Thanks to Republicans, it will be harder for certain people to vote this year, courtesy of an array of new voting restrictions passed in the wake of the 2020 election: 56 new voting restrictions passed by Republican-led legislatures in 20 states.
Supposedly, these rules are to prevent voter fraud, but countless studies have shown that there is no significant voter fraud in America. Rather, from its origins in 19th Century Jim Crow laws to the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, “voter fraud” is a lie told for ulterior motives.
What motives? Well, that’s where the “certain people” part comes in. Republican voting restrictions just so happen to disproportionately impact people who are Black or Brown, young, poor, queer, or marginalized – in other words, people who just so happen to favor Democrats and oppose nationalistic, white-male-dominated, Christian-fundamentalist-majority party that doles out tax cuts to the ultra-rich and cuts services for everyone else. It really is that simple.
Of all the issues I’ve written about as a journalist – the Supreme Court, climate change, Donald Trump, racism/sexism/homophobia – this one makes me the maddest. Why? Not because Republicans are doing all this and right-wing media is lying about it (though that’s bad enough), but because it’s almost never headline news and rarely an election issue. Most people just don’t know about it, or don’t care, even though the mass disenfranchisement of voters, especially voters of color, is happening in plain sight. This is staggering to me.
Ari Berman has been indefatigably covering voter suppression for well over a decade now. A reporter for Mother Jones, he is the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. He describes the Republican policy as “widespread disenfranchisement.” Says Berman, “They’re trying to get an advantage around the margins. It’s not about disenfranchising everyone, but in a state like Georgia, if you can change turnout among certain groups by 2-3 percent, that’s enough. That’s what it’s about. That’s what’s happening right now.”
Here are six specific things Republicans are doing to make that happen.
1. Closing Polling Places
From 1965 to 2013, the Voting Rights Act required states and localities with a history of discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before changing voting rules. But thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court struck down that rule in 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder.
In the next five years, 1,688 polling places were closed in those formerly-covered areas – 750 of them in Texas.
There is a clear pattern of these closures: They mostly happen where people of color live. For example, a 2018 study by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that in Texas, the counties with the most closures included Dallas county (41 percent Latino and 22 percent Black), Harris county (42 percent Latino and 19 percent Black), and Brazoria County, (30 percent Latino, 13 percent Black).
Similar patterns were found in Arizona and Georgia, where 53 of Georgia’s 159 counties had their polling places reduced. Of those, 39 have poverty rates that are higher than the state average, and 30 have black populations of more than 25 percent. These are not random closures. Overall, a 2020 study found that “during non-presidential elections, effects [of increased distance to polling places] are three times larger in high-minority areas than in low-minority areas.”
You can see this yourself. Go to a predominantly rich, white area, and, usually, polling places are copious and lines are short. Go to less affluent, less white areas and you’ll see people waiting in line for hours.
2. Limiting Early Voting and Voting By Mail
Voting in person on a random Tuesday is no big deal for many people. But for single parents, people without cars, people with mobility challenges, or people whose local polling places have been shuttered — in other words, populations who are disproportionately non-white and Democrat-leaning — it can be an insurmountable challenge.
That was especially true at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, when voting by mail surged. In response, of course, the Trump campaign launched numerous lawsuits alleging widespread fraud, but lost every one, because despite expanded mail-in voting, there was no evidence of fraud.
But that fact didn’t matter. Animated by the Big Lie, numerous states – notably Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Florida Georgia, Iowa, and Kentucky, all governed by Republicans – have made it harder to get a mail-in (“absentee”) ballot, tightened the deadlines for returning it, banned drop-boxes for ballots and so-called “ballot harvesting” (which just means giving your sealed ballot to someone else to deliver for you), and sharply curtailed the time period for early voting.
Not to sound like a broken record here, but there is no justification for any of this. In right-wing fever dreams, drop-boxes, mail-in ballots, and ballot harvesting are frequently depicted as intrinsically fraudulent. But that is simply not true. While voter fraud is fake, voter suppression is very real.
3. Voter ID Laws and Intimidation
For over a decade now, Republicans have pushed for Voter ID laws, requiring citizens to proffer official government identification in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote. 34 states have some form of ID requirement, seven with strict photo ID laws.
