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.