Voter Suppression: USA

April 6, 2021

The presidential election of 2020 was a triumph for American democracy. The voter turnout of 68% was the highest since 1980. Every state saw greater participation. The spread between the winners and losers was not unusual. Democrats gained the presidency and increased their Senate seats, Republicans made large gains in the House and continued to hold the majority of state governments.

The logical response to this outcome would be to retain and strengthen the factors that produced the big turnout. What has transpired instead is that Republican politicians have written 250 bills in 43 states that would make it harder for people to vote. The rationale is that the 2020 results were due to fraud, ignoring the fact that 50 federal cases, with presiding judges of both parties, all found the election valid. Numerous recounts did not change the results of a single federal outcome.

The proposed, passed, or in-progress legislation goes well beyond any reasonable need to insure valid elections. Half make it more difficult to get a ballot, reduce those eligible to vote by mail, and limit how mail-in ballots can be cast. Most bills eliminate no-excuse absentee voting. Missouri would even eliminate COVID-19 concerns as a reason to vote by mail. An absurd provision in a Georgia bill would make it a crime to give food or water to someone waiting in line to vote.         

Nine bills would restrict states sending absentee ballots or applications without a specific request. Other bills require mail-in ballots to be notarized and restrict who can assist voter returning their ballots. Arizona would require all absentee voters to return their ballots in person, upending the purpose of mail-in balloting. Almost all demand a photo ID to accompany the ballot and one state requires mail-in voters to include proof of their date of birth and a state ID number.

Other proposals would invalidate voter data provided by other states, which is a violation of the existing National Voter Registration Act. An Oklahoma bill would have state legislatures choose presidential electors. More common are efforts to shorten the hours of voting and limit or reduce the days for in-person early voting.

The Democratic response to this agenda is the For the People Act (HR-1) which has passed the House and is now before the Senate. HR-1 would terminate burdensome registration systems, mandate absentee voting, create automatic voter registration, and guarantees felons who have fully completed their sentences to regain their right to vote. Although HR-1 sets standards only for national elections, it would be politically and financially unfeasible for individual states to create a separate system for state elections.

HR-1 also prohibits mass voter purges, provides more security for paper ballots, and more controls on vendors of voting machines. Furthermore, the bill replaces the system of the majority state party drawing voting districts. That gerrymandering procedure would be replaced by commissions of five Democrats, five Republicans, and a combination of five independents or third-party members. The bill firmly discourages fashioning voting districts that splinter communities to weaken their political punch.

The Republicans are bucking irreversible demographic and social tides. They behave is if voting blocs are permanent. As recently as 2016, however, the Republicans attracted enough working-class voters to carry three states that usually go Democrat. For decades, the Democrats controlled the Senate due to a loyal Solid South based on suppression of the black vote. Since the Nixon era, the Republicans have had that distinction. Recent elections in Georgia and other southern states indicate that day is passing, largely due to successful efforts by African Americans to assert their right to vote. In the Southwest, Latino voters were decisive in Democrats carrying Arizona for only the second time since 1952. These significant increases in voter turnout are mainly due to the increase in both groups of organizations bolstering voting.

Many proposals take aim at working-class voters who have conventional 9-5 jobs.  Such voters are often discouraged by the long waiting lines that develop at the end of the work day. Their ability to vote is hampered when there are difficult mail-in procedures, shortened voting hours, and limited early voting. More often than other voters their participation is discouraged by inclement weather.

University students studying out of their home state can vote by mail or in the state where they are studying, but these options are made difficult when a state does not recognize data provided by other states and imposes harsh restrictions on local voting. In the last election, a significant number of university students voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Although not a single Republican Senator has announced support of the For the People Act, it will likely become law by a straight Democratic party-line vote. That this is the probable scenario regarding voting rights in America is a sad reflection on the fierce partisanship that currently characterizes Congressional deliberations.


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