Voter suppression is destroying US democracy. In 2020, expect more

Carol Anderson
Given what’s at stake next year, the effort to prevent people voting will be fierce. We’ve been here before – and we can stop it. America hangs in the balance. The elections in November next year will determine whether the United States continues down the road of authoritarian dynastic rule or reclaims the work of expanding and improving our democracy. Those are the choices. That expansion was born out of the civil war, which left 1.2 million dead or wounded, but resulted in the 15th amendment, which made clear that the right to vote could not be denied or hampered because of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The subsequent struggles led to women’s right to vote, opening the franchise to those 18 and over, and the “single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress,” the Voting Rights Act, which protected the franchise from states with a demonstrated history of racial and linguistic discrimination. But in 2013, the supreme court declared that racism was essentially a thing of the past and gutted the Voting Rights Act. The results have been calamitous. More than half the states passed a series of voter suppression laws that targeted minority voters, breached a key firewall that protected American democracy, and greased the pathway to install a man in the White House whose racism, greed, and unfitness for office was well known. What’s become clear over the course of three harrowing years is that the only real effective throttle that has slowed down the nation’s descent into authoritarian rule has been the throng of engaged, determined voters. The turnout in the 2018 midterm election, the highest since 1914, aided by a massive effort of civil rights organizations, was so overwhelming that control of the House of Representatives flipped to the Democrats and accountability finally began to creep back into the political landscape. As Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution, wrote: “The last line of defense against a lawless, oathless president is the electoral process.” Similarly, the only way that Republicans can protect themselves and a rogue president is to suppress the votes of minorities, the young, and the poor (all of whom vote overwhelmingly for Democrats). In 2020, we’re poised to see more voter intimidation, criminalizing of voter registration drives, disguised poll taxes, attempts to maintain extreme partisan gerrymandered districts, draconian and flawed voter roll purges, squashing access to voting on college campuses, widespread purchase of hackable voting machines, and a slew of unqualified, rightwing judges appointed to the federal bench to provide legal sanction to the destruction of democracy. In One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy, I traced a history and a pattern of bureaucratic violence against American citizens’ right to vote. Given what’s at stake in 2020, I expect a similar range of tactics, wrapped in the veneer of law, that are designed to further undermine Americans’ access to the ballot box: Intimidation of minority voters We’re likely to see more abusive use of state power to intimidate and criminalize Asian Americans, African Americans and Hispanics for voting or registering minorities to vote. Georgia, in fact, has been notorious in this regard. And continues to be so. In Texas, meanwhile, acting secretary of state David Whitley announced in January 2019 that he had a list of 95,000 non-citizens (immigrants) who were registered to vote in the state. Worse yet, he claimed, 58,000 of them had already cast a ballot in an election. He quickly turned over the names of these apparent miscreants to Texas’ attorney general to pursue criminal prosecution. Whitley’s claim was, in the end, a lie. The list, as Whitley well knew, was structurally flawed and contained tens of thousands of naturalized citizens who had the right to vote. Texas, in short, was getting ready to remove American citizens from the voting rolls simply because they had once been immigrants. Equally abhorrent, Whitley’s stunt sent the signal to Texas’ burgeoning Hispanic population that if they registered to vote, as their American citizenship allowed them to do, their names could easily be turned over to the attorney general for further investigation. In an era where Ice has been allowed to run loose and terrorize documented and undocumented populations, this was a clear warning shot. Keep your head down, don’t register, don’t vote, and you just might be safe. It’s the same message of voter suppression that has haunted America’s political landscape since 1867. Curbing voter registration Another tactic, which Tennessee tried after 2018, is to criminalize voter registration drives. Initially, it would seem that a state ranked at the very bottom in the nation in voter turnout and close to the bottom in those registered to vote would try to improve their citizens’ participation in democracy. Instead, as the New York Times reported, when “ tens of thousands of new black and Latino voters were registered in Tennessee in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections” the Republican-dominated legislature complained that many of the registration forms were incomplete and that the only viable solution was to hold those who held these voter registration drives criminally and financially accountable. Although a judge has struck down the law, the threat of what Tennessee Republicans are willing to do hangs there. Felon disenfranchisement Florida has also tried to stem the tide of new voters coming to the polls. After a citizen-led ballot initiative passed to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who had served their sentences, Republicans began searching for some way to neutralize the effect. Given that more than 20% of all African American adults were disenfranchised in Florida because of a felony conviction, and that the overwhelming majority of blacks vote for Democrats, the Republicans added a rider to “clarify” that a completed sentence required paying all of the court fines, fees, and penalties accrued during the trial and incarceration before the returning citizens’ voting rights would be restored. No matter how many ways the GOP tried to dress this up, this was a poll tax. It made access to the ballot box solely dependent upon the ability to pay. A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Florida law. But, he left enough room in his decision that the legislature could tweak, tweak, tweak until it has sowed the kind of confusion about eligibility that depresses voter turnout. Election security issues While Florida reached back to 19th-century Jim Crow to try to institute a poll tax, other states like Georgia are inviting full-fledged 21st-century hacking to tilt elections. There is already the 127,000 missing votes in the 2018 lieutenant-governor’s race. That was so mysterious that experts, but not Georgia’s election officials, tracked the discrepancy down to predominantly black precincts on election day. The missing votes did not come from white Democratic-leaning precincts or black precincts where voters used absentee ballots or early voting. The discrepancy happened only to those in predominantly black precincts, who used the machines on election day. Their votes just disappeared. The voting machines used in the 2018 election were easily hackable, had no auditable paper trail, and ran on Windows 2000. As journalist Timothy Pratt noted: “ Security vulnerabilities in the state’s election system had been repeatedly exposed: by Russian operatives, friendly hackers, and even a Georgia voter who, just days ahead of the 2018 midterms, revealed that anyone could go online and gain access to the state’s voter registration database.” Georgia has now rushed to buy new machines, but the state settled on a similarly vulnerable machine that does not have a paper trail that the human eye can decipher. Instead, voters get a slip of paper with a barcode that is no more legible than that on a can of soup at the grocery store. Moreover, the state ignored the warnings of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford, Georgia Tech, and Yale, who raised serious concerns about the cybersecurity of the voting apparatuses. While multiple states are spending over a hundred million dollars on this flawed equipment, Republicans have refused to enact election security legislation, even as Vladimir Putin, when asked if Russia will interfere in the 2020 elections, “jokes”, even taunts, that: “I’ll tell you a secret: yes, we’ll definitely do it.” Given that Russian cyberattacks in 2016 targeted African Americans and voting systems in all 50 states, this bodes ill for 2020. Partisan courthouses The final, and overarching ominous sign is Senate Republicans’ determination to pack the federal courts with judges, more of whom than ever before have been rated “unqualified” by the American Bar Association and whose only expertise is hostility to civil rights, including the right to vote. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote, this is a “dangerous game of ‘How Many More Judges Can They Ram Through Before Democracy Breaks?’” So far, the federal courts have beat back the most egregious voter suppression tactics, like Tennessee’s voter registration law, but if the Republicans can hold on to the Senate after 2020, the federal judiciary will hit a tipping point that will eviscerate what’s left of this democracy. We’ve been here before. After the civil war, the supreme court gutted the constitutional amendments defining citizenship, due process, and the right to vote. It took more than 100 years, numerous legal battles, and an epic civil rights movement to recover from that debacle. But like an ageing boxer whose taken too many blows, the United States doesn’t have another 100 years to waste on destroying democracy. We can, however, save it in 2020. Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University, a Guardian contributor, and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.

