Vote Suppression Goes Sophisticated

Tuesday evening, I will facilitate a Zoom conversation sponsored by the League of Women Voters. (If you are interested, the link is to registration–it’s free.)The conversation will follow the showing of a film (“The Fight to Vote”) documenting the methods state legislators and Secretaries of State currently employ to keep “those people” (groups likely to vote for the other party, in this case, mostly Democrats) from casting their ballots.

They’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated since they turned vicious dogs on Black folks, demanded poll taxes and “constitutional tests”–but the new tactics are very effective.

Here is a general outline of the remarks I plan to make introducing the discussion.


What we’ve just seen shows the ways in which vote suppression has become more sophisticated—and less visible—since Reconstruction. There are actually two main methods of discouraging the vote. The first method is primarily aimed at minorities and poor people, who tend to vote Democratic. The tactic, as you saw in the film, is making it as inconvenient as possible for those people to cast their ballots. The second is gerrymandering, which—among other pernicious things—suppresses the votes of members of the minority party in a particular district by convincing people in that party that their votes won’t count anyway.

And recently, just in case those methods don’t work, they’ve come up with another tactic, triggered by belief in the “Big Lie.”

The film you just saw focuses primarily on the first method: making it more difficult to vote. Some of those tactics, which have been the focus of recent legislation in a number of states, include shortening the window for requesting absentee ballots, making it harder to remain on the voter rolls, not sending mail ballots unless people specifically request them (or “losing” them in the mail), limiting drop box locations and early voting, closing polling places in minority neighborhoods and ensuring that the ones that remain open will have horrendous wait times because they haven’t been supplied with enough voting machines. There are a wide number of bureaucratic moves that can make it much more onerous to cast a ballot if you are in a targeted community. The film gave you a good overview of those moves.

The second method is gerrymandering, which is more destructive of democratic representation than even most of its critics seem to recognize.

Gerrymandering, as you undoubtedly know, is the process of creating districts that will favor the party that controls the state legislature during redistricting. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans. Thanks to gerrymandering, Indiana doesn’t have “one person one vote” because the rural areas where Republican voters live are vastly overrepresented.

Gerrymandering allows the GOP to control our state legislature with supermajorities even when voters prefer Democratic candidates by thousands of votes statewide. We are not unique; In 2021, the Cook Report calculated that only one out of twenty Americans lived in a competitive Congressional District.

It isn’t hard to see how gerrymandering suppresses the vote. A lack of electoral competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduces political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to or campaign for a sure loser? Why vote at all?

It’s also very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate who offers no genuine challenge. In a depressingly large number of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed even by a token candidate. If you don’t have a candidate to vote for, why go to the polls?

Now, there’s something new to threaten American democracy and the vote. Recently, in several states, Republicans who purport to believe in the Big Lie have embarked on yet another method of ensuring the victory of their candidates—placing partisans in the offices responsible for counting the votes.

If they succeed, the danger won’t come from people casting improper votes. The threat is that the people controlling the voting rolls and counting those votes will be dishonest partisans, which is why a recent report from the Brennan Center is so concerning. This year, races for Secretary of State—the offices charged with administering the vote– are attract­ing far more atten­tion than in recent memory. And in state after state, those campaigns are focusing on elec­tion denial—Trump’s “Big Lie” as a cent­ral issue.

Money is flow­ing into these races at a rate not seen in recent memory–more than two and a half times the amount raised by the analog­ous point in 2018, and more than five times that of 2014. Elec­tion deniers in Arizona, Geor­gia, and Nevada are currently either in the lead or running a close second in fundrais­ing. National groups and donors are spend­ing on these races, includ­ing Donald Trump’s lead­er­ship PAC and others with ties to efforts to chal­lenge the 2020 result. Donors who haven’t previously given to secret­ary of state candid­ates are suddenly making major contri­bu­tions.

If this effort is successful, partisans won’t have to come up with creative ways to suppress the vote. There will be an actual “big steal.”

Obviously, all of this activity is inconsistent with American democracy. All of it rejects the notion that “We the People” elect our representatives. Instead, partisans—who are mostly but not exclusively Republicans these days— decide which people deserve to have their registrations honored and their votes counted.

As Common Cause folks put it, we voters are supposed to choose our legislators—our legislators aren’t supposed to choose their voters.


