Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

The Puppet Masters Behind Voting Registration

It should be simple: a person registers with their address, name, birthdate, and license number or proof of age and citizenship, and in return they get a voice in the government. But these simple ways to register and vote aren’t the vision Republicans have for democracy. They’d rather see voting restricted to people living currently in the state, who have one certain form of I.D. or another, and can provide exact information down to the detail to match their social security card. They don’t want felons voting, even though those felons may have opinions on unjust drug laws that led to their imprisonment in the first place. Above all, they don’t want to allow a young, diverse voting-eligible population to set the course for America. In essence, they want to fix the rules so that the country remains in the hands of a privileged few instead of the upstart majority. But before readers begin to direct ire towards Republican congresspeople and senators, a clarification must be made. The rules of voting in states aren’t determined by Washington, but rather by state legislatures and governments. These seemingly mundane offices mean a great deal in the protection of our democracy, and examining them shows a troubled history.

A modern history of vote-rigging begins with Florida in the 2000 election. Many remember the confusing voting methods and the Supreme Court ruling that helped hand the election to George Bush. Less noticed, however, is the role of Gov. Jeb Bush (yes, that one) and his Secretary of State Katherine Harris in delivering the state. Restrictions on early voting, racial disparities in rejected ballots, flawed felon lists used to purge voter rolls, and ballots for Latinx and Haitian voters that weren’t printed in their native language all combined to keep thousands of Floridians from voting in the election. It was an election that was ultimately decided by 537 votes. Aside from these active obstacles, the persistent barring of felons from voting kept the state competitive, as half of Florida’s disenfranchised felons were black, in proportion to the 20% of the general population made up by black people in 2000. Put together, these factors paint a picture of a system rigged against diverse and liberal citizens of Florida, tipping the scale to Bush far greater than even the Supreme Court could.

If the tactics in Florida sound familiar, it’s because they remained persistent in elections following. Long lines and voting restrictions in 2004 helped ensure Bush’s victory in Ohio. Early voting limits came to Indiana in 2013, targeting high-population areas that rely on early voting to reach citizens. Early voting, in fact, is part of the reason why Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry Indiana in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson. In light of these events rises the specter of voter I.D laws, which have been implemented with precision following the 2008 election. These laws threaten to once again swing elections to Republicans by decreasing turnout from minority areas. These restrictions, particularly voter I.D, arose under the faulty claim of voting fraud, which has only 31 proven incidents out of one billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. Ultimately, primarily Republican lawmakers have introduced unnecessary restrictions on voting that time and again suppressed voters and reduced turnout in key areas, thereby delivering victories to conservative candidates.

This problem has not been resolved, particularly because of Republican gains in statehouses since 2008, and it threatens to weaken the projected Blue Wave in November. In Georgia, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams is raising concerns about restrictions put in place by her opponent, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, which have left thousands of voters’ registrations in question. The ballots are currently pending due to requirements for exact matches between registration and documents put in place by Kemp and lawmakers in 2017. These requirements mean that a missed hyphen or entry error bars a citizen from voting and unsurprisingly seem to predominantly impact black voters, according to a report by the Associated Press. Impacted citizens had not been contacted by the Secretary of State’s office about their pending status, and media attention may prove to be too late as the election is in less than a month. Previously, such restrictions would have been reviewed by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, but that was removed following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. While voters can still cast their vote in person via Photo ID, the discretion held by poll workers and potential for purges by Kemp due to failure to update information mean that a significant number of Georgians may not be able to vote. In an election that’s projected to be close, each one of those ballots is crucial to determining the true winner in Georgia.

In Ohio, a measure that purged voters from rolls if they sat out elections and failed to respond to notices from election officials was approved by the Supreme Court. This meant that voters who voted in 2008, then sat out 2010-2014 were purged from rolls and required to re-register. This again threatens key gubernatorial, senate, and congressional elections in the state. Like in Georgia, the Secretary of State has a personal interest in the outcomes in November, as Sec. of State Jon Husted runs for Lieutenant Governor in a close race. Similar restrictions and difficulties are seen in North Carolina, Arkansas, and North Dakota, all of which hold keys to Democrats flipping the House and Senate.

Voting difficulties especially mean a lot to young voters, many of whom will be voting for the first time in November. Many of these potential voters, seeking to counteract the chaos and corruption of Trump and the Republican Congress, are trying to vote from college this election cycle. However, restrictions on absentee ballots in states like Mississippi and Texas have left many out-of-state students scrambling to register or appeal before registration deadlines. Similarly, crashes on registration websites just days before registration deadlines have left in-state and out-of-state voters alike with their ability to vote in question. All this doesn’t even include potential miscommunication and mishandling of polling places on election day, which can leave thousands of college students without a ballot cast. All these issues indicate another effort by Republicans to counteract excitement by a typically liberal group: young people. Should these problems not be resolved, a crucial emerging voice in this election cycle may be silenced.

When looked at as a whole, voting restrictions will yet again play a deciding factor in this year’s election. Republicans have often rigged the system their way to ensure control rather than face the wishes of their constituents. This practice has been allowed to continue due to the relative low-profile enjoyed by the officials in charge of voting. Few citizens probably know their Secretary of State, and elections for those offices are seldom noticed or contentious. Those elections are also delivered by Republican mega-donors like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, who funnel millions into state and local elections to ensure maintenance of a rigged voting system. Beneficial rulings from state and federal courts have permitted and upheld assaults on voter rolls and registration by Republican officials, further ensuring the solidification of power by Republicans. The increasingly close-margined Supreme Court has been the final say in many of these voting rights cases, and was conveniently moved conservative by Republican presidents who directly benefited from voting restrictions, like George Bush.

Ultimately, Republicans have established a system where their success is guaranteed by overly complicated and utterly confusing voting restrictions. Such a system is a severe threat to democracy in a country where it’s more important than ever to hear everyone’s voice in government. The only remedy for this problem is action. Support for groups like the Brennan Center, which seeks to research and fight back against unnecessary voting restrictions, as well as for progressive candidates running for positions like state legislature and Secretary of State will help counteract conservative election rigging. Further, no citizen, even the mildly engaged, can sit out on elections. Lack of turnout for candidates in key states helped deliver presidencies and state governments which have changed the course of courts and elections forever, enshrining voter suppression into American legal precedent. Undoing that requires more time and raises more challenges, but it is achievable if concerned citizens make an effort to increase turnout and engage their friends and neighbors in the voting process. Canvassing, phone banking, and signal boosting on social media all play a huge part in increasing turnout and electing candidates who support the protection of voting rights. As with many issues of democracy in America, the disease plaguing voting rights is suppression by the powerful few, and the cure is citizens committed to standing up and speaking out for what is right.

A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.