Voter turnout is being actively suppressed in this year’s US elections
by Gordon Campbell
Political allegiance can be a pretty fluid thing. Democratic contender Hillary Clinton for example, used to be a Republican and Republican contender Donald Trump used to be a Democrat. Yes, Clinton supported right-wing radical Barry Goldwater in 1964, and she attended the Republican Party convention in 1968 as a 20 year old delegate for the moderate option, Nelson Rockefeller. Though the dates of his conversion vary, Trump seems to have been a-political until about 1987, and then all hell broke loose:
According to registration records, since 1987 Donald Trump has been a Republican, then an independent, then a Democrat, then a Republican, then “I do not wish to enroll in a party,” then a Republican; he has donated to both parties; he has shown loyalty to and affinity for neither.
Something similar has been happening to the entire US voting system. The right to vote has become a very fluid concept in the US, and not an absolute right. I’ll focus here on just two ways that dis-enfranchisement is currently occurring in the US: (a) by the rigging of the boundary lines for voter districts and (b) by demanding elaborate photo IDs before people are allowed to cast their vote. (This is the modern version of the “ Jim Crow” laws that used to enforced racial segregation in the US for 100 years after the Civil War.) So, don’t take too much comfort from all the opinion polls that show Trump languishing well behind Clinton. Modern party politics has found new ways to subvert the ‘one person/one vote’ principle.
Here’s a great example, taken from David Daley’s recent book Ratf**ked. which provides a lot of compelling detail about the shady practices involved in rigging the voting district boundaries in US elections:
So skillfully were the [boundary] lines drawn that in 2012—when President Obama carried Pennsylvania by three hundred thousand votes and the state’s Democratic congressional candidates collectively out-polled their G.O.P. rivals by nearly a hundred thousand votes—Republicans still won thirteen of Pennsylvania’s eighteen seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Welcome to the modern ways of screwing the democratic system.
1, Gerrymandering. The term is old, dating back to the early 19th century. It refers to the practice of drawing the boundaries of voting districts to favour your party, and to disadvantage your opponents. As Daley says, there are two major methods involved : “ packing” and “cracking.” With “packing” you try to concentrate as many people likely to vote for your opponent into as few districts as you possible can.
“Cracking” is when you do the reverse: you spread the opposition vote thinly across the districts that your own party machine dominates. That’s how, in the example above, voters in Pennsylvania (which is a perennial swing state in presidential elections) voted in 2012 for Barack Obama and for his Democratic congressional team by clear six figure majorities. Yet the Republican Party still won 72% of the state’s Congressional seats that were up for grabs. The same thing happened in Michigan:
Voters elected a Democratic U.S. Senator by more than 20 points and reelected President Obama by almost 10 points.” [Republican strategists noted.] Still, Republicans ended up with the lion’s share of the state’s Congressional seats—nine, to the Democrats’ five.
By such methods, the Republican Party has managed to win enough seats in Congress to block progressive legislation (and/or White House nominations to the US Supreme Court) or whatever else you care to name. Keep those gerrymanders in mind while trying to work out whether a President Clinton could really win enough seats in November to overturn the existing Republican majorities in the House and in the Senate, and thereby get her legislative agenda passed into law. Gridlock is the stepchild of gerrymandering.
As Daley’s book explains, the current extent of gerrymandering is a recent phenomenon. Apparently, it was Obama’s victory in 2008 that inspired the Republicans to pursue its so-called REDMAP (aka Redistricting Majority Project) strategy that was first deployed in 2010, at a time when the White House, Senate and House of Representatives were all in the hands of the Democrats.
That brief period of Democratic ascendancy marked the high water mark of Obama-ism. It was also a hangover from a 60 year period in American political life whereby Americans would regularly put Republicans in the White House, while balancing that decision by entrusting Democrats to interpret the laws and run the country in a somewhat gentler fashion down at a Congressional level. Reaganism began to upset that balance, and Obama’s election galvanized the REDMAP response – in state legislatures, and within both arms of Congress.
