In advance of the 2020 elections, a number of voter suppression efforts are underway.
Lowering voter turnout helps Republicans, and they know it. In advance of the 2020 elections, a number of voter suppression efforts are underway. Two new reports detail these efforts and show just how fragile voting rights can be.
The recent and pervasive wave of voter suppression started with Chief Justice John Roberts and the Shelby County v. Holder case. There, the court invalidated some of the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which got rid of a requirement that the Department of Justice review certain changes to voting laws and procedures prior to their implementation. That requirement applied to states with a history of discrimination, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.
What that decision meant was that states with a lengthy track record of discriminating against voters of color were once again free to do so — immediately. And that's exactly what they did. The Shelby decision was issued on June 25, 2013, and within 24 hours Texas announced a strict photo ID law. Within days, Mississippi and Alabama restarted their photo ID laws that had previously been invalidated.
Things didn't get better from there. For the 2016 elections, 14 states, including swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin, had new voter restrictions in place. In Wisconsin, the new voter ID law depressed voter turnout by 200,000 votes. Donald Trump's margin of victory in the state was a slim 22,748 votes.
The House Administration Subcommittee on Elections recently released "Voting Rights and Election Administration in the United States of America." It paints a grim portrait of the current landscape.
Where voter suppression had typically been implemented via strict photo ID laws, the elections subcommittee found that a "new wave of surreptitious tactics has also emerged." Now, there is purging from the voter rolls, cuts to early voting, moving or closing polling places, gerrymandering, and more.
Georgia purges people where their name is not an exact match, even if the error is on the state's end. North Carolina will purge voters based on challenges from private parties. Ohio purges people if they don't vote for one election cycle.
And this isn't a few voters here and there. The subcommittee noted that between 2014 and 2016, 16 million voters were purged from the rolls nationwide. Between 2016 and 2018, that number jumped to 17 million. Those numbers radically change the landscape of voting, particularly as counties with a history of discrimination had elevated levels of voter purges.
Often, efforts at voter suppression are framed as an attempt to limit opportunities for in-person voter fraud — for example, people voting more than once or voting in the wrong precinct, for example. Setting aside the fact that voter fraud is so rare as to be statistically insignificant, it's also clear that states are enacting provisions that have nothing to do with protecting against voter fraud.
For example, in North Carolina, the state canceled or drastically curtailed things like the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year old voters and "Souls to the Polls," an early voting event often sponsored by black churches. There's no reason for that save to suppress the votes of people of color and younger voters, both groups of whom traditionally favor Democrats.
A number of states, the subcommittee found, also suppress votes by understaffing or under-resourcing polling places in urban areas or areas where a substantial number of minority voters live. During the 2018 election, parts of Houston had polling places opening more than an hour late. The county had to be sued to keep those polling places open longer in the evening. Similarly, in Georgia, people waited as much as four hours to vote. Of course, there's no way to figure out how many people ended up simply not voting thanks to the delay.
At the same time the subcommittee released its report, a group of 150 civil rights organizations released a report called Vision for Democracy: Fortifying the Franchise in 2020 and Beyond."
Where the House report focused on problems, Vision for Democracy focuses on policy solutions. Some are major, such as getting legislation passed that reverses the harms that the Shelby case wrought and passing the Native American Voting Rights Act to halt disenfranchisement of Native voters. Some are less difficult to envision because they're simply a matter of resources: ensuring enough polling places, poll workers, ballots, and provisional ballots.
Vision for Democracy also focuses on the need for America to streamline voter registration and make it simpler for people to vote. Measures that would help achieve that include automatic voter registration, online voter registration, and same-day voter registration. The report also points out that hurdles to registration are "a uniquely American phenomenon" because America is one of the few countries that "places the onus of registering to vote on the individual rather than the government." In other countries, the government registers every eligible voter, which results in voter registration rates of over 90% in France, Canada, Great Britain, and more. In contrast, voter registration in the United States hovers around 65%.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin — sure to be a major swing state in 2020 — we see a microcosm of the American voting landscape. The state is the site of efforts to both expand and suppress the vote, thanks to two new lawsuits.
In October, a conservative law firm filed a lawsuit seeking to purge as many as 234,000 voters. The law firm says that Wisconsin's Elections Commission broke the law by waiting two years, rather than 30 days, to purge voters who may have moved. If the law firm prevails, those 234,000 voters would have to re-register or confirm their addresses.
The chance is slim that all 234,000 voters would be able to successfully re-register in time to be eligible for the 2020 presidential election — and that's the whole point. Younger people and people with low incomes tend to be more transient, moving more often. And, of course, both of those groups also tend to vote for Democrats.
At the same time, a lawsuit filed by a progressive group may ensure that college students in Wisconsin are not disenfranchised. Right now, Wisconsin places very strict limits on when student IDs can be used at the polls. The lawsuit asks the federal courts to block enforcement of the rules for the 2020 elections.
That lawsuit also details how depression of youth vote turnout may have led to Trump carrying the state. At a time when college-age turnout increased across the nation, Wisconsin saw college-age voter turnout plummet as much as 11% in parts of the state.
What both reports and the competing lawsuits in Wisconsin make clear is this: there are groups firmly dedicated to suppressing the vote, and with that, it is more important than ever to protect that right.
It's true that the 2018 election saw very high turnout for a midterm, with roughly 53% of all eligible voters nationwide showing up to vote. That's quite a jump from 41.9% in 2014. However, as the Elections Subcommittee noted in its report, "Overcoming barriers to exercise the right to vote does not excuse the barriers' existence. The will and stamina that voters take to overcome suppressive laws is not an excuse to keep the unjust barriers in place."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.