The Right To Vote Is Under Siege In 2018

Voting rights are on the ballot on Tuesday.
In some cases directly, with voter ID ballot initiatives in Arkansas and North Carolina, and a ballot initiative in Florida regarding the voting rights of people with felony records.

Republicans have tried to suppress voters. If they win, the victory will validate their efforts.

Voting rights are on the ballot on Tuesday.

In some cases directly, with voter ID ballot initiatives in Arkansas and North Carolina, and a ballot initiative in Florida regarding the voting rights of people with felony records.

But voting rights will also be on the ballot indirectly, particularly in midterm elections that have been engulfed by voter suppression controversies. The race that has gotten the most attention in this sense is in Georgia, where the Republican candidate for governor has used his current powers as Georgia’s secretary of state to issue directives that could tilt the election in his favor.

But there are also other elections, from Nevada to North Dakota, in which Republicans have tried to restrict voting, especially by minority voters who lean Democrat, in an effort to maintain power not just in state governments but in Congress too.

If Republicans win these elections — and especially if they do so only by a close margin — that would validate their efforts to restrict access to the ballot box. It would demonstrate to them that their efforts, blatantly targeted at minority Americans and Democrats, worked.

This is as serious as it gets in a democracy. The only way our system works is if people can vote. If one party is systemically trying to keep people from voting just because of their race or political affiliation, then we’re talking about undermining the whole system of government we live under. But on Tuesday, voters could validate what Republicans are doing.

As someone who’s covered voting rights battles in recent elections, here’s what I’m keeping an eye on as results roll in on Election Day.

The big voting rights battles to watch

Several races on election night will help decide the future of voting rights in America.

The most prominent example, by far, is the Georgia race for governor. There, Brian Kemp has remained in his position as Georgia’s secretary of state — the office that oversees elections in Georgia — while running for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Kemp has carried out mass purges of the voter rolls — ostensibly to remove dead people and people who haven’t voted in recent elections from the records, but in such a sweeping way that Democrats fear it will keep voters, particularly minority voters, off the rolls.

Kemp’s office also put 53,000 voter registrations on hold, nearly 70 percent of which are for black voters, by using an error-prone “exact match” system, which stops voter registrations if there are any discrepancies, down to dropped hyphens, with other government records.

And most recently, Kemp accused Democrats, through the secretary of state’s website and with no evidence, of attempting to hack the state’s voter registration system. As elections law expert Richard Hasen wrote in Slate, this was “perhaps the most outrageous example of election administration partisanship in the modern era.”

These actions have gotten a lot of attention in the governor’s race. But if they weaken Democrats or strengthen Republicans in other races, they could also play a role in deciding control of the House of Representatives — with two Georgia seats considered a toss-up and only leaning Republican, respectively, according to the Cook Political Report.

Georgia, however, is not alone in these tactics; several states with key elections, including NevadaIndiana, and Florida, have recently purged hundreds of thousands of voters from their rolls. If one party’s voters are disproportionately kept out of the ballot box as a result, it could help decide control of the HouseSenate, or governors’ mansions.

In North Dakota’s Senate race, meanwhile, Republicans will see if their efforts to get Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) out of Congress have worked. After Heitkamp won one of North Dakota’s Senate seats with strong Native American support in 2012, Republicans began discussing new voter ID rules. That led to a new requirement that voters show they have a current residential address to vote.

The move could prevent thousands of Native Americans from voting since many of them live on reservations and, as a result, use PO boxes instead of residential addresses. While Native American groups are trying to get voters out to make up for any negative effect, it remains to be seen whether these efforts will work. And if they don’t, and the election is close, North Dakota Republicans’ new voting restrictions could cost Heitkamp the election — and perhaps Democrats the Senate.

In North Carolina, nearly 20 percent of early voting locations were closed this year. According to NPR, the closures are a result of a law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature that requires all early voting sites to stay open from 7 am to 7 pm during the week — which, at least in theory, should have increased early voting hours, but in practice forced some early voting sites to close because they couldn’t meet the requirement.