The idea behind REDMAP was to hit the Democrats at their weakest point. In several state legislatures, Democratic majorities were thin. If the Republicans commissioned polls, brought in high-powered consultants, and flooded out-of-the-way districts with ads, it might be possible to flip enough seats to take charge of them. Then, when it came time to draw the new lines, the G.O.P. would be in control….All told, in 2010 Republicans gained nearly seven hundred state legislative seats, which, as a report from REDMAP crowed, was a larger increase “than either party has seen in modern history.” The wins were sufficient to push twenty chambers from a Democratic to a Republican majority. Most significantly, they gave the G.O.P. control over both houses of the legislature in twenty-five states.
The systematic re-drawing of voting district lines began in earnest at that point, and it has continued apace. The only consolation in 2016, as Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in her New Yorker review of Daley’s book, is that the rash of ‘cracking’ and ‘packing’ activity has put many districts into the hands of right-wing extremists who are now beyond the control of the Republican Party machine as well. In that respect, Trump’s renegade status vis a vis the Republican Party is being mirrored in a number of House and Senate races. In many cases, the Tea Party/ evangelical crazies have taken over, and ripped out the wiring.
2. Voter Registration. In at least 17 states this year, voters will face new obstacles blocking their ability to cast a vote. These measures include absurdly rigorous photo ID requirements, and shorter time periods for early voting. To try and counter this trend in the longer term, four states – Oregon, California, West Virginia and Vermont – have enacted an electronic system whereby people are automatically registered to vote when they register their automobiles. Connecticutt may also have that same system up in time for this year’s election. Reportedly, 28 other states and the District of Columbia are considering doing likewise, after 2016. This one action will transform American democracy, entirely for the better.
The best selling point for this breakthrough comes from Oregon, the pioneer in motor-voter registration, where the number of new voters has surged. This year, an average of 15,375 voters a month have joined the rolls after being automatically added, with the option to decline, at the motor vehicle office. Under the old system, in which people had to initiate the process, the monthly average was 3,955 in 2014 and 4,163 in 2012…. Officials in Vermont estimate that their new system could add as many as 50,000 voters in the next four years. California officials, not sure whether their system will be working in time for this year’s election, estimate that there are 6.6 million eligible voters now unregistered, with many due for license renewals.
High voter turnouts tend to favour Democrats, so its hardly a surprise that prominent Republicans – eg New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie – have been doing their level best to veto automatic registration measures, on the grounds that this automation would supposedly open the door to voter fraud. In reality, voter fraud is a conservative bogey that has rarely materialised at the ballot box. True, large numbers of voters can be fraudulently registered by canvassers intent on padding out their returns, and thereby earning more money. But those fake registrees – whether they be Mickey Mouse or a dead person formerly resident in the district – do not actually turn up to vote on election day:
Voter registration fraud is a huge problem in states like South Carolina, where accusations of hundreds of dead people voting loomed after the 2010 election, [but] investigations turn up nothing. Not one case of an actual dead person voting was found after a complete audit of the records (although 106 cases were caused by obvious clerical errors of poll workers).
Rampant voter registration fraud does not automatically equate to voter fraud at the ballot box. We always need to remain vigilant of the integrity of the voting system, from voter registration fraud to intentional manipulation of voting machines. But at some point, we’re going to have to accept a basic truth…Voter fraud claims are almost always a whole lot of smoke, without a real fire.
The growing trend towards automatic voter registration is a welcome prospect, but – unfortunately – much of that progress is scheduled to happen after 2016. This year’s election remains wide open to acts of deliberate dis-enfranchisement. In 2013, the US Supreme Court effectively gutted the 1964 Voting Rights Act, which had been a crowning legislative achievement of the civil rights movement.
Basically, the Supreme Court scrapped the federal government’s power to review – and to forbid – any measure taken by a state that changes the qualifications for voting in a way that restricts, infringes or prevents the full exercise of the constitutionally protected right to vote. With naïve illogic, Chief Justice John Roberts [pictured left] argued for the Supreme Court majority that this safeguard was “based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day” and was not responsive to current needs.
