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Analysis

This Is the Worst Voter Suppression We’ve Seen in the Modern Era

Trump deserves blame, but there’s plenty to go around.

November 2, 2018

Large-scale voter purges from Flor­ida to Maine. Ultra-strict regis­tra­tion rules keep­ing voters off the rolls in Geor­gia and other states. Cuts to early voting sites in North Caro­lina. A North Dakota voter ID law that could keep Native Amer­ic­ans from the polls. False voting inform­a­tion being spread online.

Since the modern-day push to create barri­ers to voting got under­way around a decade ago, the Bren­nan Center has been track­ing restrict­ive voting laws and prac­tices as closely as any organ­iz­a­tion in the coun­try – as well as speak­ing out against them and chal­len­ging many in court. As Elec­tion Day 2018 approaches, citizens in 24 states are facing new laws making it harder for them to vote than it was in 2010. And in nine of those states, it’s harder to vote than it was in 2016. (We roun­ded up the range of voting prob­lems we’ve seen in 2018 here). By our assess­ment, the range of voter suppres­sion efforts has been more wide­spread, intense, and brazen this cycle than in any other since the modern-day assault on voting began, espe­cially when viewed in combin­a­tion with the accu­mu­lated new hurdles to voting.

A number of factors have converged to turn up the volume on voter suppres­sion. First, by consist­ently and falsely stok­ing fear about illegal voting for over two years – includ­ing the lie that he’d have won the popu­lar vote if it weren’t for millions of non-citizen voters – Pres­id­ent Trump has helped make the issue cent­ral to the far right’s agenda. Trump’s short-lived voter fraud commis­sion collapsed in Janu­ary after draw­ing bipar­tisan outrage, but it nonethe­less acted as a signal to support­ive states that efforts to make voting harder would be welcomed at the highest levels. It’s no coin­cid­ence that in the first few months of Trump’s pres­id­ency, a slew of states proposed or passed new restric­tions, after several years during which the pace had seemed to slow.   

The courts also have played a key role. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which neutered the most effect­ive plank of the Voting Rights Act, offered a green light to a host of elec­tion rules changes in parts of the coun­try whose voting rules previ­ously had been under federal super­vi­sion. The court’s new staunchly conser­vat­ive major­ity may be encour­aging even states not directly affected by Shelby to lean forward on voter suppres­sion, confid­ent — we hope falsely — that the justices won’t stop them. The court recently declined to block North Dakota’s voter ID law, despite evid­ence that thou­sands of Native Amer­ic­ans who live on reser­va­tions could be stymied by its require­ment that their IDs include a resid­en­tial mail­ing address.

Of course, courts have also been major play­ers in stem­ming the growth of voting restric­tions. The number of court decisions against new restric­tions has ballooned in recent years, with several find­ing that offi­cials had inten­tion­ally tried to keep minor­it­ies from voting. But despite these victor­ies, another troub­ling real­ity has emerged: Even when courts rule against restrict­ive voting meas­ures, it isn’t enough to deter those look­ing to limit access to the ballot. 

Litig­a­tion is typic­ally time-consum­ing, and so these harsh laws often stay in place, fully intact and disen­fran­chising voters, for one or more elec­tion before a court rules against them. And even if that ruling does come, it may only weaken the law rather than strik­ing it down fully — as happened with Texas’s and Wiscon­sin’s strict voter ID laws, among other examples. That half-a-loaf outcome gives would-be vote suppress­ors little incent­ive to think twice about their strategy. And in the cases when a court scraps a law entirely, the confu­sion and misin­form­a­tion surround­ing the process can often still keep some voters from the polls. 

Equally troub­ling, those who seek to restrict access to voting do not seem to pay much of a polit­ical price. For example, the authors of North Caro­lin­a’s sweep­ing voter suppres­sion law, struck down by a federal court which found it “targeted African-Amer­ic­ans with almost surgical preci­sion,” did not lose their polit­ical perches — indeed, one of its key legis­lat­ive cham­pi­ons now sits in the U.S. Senate, and the lawyer who defen­ded the law has been nomin­ated to be a federal judge. Put bluntly: In the absence of a broad Supreme Court ruling enfor­cing voting rights — some­thing that is now an uphill battle at best — or strong federal legis­la­tion expand­ing the legal tools avail­able to voters, the courts simply aren’t enough to combat voter suppres­sion.

Finally, there’s race. There’s evid­ence that states in which the polit­ical clout of minor­it­ies is grow­ing — where the ruling major­ity perceives a threat to its power — are more likely to see restrict­ive voting laws than are more demo­graph­ic­ally homo­gen­ous states. And as the sali­ence of race in our polit­ics has increased, so too has voter suppres­sion.

A decade ago, there was a national spike in vote suppres­sion efforts in the 2008 elec­tion cycle, when Barack Obama, backed by a multi-racial coali­tion, was bidding to become the nation’s first African-Amer­ican pres­id­ent. That spurred unfoun­ded fears that ACORN, a community group serving mostly minor­ity communit­ies, and its allied voter regis­tra­tion group for which Obama once worked, was plot­ting to steal the elec­tion on his behalf. Two years later, this resul­ted in the first massive wave of news laws cutting back on voting access. In the age of Trump, politi­cians have grown more comfort­able openly play­ing to these fears. And this year, two of the highest-profile statewide races feature progress­ive African-Amer­ican candid­ates – one the founder of a voter regis­tra­tion group – running against white conser­vat­ive Trump support­ers.

Partis­an­ship plays a role too. Voting restric­tions have almost exclus­ively been promoted and suppor­ted by Repub­lic­ans. As our coun­try becomes more polar­ized, the partisan divide on voting rights has taken on greater import.

Causes aside, here’s the grim real­ity: The scope and soph­ist­ic­a­tion of efforts to make voting more diffi­cult make clear that voting advoc­ates can’t respond solely by play­ing a defens­ive whack-a-mole against the worst laws and prac­tices. That crucial work will continue, but it must be paired with a posit­ive reform agenda — one that is gain­ing momentum at the state level — that bolsters protec­tions for the right to vote and expands access to the ballot. Adding to this momentum, on Tues­day voters in four states will consider ballot initi­at­ives to expand access to voting (in addi­tion to four ballot initi­at­ives to improve the redis­trict­ing process). After Elec­tion Day, it will be up to the new Congress and state legis­latures to take up voting rights. 

We faced even worse voter suppres­sion schemes before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and we respon­ded by making our demo­cracy stronger. We should do so again.

(Image: Julie Dene­sha/Getty)