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.


Watch This

I’ll begin this post with an admission: until a couple of weeks ago, I was only dimly aware of the country of Ukraine. I knew it existed, knew that it had once been part of the USSR, and  at the time it occurred, I read a couple of stories about its 2014 “revolution,” the brief media reports that a popular uprising had forced out Ukraine’s Russian-puppet President, but that was about the extent of it.

Now, with the rest of the world, I’m watching in real time as Ukrainians provide a lesson to the rest of us in courage and insistence on their nation’s right to self-determination.It turns out that this isn’t the first time Ukraine citizens have modeled that lesson, although it is the first time most Americans–including yours truly– have been paying attention.

Our daughter alerted us to the existence of a documentary about that prior lesson .It is currently streaming on Netflix–titled Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. We watched it, and It was revelatory. I urge everyone with Netflix (which may be pretty much everyone, given its ubiquity) to watch it. The documentary chronicled the 2014 uprising, the deeply humane and genuinely patriotic motives that impelled it, and the brutal efforts to suppress it.

The young people who triggered that uprising made their motives clear: they wanted Ukraine to be part of Europe–not part of Russia or Russia’s sphere of influence. They wanted their children to grow up in a democratic society tied to the West, and when the puppet President refused to sign an agreement that had been negotiated tying Ukraine to the EU, they  responded by demonstrating in huge numbers.

The demonstrations were peaceful; the response was brutal.

Ultimately, the Ukrainian citizens prevailed. But what was amazing to me, and what the documentary so vividly displayed, was the Immense size of the Ukrainian protests, the enormous numbers of ordinary citizens–teenagers and grandparents, labor and management, men and women– who joined in the demand for change, took to the streets, and actively participated in the ensuing deadly combat with government forces.

The defiance we are seeing now was undoubtedly strengthened by the success of that 2014 uprising, costly as it proved to be in death and destruction.

It is utterly wrenching to watch Putin’s unprovoked war on these gutsy people, to see in real time how Russian assaults are not just destroying iconic buildings, but killing and wounding civilians who offered no threat to Russia–citizens who only wanted  their country to remain independent of Russian domination.

After watching the documentary, it was hard to sleep.

It was also impossible not to wonder: how many of the spoiled-brat Americans who equate wearing a face mask with tyranny would emulate the brave Ukrainians if we were invaded by a stronger neighbor? How many of those same spoiled brats–the ones who drive their expensive  gas-guzzling SUVs to the outer suburbs, where they moved to escape “those people”–will carp about higher gas prices while Russia’s outlawed cluster bombs fall on Ukrainian cities.

Watch the documentary. Again, it’s on Netflix: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.   It’s eye-opening.


Picture This

There’s an old saying arguing that one picture is worth a thousand words. An activist named Joe Quint is testing that thesis.

The promotional postcard reproduced below describes the project, sponsored by the “Faith, Justice and the Arts” program of St. Paul’s church.

On the website giving additional information about the project, Quint explains what motivated him to produce graphic representations of the consequences of gun violence.

It was mid-2014 – right after the University of California at Santa Barbara shooting – and I happened to glance at that weeks’ issue of PEOPLE magazine. The cover story was about some Kardashian wedding and there was a little blurb in the upper right corner about the shooting… with a subhead saying ‘How could this happen – again?’. Setting aside the disproportionality in importance of these two stories, I was struck by both the naivety and irresponsiblity of that copy….

I became increasingly frustrated by inaction – my own and the inaction of my country. I could no longer pay lip service to the importance of reducing the over 36,000 senseless and preventable deaths that take place every year. I could no longer just sign petitions or – worse – scratch my head in amazement every time there was a national tragedy and wonder what it was going to take to change society for the better.

The result of his frustration was It Takes Us, a long-term documentary project about the impact of gun violence on the survivors, their family members , and on witnesses to these horrific acts.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the turmoil generated by Trump and his administration is the sheer number of important issues competing for our attention. Gun violence and our need to address its causes must compete with assaults on women’s equality, efforts to undo environmental protections, defund public education, eviscerate the ACA…the list goes on. But as the teenage survivors of Parkland have reminded us, America’s gun culture can no longer be ignored.

If you live in or around Indianapolis, or another venue listed on the website, go see the exhibit.