Thanks to that terrible decision, all states are free in 2016 to enact whatever forms of restrictive photo ID requirements they like; and that latitude will effectively dis-enfranchise millions of Americans, nationwide. States are also likely to reduce the period available for casting an early vote – a relevant issue since US elections are held on Tuesdays, on ordinary days of work. The main victims of these restrictive measures will be poor, black and Hispanic voters, who tend to vote Democrat.
The attorney general of Texas, Greg Abbott, [had] argued that the law [requiring elaborate photo IDs] was necessary to stop and prevent rampant voter-identification fraud. Yet, out of ten million votes, he could produce only two documented cases of voter impersonation. On the other hand, it became clear that nearly 600,000 Texans, mainly poor, black, and Hispanic, didn’t have the newly required IDs and often faced financial and bureaucratic obstacles in obtaining them.
The lower US courts – and Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg in her fierce 2013 dissent from the Supreme Court decision – had likened such measures to “an unconstitutional poll tax.” As mentioned, the Supreme Court majority decided otherwise, by arguing that a history of past discrimination couldn’t justify the federal government’s continued curtailment of states’ rights in such matters. Racial discrimination, as we all know, is a relic of the 20th century that has disappeared entirely from American public life, so federal safeguards are no longer needed.
State residency requirements for enrolment are an equally formidable obstacle to voting. This is a crucial factor, given that according to Census date for 2012 /2013, some 35.9 million voting age Americans shifted their residency in just that one calendar year, and each of them would have to re-register to vote, and surmount the new photo ID hurdles. According to research conducted by the Pew Centre, about one in four eligible Americans is not registered to vote, and one in eight residency records contain a serious error. In the state of Illinois, the situation is chronically bad:
….Nearly 700,000 people in Illinois remain registered at addresses where they no longer reside. An additional 34,000 on voter rolls are deceased…..while 60,000 live in other states. All need to be purged from lists of eligible voters [Cook County Clerk David] Orr said.
Reportedly, it would have cost only $60,000 to shift Illinois over from its antiquated paper system of tracking and amending those residency changes, to a more reliable, more easily maintained digital system. Yet the money for that purpose – originally appropriated in 2014 and never utilised, hasn’t been carried over to this year’s Illinois state budget. So, it won’t happen this year either. That’s typical. In every other realm, Americans can buy and sell with the click of a digital device or lock their cars with a button, but the machinery of American democracy (and the act of voting itself ) is still being deliberately kept reliant upon poorly maintained 19th century technologies.
There’s one final point. On 2012 figures, about 6 million Americans of voting age are barred from voting because of their prior felony convictions.
A majority of felons and ex-cons blocked from voting reside in a core of six Southern states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia — where more than 3 million people are banned from the rolls.
Punishing people with felony records hits African Americans harder than other races: 7 percent of blacks are disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the rest of the country, the [Sentencing Project] study found. The numbers are more drastic in Florida and Virginia, political battlegrounds considered crucial in [past elections.] In Virginia, 20 percent of blacks can’t vote. In Florida, that number is 23 percent. President Obama carried both states in 2008. (Kentucky, which is safely in Republican hands, is the only other state where 1 in 5 African Americans can’t vote.)
Reliable information for Latinos wasn’t available, according to Christopher Uggen, the lead author of the report. Uggen said that Hispanics are disenfranchised at a rate higher than whites, but lower than blacks.
Again, this form of disenfranchisement reduces the turnout in black/Latino communities in particular, thereby affecting election outcomes at all levels of the voting system. In sum, the low voter turnout in American elections is not just a sign of voter apathy, or of voters angry and alienated from the political Establishment. The apathy and anger are real enough. Yet millions more Americans actively want to vote, but are being prevented from doing so. Low voter turnouts among certain social and ethnic groups is being actively pursued and enforced by Republican Party apparatchiks – largely against the sort of people who have traditionally voted Democrat.
Not entirely, though. One small irony is that this year, Donald Trump is trying to win the votes of angry white males who feel left behind by the neo-liberal economic policies that have been in vogue for the past 30 years. Many of those would-be Trump voters will also struggle to comply with the new photo ID requirements, the re-registration barriers and the early voting limits.