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The Assault on Voting is an Assault on Local Democracy

For years, states have been limiting the power of progressive city governments. Now, to advance their voter suppression agenda, they’re looking to rein in local election officials, too.

April 26, 2021
Justin Sullivan/Getty

Last spring, in the weeks and months after life was first reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic, local govern­ments stepped up to help save the 2020 elec­tion. Know­ing that many voters might not want to risk their health by cast­ing a ballot in person, cities like Phil­adelphia, Milwau­kee, Hous­ton, and Miami expan­ded access to mail voting by send­ing absentee ballots or ballot applic­a­tions to all registered voters, some­times with pre-paid post­age, and by provid­ing ballot drop boxes, among other moves.

I sugges­ted at the time that Repub­lican-lean­ing rural counties in the same states might follow suit, in order to ensure that rural voters would enjoy the same expan­ded access as urban ones. A race to the top, in other words.

I should have known that was too optim­istic. After an elec­tion in which both mail voting and over­all turnout soared, several GOP-led states, as we know, are desper­ate to restrict voting. And as part of that effort, they’re look­ing to clamp down on local govern­ments’ author­ity to make voting easier — or in some cases, to run elec­tions at all.

Two states have already done so. Among the most danger­ous parts of the sweep­ing voter suppres­sion law Geor­gia passed last month is a provi­sion that allows the state elec­tion board to suspend and tempor­ar­ily replace local elec­tion offi­cials. In prac­tice, that means the state board — which, thanks to a differ­ent part of the law, will have a major­ity of members appoin­ted by the GOP-controlled legis­lature — will be able to oust any local elec­tion offi­cial who seeks to expand access to the polls in ways the state does­n’t like. That could prevent county offi­cials from taking indi­vidual on-the-ground condi­tions into account in order to devise elec­tion plans that best serve their voters. One part of the restrict­ive voting law Iowa passed last month could have a similar effect, making it a felony for local elec­tion offi­cials not to follow guid­ance from the secret­ary of state. And a bill in Arkan­sas would like­wise allow the state elec­tion commis­sion to take over local elec­tion boards under certain circum­stances — it failed once in commit­tee but can be brought up again.

Then there are the efforts either to prevent local offi­cials from taking certain steps to expand access, or to require them to impose restric­tions. Bills in Texas, Wiscon­sin, and other states would bar local govern­ments from send­ing absentee ballot applic­a­tions to voters who haven’t reques­ted one, and Iowa’s law does the same. Arizona and Wiscon­sin are among the states with bills to ban mail­ing absentee ballots to anyone who hasn’t reques­ted one. The Texas meas­ure goes beyond mail voting, outlaw­ing the 24-hour and drive-thru polling sites that were a hit with voters after some urban counties in the state intro­duced them last year. It also would allow the state to force local govern­ments to purge the voter rolls — some­thing a Missouri voter ID bill would do too.

Notably, this assault on the power of local govern­ments to set elec­tion rules comes at a time when many of the same states are also setting out more broadly to under­mine local demo­cracy, as it increas­ingly becomes a site for progress­ive policy advances. In recent years, states have banned cities and counties from taking a range of steps like rais­ing the minimum wage, requir­ing busi­nesses to provide sick days, outlaw­ing anti-LGBT discrim­in­a­tion, and banning frack­ing. Often, these “pree­mp­tion” laws have been inten­ded to reverse progress­ive local reforms that were passed thru grass­roots organ­iz­ing efforts — as when Milwau­kee-based advoc­ates for public health and low-wage work­ers mobil­ized to pass a paid-sick-day ballot meas­ure, only for Wiscon­sin to approve a pree­mp­tion law that nulli­fied it.

In all of these efforts, it’s hard to avoid the racial angle. The attempts to crack down on local elec­tion boards come after heav­ily African Amer­ican cities like Phil­adelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta were targeted with false fraud alleg­a­tions by Pres­id­ent Trump and his support­ers. One conser­vat­ive Geor­gia pundit recently made clear which local offi­cials his state’s law is aimed at rein­ing in. “Fulton County has been rife with fraud for as long as I can remem­ber,” he said, refer­ring to the state’s most import­ant Demo­cratic-lean­ing county, where Atlanta is located. “And yes, there is a mech­an­ism in place to take over when a local board of elec­tion system fails.”

Many pree­mp­tion laws, too, have seemed designed to disem­power Black voters and their repres­ent­at­ives. To take one notori­ous example, just weeks after Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, approved a minimum wage hike that would have benefited low-income, predom­in­antly African-Amer­ican fast-food work­ers, all-white Repub­lican major­it­ies in the state legis­lature took it away by banning local govern­ments from rais­ing wages.

The same dynamic exists in Michigan’s use of its Emer­gency Manager law over the last decade, through which the state has taken over local govern­ments in heav­ily Black cities in order to more tightly control public spend­ing. In Flint, this led to thou­sands of kids being exposed to lead in their drink­ing water, after the city switched its water source during a budget crisis. You saw it, also, in the spate of state takeovers of local Black-run school boards during the 1980s and 1990s, which came after minor­ity communit­ies began winning court rulings that guar­an­teed equal resources.

One takeaway from all this: It under­scores how many of these seem­ingly separ­ate dynam­ics — voter suppres­sion, espe­cially the kind that aims to roll back local reforms; state-level pree­mp­tion; and even gerry­man­der­ing, which has encour­aged extrem­ism by remov­ing the need for many state lawmakers to reach out beyond their base — are in fact serving the same over­arch­ing goal: to degrade and under­mine demo­cracy at all levels, out of a fear that it won’t produce the right outcomes. Even as we fight back against the latest tactics, we should keep that larger strategy in mind.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.