Now, for privileged folks like me, this is a non-issue – I carry my ID everywhere. But over 10 percent of the US population – and nearly 25 percent of Black Americans – lack qualified ID for a variety of reasons. For example, IDs can be hard to get if you don’t have a birth certificate, and often require travel to some government office and knowing how to work the system. Meanwhile, the forms of IDs many people do have, such as public assistance IDs, student IDs, or state employee cards, have recently been banned for use by Republicans. (Hunting licenses, by the way, are still allowed.) Moreover, as I noted last week, at least 203,700 trans people in this country lack ID that properly reflects their correct name or gender.
Even more than actually prohibiting people from voting, these rules also enable police and state actors to intimidate and discourage them, as we recently saw happen in Florida, where bewildered citizens were threatened and even arrested for allegedly voting illegally. Think about it: would you go vote if you knew there was a chance that cops would harass and detain you for no real reason?
Once again, there is no actual reason for these rules. One study found that between 2000 and 2014, there were only 31 reported instances of voter impersonation in the entire country, out of more than a billion votes cast during the period. But voter ID laws have been shown to reduce voter turnout – once more, disproportionately among Democrat-leaning voters – by 2-3 percentage points. That is more than enough to swing a close statewide election.
4. Voter Purges
Another weapon in suppressing the vote has been to purge “inactive” voters from the rolls, again in the name of preventing fraud, which actually is nonexistent.
In 2019, for example, Georgia purged any voter whose names did not precisely match records held by the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration, even if the mismatch was due to a typo, as thousands were. The AP reported that 53,000 voters were affected by this policy, and 70 percent of them were Black.
There’s no doubt as to why then-Secretary-of-State, later Governor, Brian Kemp did this. In a closed-door session of Republican politicians in 2019, Kemp said, “The Democrats are working hard. There have been these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines. If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”
Of course, Kemp cited the risk of voter fraud, but his own office’s investigation in 2014 found only a few dozen potentially fraudulent voter applications among tens of thousands that were investigated.
Another example is Ohio, where a 2019 Supreme Court decision in June allowed a controversial voter-purge policy: If you fail to vote for two elections, you’re sent a notice; and if you don’t answer the notice, you’re purged from the rolls. That affected nearly two million voters, once again, disproportionately those at or near the poverty line, who may not understand the legalistic notice, or may not have known what it was when they received it, or may be suspicious of sending any such form back to the government.
Gerrymandering – the rigging of legislative districts for the benefit of a political party – is as old as the republic. It’s named after Eldridge Gerry, who died in 1814. But today’s gerrymandering is different. Thanks to “big data”, political operatives can slice and dice district lines on a house-by-house basis. They know so much about all of us — as we learned from the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal in 2016 — that they can predict with shocking accuracy how we’re going to vote.
Examples? In Wisconsin, Republicans used big data methodologies to create the most slanted electoral map in memory. In 2018, it gave Republicans 60 percent of the seats in the state assembly despite winning only 47 percent of the vote. In Pennsylvania, 44 percent of voters are Democrats—but only 33 percent of its congressional representatives are. And in North Carolina, Republican candidates won nine of the state’s 13 seats in the House of Representatives in 2012, although they received only 49 percent of the statewide vote. In 2014, Republican candidates increased their total to 10 of the 13 seats, with 55 percent of the vote.
Race-based gerrymandering is formally illegal, but in a series of cases, the Supreme Court has (surprise!) made it nearly impossible to prove that a specific gerrymander is based on race, no matter how slanted the results are. As a result, Republicans have a free pass to do whatever they want.
Berman cited Texas as one example. “In Texas, 95 percent of the population growth was in communities of color, but the Texas legislature decreased the number of ‘majority-minority’ districts and increased the number of white-majority districts,” he said. “The map is supposed to be redrawn to take account of population change, but they completely disregarded it.”
Likewise, Berman said, in Georgia, nearly all of the population growth is among people of color, but Georgia “dismantled a congressional district held by a Black democrat.”
Now, gerrymandering isn’t voter suppression in the same way as voter ID laws or voter purges are. But it has a similar effect: disempowering voters, convincing them not to vote, and widening the gap between the U.S. population and its supposed representatives in Congress and state legislatures.
“The partisan gerrymanders in these cases,” wrote Justice Kagan in a dissent in one such case, “deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”
“Is that how American democracy is supposed to work?” asked Justice Kagan rhetorically. “I have yet to meet the person who thinks so.”
