Voting in the United States has again become a proprietary right, as equal access to the ballot box is not open to all.
The history of voting in our country is one of exclusion, inclusion, and suppression.
Initially, the Constitution excluded women, slaves, minorities, Native Americans, and white men who did not own property. It remanded the electoral process to the states, thus creating a complex, confusing, and an unequal system vulnerable to local machinations and prejudices.
Throughout U.S. history, people have struggled for the right to vote, starting with the 15th Amendment in 1870, which temporarily gave black people the franchise.
This was followed by the 17th in 1913, which enabled the direct election of U.S. Senators. The women’s vote was added in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. In 1924, the Snyder Act gave Native Americans the vote. In 1962, the poll tax was outlawed with the 24th Amendment.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act redressed the failures of the 15th Amendment to stanch the rise of Jim Crow repression, and in 1971, 18-year-olds became voters with the adoption of the 27th Amendment.
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The Constitution ensured that the people would not have the power to choose their president. According to founding father Edmund Randolph, these decisions were too important to be left to “the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
The Electoral College ensured that, in the words of founder John Jay, “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” In five presidential elections from 1824 to 2016, the Electoral College selectors overrode the popular vote to appoint a minority president.
Progressive victories spawned a conservative backlash. By the 1870s, emancipated slaves were gaining political and economic power, but this would not hold with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and its many clones during Reconstruction.
This first Jim Crow era of racist vigilante terrorists, businessmen, politicians, and law enforcement coalesced into a successful drive to secure a system of neo-slavery to protect the “Southern way of life.”
As Mark Twain is said to have told us, history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.
With the victories of the modern civil rights movement came the backlash of white supremacy in the 1970s, now dressed not in white robes and hoods, but in the suits and ties of the legal system and from the pulpits of the religious right.
First Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan opposed the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act via Nixon’s “southern strategy” and Reagan’s “government is the problem” mantra. These policies always had a lurking subtext to disempower minorities. Now, racism employed more subtle language and imagery.
By the 1980s, a powerful conservative movement emerged in reaction to the “excesses of democracy” of the 1960s, with the help of an energized right wing bolstered by a popular president, Reagan, and a politicized religious right’s revulsion over the counterculture and the expansion of abortion rights with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.
By the 1980s, the Democratic Party was abandoning Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. The Clinton presidency marked the Democratic acquiescence to the rise of conservative power and encouraged the opening of the floodgates of reactionary politics that included surgical voter suppression.
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Before Reagan’s ascendency, Republicans developed a long-game strategy to institutionalize conservative political muscle by more aggressively mobilizing corporate power in the service of politics.
In 1971, Lewis Powell, a conservative activist, corporate lawyer, and future Supreme Court justice, warned that the U.S. economic system was under attack and called for the massive corporate funding of efforts to shape a new political economy of deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, neutered labor unions, a conservative Supreme Court, and a re-energized role for business in the political sector.
This Powell Memo became a corporate call to arms.
The efforts of smart and motivated Republican elites led to unprecedented financial support for new conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Federalist Society and the Manhattan and Cato institutes, academic programs, and comprehensive legislative initiatives such as the highly effective American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has been writing and promoting laws for Republicans on the state level since 1973.
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Long before Donald Trump’s malignant assaults on the fibers of democracy, a resurgent conservative movement effectively narrowed the middle ground of debate and compromise.
Now the ends would justify any means, regardless of the impact on the democratic process.
The day Barack Obama was elected president, Republican leaders would infamously announce that their primary goal would be to make Obama a one-term president.
So the resistance began, as they worked to politicize the Supreme Court, undermine confidence in the electoral process, gerrymander districts, and suppress the vote.
Unlike the old Jim Crow, this iteration would cast a wider net, caging not just minorities but low-income people, youth, and anybody else whose demographics implied that they could potentially sin by voting progressive or Democrat.
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Unique among the world’s democracies, the U.S. has a politicized and decentralized state-voting system.
Politics rules how most states administer their elections. Partisan control means the majority party can decide how, where, and when people register and vote.
In 2000, 14 states had secretaries of state infusing politics into the voting systems; by 2016, the total had grown to 36 states.
According to Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and other elections experts, the electronic voting systems serving many of the more than 10,000 polling places across the country are highly vulnerable to international and domestic cyber attack, with 12 states that still do not have paper-ballot backup.
Moreover, many of the machines across the country are protected by intellectual property law that can prevent integrity audits on functions that manufacturers consider proprietary. A major voting-machine maker, Electronic Systems and Software, has invoked such legalities.
Thus, private profit trumps the public’s right to a fair election.
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Partisan control has also enabled gerrymandering, the art of drawing voting districts to give an advantage to one party over another. (The term first appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1812 and became a portmanteau for Elbridge Gerry, then-governor of Massachusetts and an enthusiast of voter manipulation, and salamander, the shape of one of Boston’s resulting Senate districts.)
If we had a viable multi-party system of proportional representation, the problem of gerrymandered districts would have disappeared. European democracies figured this problem out long ago.
The first designer district was mapped in Virginia in 1788, prior to our first national election. Today, more than 30 states are severely gerrymandered. In 2016, these inequities gave 22 more seats to Republicans in the U.S. House, compared to the state-by-state results of the popular vote.