Since minority Americans are less likely to have flexible work hours or own cars, less access to early voting could disproportionately hurt them. As a swing state, North Carolina doesn’t have a Senate seat or governor’s mansion up for grabs this year, but four House races in the state are competitive, and could help decide if the House goes Democratic or Republican.

And in Missouri and New Hampshire, courts in the past few months ruled against newer requirements for voters to cast a ballot. These two states are still worth watching, though, because with these relatively last-minute changes, there can still be confusion at voting places about what the rules actually are. Some voters may be wrongly turned away despite meeting all the standards they have to meet just because poll workers don’t know that the laws have been reeled back.

Finally, there will also be some ballot initiatives that are relevant to voting rights.

Florida’s Amendment 4 could potentially restore the right to vote for more than 1 million people previously convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences. (Florida is one of three states that doesn’t let people with felony records vote even after they finish their sentences.) This would amount to the biggest single expansion of voting rights since the women’s suffrage movement and Voting Rights Act of 1965 — and, by the way, the top opponents of Amendment 4 are Florida Republicans like Gov. Rick Scott and Rep. Ron DeSantis.

Arkansas and North Carolina are also voting on photo ID requirements to cast a ballot. The approval of these measures would perhaps be the most direct sign yet that voters are okay with the new Republican-backed restrictions on voting.

Republican victories could embolden voter suppression efforts

As I’ve written before, the research suggests that restrictions on voting, from photo IDs to early voting cuts, typically have a small effect — a few percentage points — on election turnout, with minority and Democratic voters most affected. The problem is many of these races are expected to be very close. If that’s the case, voting restrictions, however marginal the impact, could play a decisive role.

What’s more, consider this from the Republican perspective: If it turns out that new hurdles to voting let you squeak by with an electoral victory, and seemingly had little to no effect on voters’ approval of your party (given the win), why wouldn’t you try more voting restrictions in the future?

Republicans argue that their measures are not about stifling voters, but preventing voter fraud. That’s the main reason Republicans have used time and time again to enact new restrictions on voting in the past few years, particularly after a Supreme Court ruling in 2013, Shelby County v. Holder, that weakened the Voting Rights Act. And they’ve been very successful: Since 2011, 24 states — all but five via Republican-controlled governments — have passed new voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy think tank.

But basically everyone knows that Republicans’ justification for these voting restrictions is bullshit.

For one, voter fraud is extremely rare. There is a lot of research backing this up, but, based on one investigation in 2012 by the News21 journalism project, there were 0.000003 alleged cases of fraud for every national general election vote cast between 2000 and part of 2012 — and as many as half of those alleged cases weren’t credible. Voter fraud is simply not a big deal in America’s electoral system.

In fact, Republicans have repeatedly admitted that their claims about voting restrictions are bullshit. As longtime North Carolina Republican consultant Carter Wrenn in 2016 told the Washington Post, “Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was.”

So Republicans are passing these restrictions to stop Democrats, and particularly minority voters who are likely to go Democrat, from voting. If they see that this worked — that it led Kemp to victory in Georgia and unseated Heitkamp in North Dakota — why wouldn’t they try again, or go even further?

Then, how do Democrats respond? If Democrats feel that the other party is not just trying to rig elections, but successfully rigging elections, will Democrats try the same strategies in an effort to keep things even?

Consider gerrymandering. Democrats have, over the decades, used gerrymandering, just like Republicans, to try to skew congressional and legislative maps in their favor. (Look at Maryland’s absurdly gerrymandered map.) This is inherently anti-democratic, effectively diluting certain people’s votes in a very targeted way. But gerrymandering is something that both parties have taken part in over the history of this country. (Although Republicans have done it much more successfully in recent elections by taking over state governments at just the right time.)

Once something anti-democratic is cooked into the system, both parties try to leverage the system as it exists to an advantage. So while Republicans target early voting or put photo ID requirements in place, Democrats may put other restriction on voting — like, say, new rules for mail-in ballots — that might disproportionately hurt Republican voters.

The result: a spiral as both parties compete to dilute the power of each others’ voters.

Over time, that could significantly weaken our democracy. And Tuesday night’s results could very well be the starting point of it all.

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