6. Post-Voting Shenanigans
Finally, even if you do manage to cast a ballot, the odds are getting higher and higher that it will be thrown out.
That’s because, animated by the Big Lie, 291 Republican election deniers are now running for Secretary of State and similar positions where their jobs would be to supervise elections. And in the meantime, a host of ‘red’ states have made it easier for election officials and even partisan “observers” to “review” ballots for evidence of fraud, to enter into polling places and “supervise” elections, and to otherwise meddle in the tabulation of elections.
For Berman, this last category is the most troubling of all.
“The biggest change since 2020 is that you have election deniers running at all levels of government in 44 states,” he says. “And many are going to win.”
At a minimum, Berman said, these deniers will make voting harder, further limiting early voting and voting by mail. “They’re not just running on denial of the outcome – they’re trying to deny access to the ballot,” he says.
But outright election denial, Berman said, is not out of the question. “Remember, in 2020, the election was certified and then challenged in court,” he says. “But what if multiple state officials — say the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state — joined forces and refuse to certify it? That would put courts in a much more difficult position.”
For Berman, this represents a sea change in Republican strategy. “This moves from tinkering around the margins to throwing out votes altogether,” he says. “That’s a much larger scale of voter disenfranchisement. The Trump campaign in 2020 tried to throw out magnitudes larger than people affected by voting restrictions… It’s a ‘flood the zone’ strategy. Suppress the vote on the front end, and then if that doesn’t work, throw out the votes on the back end.”
To be sure, there are concerted efforts to oppose these anti-democratic machinations. But Berman is nervous. “Just because it didn’t succeed in 2020,” he says, “doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. And now they’ve changed who’s refereeing all these disputes. That’s the thing that’s most concerning to me right now.”
From a certain perspective, all these Republican machinations are pretty obvious. If Americans vote in proportion to the overall population, Democrats win. It’s that simple. But if Black, Brown, young, queer, and marginalized voters can be discouraged or blocked, Republicans can gain and maintain white minority rule. That’s why the Republican’s white, traditionalist base believes the Big Lie: because the truth is harder to accept. As a brilliant long-form New York Times piece on election deniers recently put it, “the white majority is fading, the economy is changing and there’s a pervasive sense of loss in districts where Republicans fought the outcome of the 2020 election.”
This isn’t just someone’s opinion – it’s data. As the Times report continued, “a shrinking white share of the population is a hallmark of the congressional districts held by the House Republicans who voted to challenge Mr. Trump’s defeat… a pattern political scientists say shows how white fear of losing status shaped the movement to keep him in power.” Specifically, “the portion of white residents dropped about 35 percent more over the last three decades in those districts than in territory represented by other Republicans.” And “rates of so-called deaths of despair, such as suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related liver failure, were notably higher as well.”
Having covered voter suppression for over fifteen years, I’ve wondered about this many times. The politicians pushing voter suppression surely know that there is no voter fraud crisis, that the 2020 election was not stolen, and that voter suppression has nothing to do with ‘election integrity.’ But their voters do not. They sense a profound change in America, and whether they can articulate it or not, they know that they are losing the country they love. This deep trauma does not excuse their support of racist and anti-democratic voter suppression – but it does help me understand it.
So what can you do? Well, first of all, vote. Even if you don’t feel personally threatened, as the meme puts it, vote as if your skin is not white, as if your parents need medical care, as if your son is transgender, as if your water is unsafe.
Second, talk about this issue. Get your friends informed and angry. Check out the Brennan Center for Justice and their thorough debunking of voter fraud myths. Check out Vox’s charts of new voting restrictions in each state. Or anything Ari Berman says. Follow the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, or the ACLU, Fair Fight, VoteRiders, Democracy Docket, Movement Voter Project, People for the American Way, Voters of Tomorrow, or the other groups working on this issue. Become that annoying person who reminds their friends that Jim Crow is returning, backed by white grievance and legitimated by lies, and that Black voters in particular are under attack. Because I can tell you firsthand, if you don’t say anything about it, your friends won’t think about it.Finally, don’t despair – take courage. Remember, Republicans are doing this because they are afraid. Their white, fundamentalist base is afraid of losing “their” country. Their donors are afraid of losing their corporate welfare and tax breaks. Their politicians are afraid of losing their jobs. And because they know they can’t win a fair fight, they’ve decided to cheat, using a fake crisis to disenfranchise voters. The best revenge is to beat these bastards anyway.