America hangs in the balance. The elections in November next year will determine whether the United States continues down the road of authoritarian dynastic rule or reclaims the work of expanding and improving our democracy. Those are the choices.

Related: Ex-prisoners sue over Republican bid to restrict voting rights

That expansion was born out of the civil war, which left 1.2 million dead or wounded, but resulted in the 15th amendment, which made clear that the right to vote could not be denied or hampered because of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The subsequent struggles led to women’s right to vote, opening the franchise to those 18 and over, and the “single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress,” the Voting Rights Act, which protected the franchise from states with a demonstrated history of racial and linguistic discrimination.

But in 2013, the supreme court declared that racism was essentially a thing of the past and gutted the Voting Rights Act. The results have been calamitous. More than half the states passed a series of voter suppression laws that targeted minority voters, breached a key firewall that protected American democracy, and greased the pathway to install a man in the White House whose racism, greed, and unfitness for office was well known.

What’s become clear over the course of three harrowing years is that the only real effective throttle that has slowed down the nation’s descent into authoritarian rule has been the throng of engaged, determined voters. The turnout in the 2018 midterm election, the highest since 1914, aided by a massive effort of civil rights organizations, was so overwhelming that control of the House of Representatives flipped to the Democrats and accountability finally began to creep back into the political landscape. As Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution, wrote: “The last line of defense against a lawless, oathless president is the electoral process.”

Similarly, the only way that Republicans can protect themselves and a rogue president is to suppress the votes of minorities, the young, and the poor (all of whom vote overwhelmingly for Democrats). In 2020, we’re poised to see more voter intimidation, criminalizing of voter registration drives, disguised poll taxes, attempts to maintain extreme partisan gerrymandered districts, draconian and flawed voter roll purges, squashing access to voting on college campuses, widespread purchase of hackable voting machines, and a slew of unqualified, rightwing judges appointed to the federal bench to provide legal sanction to the destruction of democracy.

In One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy, I traced a history and a pattern of bureaucratic violence against American citizens’ right to vote. Given what’s at stake in 2020, I expect a similar range of tactics, wrapped in the veneer of law, that are designed to further undermine Americans’ access to the ballot box:

Intimidation of minority voters

We’re likely to see more abusive use of state power to intimidate and criminalize Asian Americans, African Americans and Hispanics for voting or registering minorities to vote. Georgia, in fact, has been notorious in this regard. And continues to be so.

