultimately to lose by a handful of electors, acting for GOP state governors. Hillary was super prepared from Day One. Trump, a poor learner, is still in training and flunking one test after another. Now, almost three years later, we are suffering from the malaise you describe. I’m impatient to get a second chance soon to send Trump/Pence to the Moon if they don’t go to Moscow for the retirement reward they expect from Vladimir.

    We have a chance to correct this disaster soon.

  17. I was recently appointed to serve as the Democrat representative on my county’s election board. I fully intend to learn all that I can about our election processes and I will be asking the local Clerk many questions after the training to ensure that I have the deepest understanding possible.

  18. Larry – you wrote “A new Democrat majority in House and Senate will only last a few days, not even till the celebration is over. That is all the time it will take for the same moneyed interests that run things now to buy a half-dozen new Democrats.”

    Sorry, so far…history refutes this contention. Most of the DEM newbies elected to the House in 2018 have not been bought in any sense. Check them out.

  19. L.L.
    Oh yes they have, which is why the progressive agenda is dead in the water. Which is why some of the Dems are bad-mouthing universal Medicare.

    Plus: they don’t have to leverage off any of the new Dems if they have already bought or scared enough of the old Dems.

    Plus: they don’t have to approach the house with as much urgency, because they have the Senate locked up.

  20. Larry – got it clear – our (“progressive”) way or the highway. How to get Trump re-elected with a vote majority this time…

    Yes, the Senate is critical. But again, the majority of both DEMs and independents do not favor the progressive agenda. The 2016 results make it clear – nearly every “progressive” House candidate lost, except for the most liberal (and gerrymandered that way) districts, like AOC’s for example, rated a DEM +33 (0 is even).

  21. Years ago my wife and I voted for Ralph Nader in a primary in Pike township on paper ballots. The newspaper reported zero votes for Nader in my district. Who works the polls?

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