The truth about voter suppression

The GOP is pushing restrictive voting legislation unlike anything since the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Topics:

The truth about voter suppression(Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer)

The national trauma of the 2000 presidential election and its messy denouement in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court made, for a brief moment, election reform a cause célèbre. The scrutiny of election administration went far beyond the vote counting and recounting that dominated headlines. The Florida saga cast a harsh light on the whole country’s archaic and fragmented system of election administration, exemplified by a state where hundreds of thousands of citizens were disenfranchised by incompetent and malicious voter purges, Reconstruction-era felon voting bans, improper record-keeping, and deliberate deception and harassment.

The outrage generated by the revelations of 2000 soon spent itself or was channeled into other avenues, producing, as a sort of consolation prize, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, an underambitious and underfunded law mainly aimed at preventing partisan mischief in vote counting. The fundamental problem of accepting 50 different systems for election administration, complicated even more in states like Florida where local election officials control most decisions with minimal federal, state or judicial oversight, was barely touched by HAVA. As Judith Browne-Dianis, of the civil rights group the Advancement Project, told me: “The same cracks in the system have persisted.”

But most politicians in both parties paid lip service to the idea that every American citizen had a right to vote, and that higher voting levels of the sort taken for granted in most democracies would be a good thing. “Convenience voting” via mail and early on-site balloting, or simply liberalized “absentee” voting, spread rapidly throughout the last decade, often as a way to minimize Election Day confusion or chicanery. In Florida itself, Republican Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist relaxed and then abolished the state’s practice of disenfranchising nonviolent felons for a period of time after their release.

No more. In the wake of the 2010 elections, Republican governors and legislatures are engaging in a wave of restrictive voting legislation unlike anything this country has seen since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which signaled the defeat of the South’s long effort to prevent universal suffrage. This wave of activism is too universal to be a coincidence, and too broad to reflect anything other than a general determination to restrict the franchise.



Millions of voters are affected. In Florida new Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation reversing Crist’s order automatically restoring the voting rights of nonviolent ex-felons. In one fell swoop, Scott extinguished the right to vote for 97,000 Florida citizens and placed more than a million others in danger of disenfranchisement. In a close contest for the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes, such measures could be as crucial to the outcome as the various vote suppression efforts of 2000.

As Ari Berman explained in an excellent recent summary of these developments for Rolling Stone, restrictive legislation, which has been introduced in 38 states and enacted (so far) in at least 12, can be divided into four main categories: restrictions on voter registration drives by nonpartisan, nonprofit civic and advocacy groups; cutbacks in early voting opportunities; new, burdensome identification requirements for voting; and reinstitution of bans on voting by ex-felons.

While new voter ID laws have clearly been coordinated by the powerful conservative state legislative lobbying network ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), other initiatives have spread almost virally. Virtually all of these restrictions demonstrably target segments of the electorate — the very poor, African-Americans and Hispanics, college students, and organizations trying to register all of the above — that tend to vote for Democrats.

Virtually all have been justified by their sponsors as measures to prevent “voter fraud,” a phenomenon for which there is remarkably little evidence anywhere in the country. As Tovah Andrea Wang, an election law expert at Demos, has concluded: “[L]aw enforcement statistics, reports from elections officials and widespread research have proved that voter fraud at the polling place is virtually nonexistent.” The Bush administration’s Justice Department tried to a scandalous degree to find cases of voter fraud to prosecute, and failed.

But as Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, observes:

So-called anti-fraud laws are almost always thinly veiled attempts to prevent large segments of the population from making it to the ballot box … low-income voters, college students, people of color, the elderly. The people behind these laws know that there is no “voter fraud” epidemic. They just want to make it as difficult as possible for certain types of people to vote.

If so, is the motivation simply and purely partisanship? That’s the conclusion reached by former President Bill Clinton, who told a Campus Progress audience in July: “They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.”

The prevalence of restrictive measures in key 2012 swing states certainly reinforces this impression. With Scott’s order Florida rolled back the early voting that played a key role in Obama’s 2008 victory. New voter ID laws were pioneered in Indiana, the red state most famously carried by Obama in 2008. A voter ID bill passed in the Legislature in North Carolina, but was vetoed by the governor, a Democrat.

Cynical as such actions may seem, they do reflect an ideology. For some conservatives, however, there is a deeper motive than partisanship that helps explain the rapid proliferation of restrictive legislation. It hearkens back to much older debates over the franchise that raged from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries: the belief that voting is a “privilege” rather than a right, and one best exercised by “responsible” or “productive” members of the community. And it’s not really surprising that old-school doubts about the very concept of “voting rights” have accompanied the dramatic rise to power of “constitutional conservatives” who strongly believe that no popular majority should have the power to modify fixed concepts of property rights and limited government as handed down by the Founders, who themselves acted (according to many Tea Partyers) according to a divine mandate.

You hear echoes of this ancient anti-democratic conviction scattered all across the Tea Party Movement and among many state legislators active in voting for restriction legislation. Tea Party Nation president Judson Phillips created a furor in November of 2010 by suggesting that voting should be restricted to property owners, as it often was prior to enactment of the 15th Amendment.

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers flatly claimed voting was “not a right” during debate over a photo ID bill (a statement he later partially walked back). So, too, did Florida state Sen. Mike Bennett in a similar debate. Republican legislators and party leaders in Wisconsin, Maine and New Hampshire said all sorts of disparaging things about the civic qualifications of college students in the process of seeking to keep them from voting on campus.

Suffusing much of this sentiment is the pervasive Tea Party fear that voters without “skin in the game,” that is, “property ownership or significant tax liability,” will be prone to voting for big government and “welfare” at the expense of “productive” citizens. Few would publicly go so far as right-wing author Matthew Vadim, who briefly became a Fox celebrity for his argument that registering poor people to vote is “like handing out burglary tools to criminals,” since they “can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians.”

But throughout the conservative and Tea Party subculture you find countless people who subscribe to the “Cloward-Piven Strategy” (popularized by Glenn Beck) that liberals have been engaged in a deliberate effort for decades to buy votes with expanded welfare benefits. And from practically the moment the financial crisis exploded, a preferred conservative-activist interpretation (advanced most aggressively by presidential candidate Michele Bachmann) has involved an elaborate variation on the Cloward-Piven Strategy.

The story is that the obscure community organizing group ACORN utilized the provisions of the Community Reinvestment Act to destroy the housing and banking industries with mortgages for shiftless poor and minority borrowers who were then encouraged to elect “socialist” politicians like Barack Obama to bail them out. This particular conspiracy theory has been especially potent since ACORN’s often-clumsy voter registration efforts also happen to be at the very center of Republican claims of widespread voter fraud.

Conservative suspicions that letting poor people vote leads to “socialism” have been most evident in the strange furor among tax-hating Republicans about the number of Americans who do not have net federal income tax liability. These “lucky duckies” (as the Wall Street Journal famously called them in a 2002 Op-Ed deploring the low taxes paid by the poor) have no “skin in the game.” Thus, as the Journal put it, “can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else … [and] are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government.”

While it’s unlikely Republican politicians will come right out and advocate higher taxes on the poor (although some “fair tax” schemes calling for a shift to consumption taxes would have the same effect), the resentment of them as freeloaders who get to “vote themselves welfare” probably does operate as a fine rationalization for placing landmines on their path to the voting booth.

All in all, the conservative commitment to full voting rights, which used to be a bipartisan totem that Republican operatives undermined in the dark and out of sight, is probably dead for the foreseeable future. And the war on voting will continue.

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>