In Texas, meanwhile, acting secretary of state David Whitley announced in January 2019 that he had a list of 95,000 non-citizens (immigrants) who were registered to vote in the state. Worse yet, he claimed, 58,000 of them had already cast a ballot in an election. He quickly turned over the names of these apparent miscreants to Texas’ attorney general to pursue criminal prosecution.

Whitley’s claim was, in the end, a lie. The list, as Whitley well knew, was structurally flawed and contained tens of thousands of naturalized citizens who had the right to vote. Texas, in short, was getting ready to remove American citizens from the voting rolls simply because they had once been immigrants.

Equally abhorrent, Whitley’s stunt sent the signal to Texas’ burgeoning Hispanic population that if they registered to vote, as their American citizenship allowed them to do, their names could easily be turned over to the attorney general for further investigation. In an era where Ice has been allowed to run loose and terrorize documented and undocumented populations, this was a clear warning shot. Keep your head down, don’t register, don’t vote, and you just might be safe.

It’s the same message of voter suppression that has haunted America’s political landscape since 1867.

Curbing voter registration

Another tactic, which Tennessee tried after 2018, is to criminalize voter registration drives. Initially, it would seem that a state ranked at the very bottom in the nation in voter turnout and close to the bottom in those registered to vote would try to improve their citizens’ participation in democracy. Instead, as the New York Times reported, when “tens of thousands of new black and Latino voters were registered in Tennessee in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections” the Republican-dominated legislature complained that many of the registration forms were incomplete and that the only viable solution was to hold those who held these voter registration drives criminally and financially accountable. Although a judge has struck down the law, the threat of what Tennessee Republicans are willing to do hangs there.

Felon disenfranchisement

Florida has also tried to stem the tide of new voters coming to the polls. After a citizen-led ballot initiative passed to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who had served their sentences, Republicans began searching for some way to neutralize the effect. Given that more than 20% of all African American adults were disenfranchised in Florida because of a felony conviction, and that the overwhelming majority of blacks vote for Democrats, the Republicans added a rider to “clarify” that a completed sentence required paying all of the court fines, fees, and penalties accrued during the trial and incarceration before the returning citizens’ voting rights would be restored. No matter how many ways the GOP tried to dress this up, this was a poll tax. It made access to the ballot box solely dependent upon the ability to pay.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Florida law. But, he left enough room in his decision that the legislature could tweak, tweak, tweak until it has sowed the kind of confusion about eligibility that depresses voter turnout.

Election security issues

While Florida reached back to 19th-century Jim Crow to try to institute a poll tax, other states like Georgia are inviting full-fledged 21st-century hacking to tilt elections. There is already the 127,000 missing votes in the 2018 lieutenant-governor’s race. That was so mysterious that experts, but not Georgia’s election officials, tracked the discrepancy down to predominantly black precincts on election day. The missing votes did not come from white Democratic-leaning precincts or black precincts where voters used absentee ballots or early voting. The discrepancy happened only to those in predominantly black precincts, who used the machines on election day. Their votes just disappeared.

The voting machines used in the 2018 election were easily hackable, had no auditable paper trail, and ran on Windows 2000. As journalist Timothy Pratt noted: “Security vulnerabilities in the state’s election system had been repeatedly exposed: by Russian operatives, friendly hackers, and even a Georgia voter who, just days ahead of the 2018 midterms, revealed that anyone could go online and gain access to the state’s voter registration database.”

Georgia has now rushed to buy new machines, but the state settled on a similarly vulnerable machine that does not have a paper trail that the human eye can decipher. Instead, voters get a slip of paper with a barcode that is no more legible than that on a can of soup at the grocery store. Moreover, the state ignored the warnings of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford, Georgia Tech, and Yale, who raised serious concerns about the cybersecurity of the voting apparatuses.

While multiple states are spending over a hundred million dollars on this flawed equipment, Republicans have refused to enact election security legislation, even as Vladimir Putin, when asked if Russia will interfere in the 2020 elections, “jokes”, even taunts, that: “I’ll tell you a secret: yes, we’ll definitely do it.” Given that Russian cyberattacks in 2016 targeted African Americans and voting systems in all 50 states, this bodes ill for 2020.

Partisan courthouses

The final, and overarching ominous sign is Senate Republicans’ determination to pack the federal courts with judges, more of whom than ever before have been rated “unqualified” by the American Bar Association and whose only expertise is hostility to civil rights, including the right to vote. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote, this is a “dangerous game of ‘How Many More Judges Can They Ram Through Before Democracy Breaks?’”

So far, the federal courts have beat back the most egregious voter suppression tactics, like Tennessee’s voter registration law, but if the Republicans can hold on to the Senate after 2020, the federal judiciary will hit a tipping point that will eviscerate what’s left of this democracy.

We’ve been here before. After the civil war, the supreme court gutted the constitutional amendments defining citizenship, due process, and the right to vote. It took more than 100 years, numerous legal battles, and an epic civil rights movement to recover from that debacle.

But like an ageing boxer whose taken too many blows, the United States doesn’t have another 100 years to waste on destroying democracy. We can, however, save it in 2020.

  • Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University, a Guardian contributor, and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.