  1. Politics as an entrepreneurial business is not new but, let’s face it, it can be very lucrative and not that hard to be successful in venture for those with the right qualifications. They include good looks and hair and a compelling personality with some training in public speaking and the ability to lie with a straight face. It’s a sales job with the product being yourself as a person.

    Of course for some, interest in helping others can contribute also as motivation but in today’s media-soaked world just celebrity is enough motivation for some.

  2. As pointed out, and clearly outlined, in a recent Thom Hartmann piece, the GOP has not been interested
    in Democracy since Nixon’s rancid time in office!

  3. We absolutely have to have voting right legislation at the Federal level, but sadly, it’s been Manchined. Definition: Manchin – a member of a majority party who insists that he wants certain legislation, but refuses to accommodate the change required to pass it.

  4. thanks as always for an interesting column.. Previous respondent mentioned Manchineel.. I read yesterday that he, Portman and Collins all lackluster in my books but they are part of group of Senators who are studying ways to change The Election Count Act for the good? .. Im really curious how likely it is will be able to safeguard the count in 2024 from state electors .. I hope this issue gets greater news cycle

  5. You missed a big fat systematic voter suppression tactic: the Trump administration’s unrelenting effort to undermine the US Census, undercount Native American peoples, and end the census early.

    This is even deeper than gerrymandering, because congressional districts (and the gerrymandering which follows) are based on Census information.

  6. There just is no evidence that most of these changes have resulted in “voter suppression.” The numbers just don’t bear that out. Georgia was unfairly criticized for voting changes that didn’t actually make voting more difficult and, in fact, in many ways made it easier to vote. What happened this year in Georgia? Record midterm primary turnout.

    The problem was people based their opinion about the GA bill on proposals that were made, not what actually passed. For example, the bill actually included a provision that dealt with long lines at the polls and said that if wait times at polling places were too long, that additional voting machines be sent. There were some bad things in the bill, but those bad things weren’t about voting but rather the work overseeing the counting of the votes.

    As far as purges of non-voters from the list, that’s just the enforcement of the current law. We used to have automatic purges if someone didn’t vote a single time in a four year period. (Which I never heard anyone complain about.) Now, the system under the National Voting Registration Act (Motor Voter) and subsequent legislation is quite convoluted and expensive. People have to not vote a single time in at least a four year period and there has to be post card mailings to their address to warn them of the removal from the voting rolls. If someone hasn’t voted a single time in four years, most likely they’re dead or have moved. We’re talking about a handful of people that might have lost their registration and those people can always re-register.

    Let’s talk ballot drop boxes. Ballot drop boxes have to be monitored 24/7 because of mischief vandals cause. People will poor liquids into the container. They will put garbage in the slots and try to set ballots on fire. There are legitimate reasons why GA limited ballot drop boxes. I would point out that GA pre-pandemic didn’t even have ballot drop boxes.

    I have been voting since 1980. It’s never in my entire voting history been easier to get registered and to vote. That’s just a fact. We need to accept the fact that some people won’t vote, no matter how easy you make it.

    The January 6th Committee hearing resumes tonight. How much of the hearings so far and in the next weeks will concentrate on Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election via voter suppression efforts? NONE…because that’s not how they tried to steal the election. The Trump people tried to steal the election through the vote counting and certification process. And, yet, many Democrats have no interest in putting additional safeguards in place to ensure that the next election won’t be stolen by Trump and his acolytes. For example, there is bipartisan support to fix the Electoral Count Act which would clarify Congress’ role in counting electoral votes. Yet, Democratic leadership in the House and Senate won’t let the members vote on the bill. It’s insane.

  7. Peggy, Sen. Manchin was a leader in supporting voting rights reform. He just didn’t want to go as far as the other Ds wanted to go in terms of interfering what has traditionally been the state’s role in running elections. And Manchin doesn’t see anything wrong with photo ID. And he’s right about that.

  8. While this information is critically important and as a member of the LWV of Indianapolis and co-founder of the now crumbling coalition of civic organizations All In For Democracy, non of this matters if the ongoing insurrection is successful in the 2022 elections. The GOP has been hijacked by an authoritarian leader hell bent on destroying the basic institutional structures of our democracy and rule of law. This is where the LWV needs to focus their advocacy and education. We need to be mobilizing marches, information campaigns and conversations in rural areas to raise the awareness of what a rolling coup looks like. Instead we are sending postcards to insurrection sympathizers to vote for redistricting reform (they didn’t)and watching videos about yeaterdays war. Well intentioned but fiddling while Rome burns.

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