One year after the national Election Day catastrophe, political pundits and the mainstream media continue to dissect the results. They point to the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign, former FBI Director Comey’s interference, Russian meddling and the undemocratic Electoral College system as the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. All of these most likely did contribute to the defeat. But there is another issue, although given less attention, that was even more decisive—voter suppression.
In 2016, the right to cast a ballot, a most fundamental principle of our democracy, was denied to millions of our citizens. And absent our vigilance and organization, it will continue.
A study this year by MIT political scientist Charles Stewart found that an estimated 16 million citizens —12 percent of all voters—encountered problems attempting to vote in 2016. This suppression resulted in more than 1 million lost votes, as reported in a recent Mother Jones article by Ari Berman entitled “Rigged: How Voter Suppression Threw Wisconsin to Trump: And Possibly Handed Him the Whole Election.”
Berman, the author of the “Give Us the Ballot” and a foremost journalist on voting rights, found that as many as 45,000 Wisconsin citizens were blocked from voting in 2016 because of the state’s draconian voter ID law. Berman quotes Republican Rep. Glenn Grothman, a supporter of the law when he was in the state Senate, who told a TV reporter, “And now we have photo ID and I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of difference as well.”
It made a major difference, particularly in communities of color. In Milwaukee, turnout compared with 2012 decreased by 41,000 voters. The city’s election director estimated that as many as 15,000 voters were turned away from the polls because of the photo ID requirement. Donald Trump won the state by fewer than 30,000 votes.
The 2016 election was the first national election since 1965 without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, key portions of which were struck down in 2013. This curtailment of the VRA opened the door to a slew of policies and procedures expressly designed to reduce turnout among people of color, young voters and the poor. In jurisdictions previously covered by provisions of the VRA, 868 previous voting sites were eliminated. And early voting, popular in African-American communities, was severely reduced.
Berman and others trace the current push to suppress the vote to the 2008 election of our first African-American president. In fact, between the passage of the VRA in 1965 to President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the country saw a gradual increase in voting access and participation. But Republicans won control of 26 state legislatures in 2010, and since then, 22 states have passed new voting restrictions. More than half of those restrictions went into effect in 2016. Today, it is more difficult to register, to vote and to have your vote counted.
Another battleground state, North Carolina, passed an omnibus bill curtailing voting rights. The measure illegally purged voters, reduced polling sites and eliminated much of early voting. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the bill “targeted African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” And although the court blocked the legislation from taking effect, Republican-controlled election boards implemented cuts to early voting nevertheless. But North Carolina progressive activists refused to succumb and won two victories this year when the Supreme Court struck down racially gerrymandered congressional districts and declined to hear an appeal of a decision that struck down the restrictive voting law.
Unfortunately, the 45th president, aided by a compliant Congress, continues his war on voting rights. In addition to erecting barriers to the ballot, such as registration restrictions, purging of the rolls, felony disenfranchisement and proof of citizenship, the president has highlighted voter fraud in his war on voting rights. He has even appointed a commission on voter fraud led by a rogue’s gallery of voter suppressors. Already mired in a slew of lawsuits, the commission recently came under investigation by the independent Government Accounting Office.
Between now and November 2018, we must step up our efforts to turn back voter suppression and expand the franchise. From the local to the national level, we must build a coalition able to help elect candidates committed to broadening our democracy, rejecting division and hate, and answering to us, the people, not to the 1 percent.