In 1962, the Supreme Court affirmed the principle of “one person, one vote” in Baker v. Carr. Now, 50 years later, that democratic principle is on life support, with Republicans running the emergency department.
In fairness, historically, both parties have gerrymandered, but clearly the Republicans have taken the practice to its current extreme.
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The Supreme Court effectively set the stage for a comprehensive assault on the electoral process with its campaign-finance decisions. Three decisions — Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, Citizens United v. FEC in 2010, McCutcheon v. FEC in 2013 — opened the floodgates to corporate financing of elections.
The Roberts court was not done yet.
In 2013, the Shelby County v. Holder decision eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court threw out Section 5, the “pre-clearance” protection against voting discrimination. As Chief Justice Roberts opined, voter discrimination was largely a thing of the past.
“There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” Roberts wrote for the majority.
Since the Shelby decision, 31 Republican-controlled states have passed legislation to suppress the vote. The cover for this blatant abuse of the democratic process was the chimera of voter fraud. In 2017, 99 bills were offered in Republican-controlled states to make it harder to cast a ballot.
Two creative and effective Republican suppression methods are requiring rigorous voter identification standards and instituting the comprehensive purging of voter rolls.
Thirty-two states require state-approved IDs in order to vote. The poster boy of voter IDs is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a candidate for governor.
Who gets to vote can actually be curated by designing rules that disproportionally discriminate against certain demographics. For instance, a state can accept a hunting license or a National Rifle Association membership card as a proper ID but refuse a college ID. Certain states like New Hampshire refuse to accept a post office box as a valid address; such restrictions harm low-income and Native American voters.
Strict ID laws disproportionately harm Democratic and progressive voters. Trends in recent elections indicate that such laws resulted in a 7.7-percent drop in Democratic turnout, compared to 4.6 percent for Republicans. In strong liberal areas, the drop was 10.7 percent, and for strong conservative areas, the decline was 2.8 percent.
Kobach has also proposed a proof-of-citizenship standard in Kansas, in contrast to all other states that require only a sworn oath of citizenship under penalty of law for misrepresentation.
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Purging voters from the rolls as a putative defense against voter fraud is another favorite Republican tactic. Georgia’s secretary of state and candidate for governor, Brian Kemp, has led the most aggressive charge.
From 2012 to 2016, Kemp purged 1.5 million Georgia voters. In 2018, he purged 53,000 voters, 70 percent of whom were African-American. This “cross-check” system is currently being used in 30 states. By 2014, 7.2 million voters were targeted nationwide.
The claim of voter fraud is itself a fraud. Kobach co-chaired Trump’s voter-fraud commission, which disbanded in less than a year for lack of evidence. A study from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice concluded that Trump’s charges of rampant voter fraud were baseless, with only a few examples of irregularities attributable to unintentional mistakes.
It’s indeed ironic on its face that Republicans are so unhinged about people voting multiple times when we can hardly get more than 50 percent of the public to actually vote once.
Other suppression tactics include limiting early, weekend, or night voting; reducing the actual number of voting locations, especially in student or minorities areas are popular methods.
Twenty percent of the polling places in Georgia and Texas have been closed in minority neighborhoods. In addition, if you are one of the 5.8 million ex-felons or live in Puerto Rico, you can’t vote for president.
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Ultimately, the most effective method of voter suppression is not these pernicious, cynical attempts to undermine democracy. A more effective and comprehensive method is to create a political economy where large sectors of the country feel hopeless and mistrustful of the system.
The U.S. has one of the lowest voter turnout rates, ranking 26 out of the 32 leading democracies in the world. Most European countries have much higher rates of participation. Recent turnout trends in recent U.S. presidential elections range from 54 to 62 percent — 35 to 40 percent for midterms.
Why such dismal results?
Conventional analysis tells us that people are lazy and don’t really care. Well, is it apathy, or could it be alienation?
If people don’t see the system addressing their real interests, such as health care, housing, employment, food security, and education, then citizens, in a misguided but logical response, will withdraw into pessimism and inaction. Since 1966, the Harris Poll has been tracking Americans’ attitudes about the political system.
According to recent data in this Alienation Index survey, 82 percent of Americans feel that leaders don’t really care about the needs of all its citizens and 78 percent feel the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. A Gallup Poll in 2016 reported that only 30 percent of Americans believe in the “honesty of elections.”
In their monumental study of citizen influence on the political economy, “Testing Theories of American Politics,” political scientists, Martin Gilens and Ben Page concluded that “majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts” and that ”policy-making is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans.”
With millionaires and billionaires comprising more than 50 percent of the U.S. House and 66 percent of the Senate, is it any wonder that people’s real needs are not being met?
When the political and economic system willfully disempowers its citizens, the consequences are self-evident. Today, we are experiencing dual revolts — one on the right and the other on the left, one born of desperation and pessimism, the other of constructive anger and guarded optimism.
One path leads to authoritarianism, the other to democracy. As citizens, we can seize the power to alter our course and walk the path of democracy — but only if we choose to act.