While I think Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are more alike than they are different on the issues that matter most to me, there is one subject on which the Republican Party is clearly in the wrong—the attempt to subvert the democratic process by creating arbitrary obstacles to voting, aimed at black and Hispanic people, college students and others likely to vote Democratic.
This is more serious than the Bush v. Gore decision, because it is not just a one-time thing. It threatens to become a permanent change in the way we Americans choose our elected representatives. It is a limited and partial (so far) return to the practices of the Old South of a century ago, when poll taxes and so-called literacy tests were used to to suppress voting by black people and poor white people.
Elizabeth Drew, writing for the New York Review blog, reported on what’s going on.
The Republicans have been making particularly strenuous efforts to tilt the outcomes—in most of the “swing states”: Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. The Republican leader of the House in Pennsylvania, previously considered a swing state, was careless enough to admit publicly that the state’s strict new Voter ID law would assure a Romney victory in November. In fact a state document submitted in court offered no evidence of voter fraud. On September 18, Pennsylvania’s supreme court sharply rebuked a lower court’s approval of the law, questioning whether the law could be fairly applied by the time of the election. This battle continues despite the fact that the Romney campaign in mid-September suspended its efforts in Pennsylvania because polls show that Obama was substantially ahead. Even if the state’s electoral votes are not in question the outcome could still decide whether a great many people will be allowed to vote in November, and could also affect the popular vote.
Eight states have already passed Voter ID laws—requiring a state-approved document with a photograph in order to register or vote, a form of identification that an estimated 11 percent or over 21 million of American citizens do not possess. But these laws are just part of an array of restrictions adopted to keep Democrats from voting. Some use other means to make registration difficult, or put strict limits on the number of days before the election that votes can be cast , or cut back the hours that polling places can stay open.
In the aftermath of the 2004 election, which was characterized in Ohio by lines at voting places in black districts so long as to discourage voters, Ohio Democratic officials made voting times more flexible; after the Republicans took over the state they set out to reverse that.
Iowa, Florida, and Colorado tried to purge the voting rolls of suspected unqualified voters, but their lists turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Florida officials compiled a list of 180,000 people whose qualifications were questioned, but after voting registrars checked (some protesting the unfairness of the purge) only 207, or 0.0002 percent of the state’s registered voters, were found to be unqualified to vote. Nearly sixty percent of the 180,000 names had Hispanic surnames, another 14 percent were blacks. Officials said that whites or Republicans were unlikely to be on the list.
While a combination of outraged citizens and legal challenges led all three states to ostensibly give up on the idea of purging voters, Florida and Iowa officials have said that they intend to pursue those who haven’t been proven innocent. As a result, hundreds of thousands of citizens don’t know if they’ll be allowed to vote—which, like a number of the restrictions, could be a disincentive to even subjecting oneself to what could be a hassle or humiliation at the polling place. Florida also enacted a voter ID law, which was struck down by a federal court.
Ever on the lookout for ways to keep Democratic supporters from the polling places, the state cut short the number of days for early voting, and established rules that in effect barred outside groups such as the League of Women Voters from conducting registration drives. Though this restriction was later overturned by a federal court, voter registration groups said that important time had been lost while they contested the new restrictions on their activities.
In Ohio—the swingyest of the swing states, now in Republican control—secretary of state Jon Husted is trying to block voting on any weekend before the election; and he has appealed the ruling of a federal district judge ordering him to allow voting even during the last weekend before the election. Husted also made the extraordinary proposal that voting hours in Ohio be extended solely in white districts, but this preposterous idea couldn’t withstand a citizen outcry. Two Democratic county election officials from the Dayton area (one the few predominantly Democratic counties in the state) who objected to Husted’s proposal to permit no weekend voting were fired.
Elizabeth Drew noted that many American citizens will go to the polls in November not knowing whether they will be allowed to vote or not.
Having covered Watergate and the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and more recently written a biography of Nixon, I believe that the wrongdoing we are seeing in this election is more menacing even than what went on then. Watergate was a struggle over the Constitutional powers and accountability of a president, and, alarmingly, the president and his aides attempted to interfere with the nominating process of the opposition party. But the current voting rights issue is even more serious: it’s a coordinated attempt by a political party to fix the result of a presidential election by restricting the opportunities of members of the opposition party’s constituency—most notably blacks—to exercise a Constitutional right.
This is the worst thing that has happened to our democratic election system since the late nineteenth century, when legislatures in southern states systematically negated the voting rights blacks had won in the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
While she and other writers focus on the Presidential election, voter suppression tactics are likely to be more effective, and more dangerous, in state and local election contests that don’t attract much attention and election tampering is less likely to provoke a big outcry.
Click on Spreading Suppression for an interactive version of the above map showing the status of voter ID laws and other voter suppression legislation in the various states.
Click on The Ballot Cops for Mariah Blake’s report on voter intimidation in The Atlantic.
Click on Machine politics: the real threat of voter fraud for my earlier post on voting machines susceptible to hacking.