Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

Strings Pulled: How Puppetmasters Quelled the Blue Wave

In the wake of the midterm elections last week, pundits on both sides were left wondering where the predicted blue wave was. The promise of passionate candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams failed to translate into victories, leaving many newly-impassioned voters jaded and confused. However, when analyzing the results of those races, it isn’t too much of a stretch to conclude that voter suppression played a large role in these candidates’ defeats. Furthermore, failure to address the danger of voter suppression threatens any chance Democrats have in 2020.

In Texas, registering voters has always been an uphill battle. Citizens can only register via paper application (no online registering allowed) and the people who register them must go through intensive training and are limited to registering voters only in their county. 254 counties in Texas and large cities like Austin and Houston that span across several counties makes coordinating a statewide registration push incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Attempts by organizations to register Texas voters en masse have been met with outright threats, as several organizations had charges filed against them for voter fraud.

One organization, Houston Votes, had their offices raided by officers in bulletproof vests in 2010 after submitting 25,000 registrations. This raid was in part due to accusations of voter fraud from Tea Party activists. While no charges were filed, the organization eventually shut down. Battleground Texas, an organization committed to electing blue candidates in the traditionally red Texas, was threatened with a voter fraud lawsuit in 2014 after they had deputized 9,000 new volunteer registrars and registered 100,00 people. While no actual legal action resulted, the organization did have a significant drop in registered citizens during the 2016 election cycle, having only planned to register a quarter of the voters it did in 2014. These threats and restrictions on who and how people can register leave Texas without support from national registration efforts.

While Beto’s candidacy did drive higher registration and turnout, Texas’ voting registration process is still adversarial towards increasing the electorate. This is particularly true for Attorney General Ken Paxton, who ramped up charges of voter fraud in the weeks leading up to the election, seemingly as an intimidation campaign to discourage turnout among voters of color who would swing left and the organizations looking to include them in the voting process.

Likewise, in Georgia, Stacey Abrams is fighting for political survival as she tries to force a runoff election. Videos of long lines spread across social media during and after the election, as many polling places had malfunctioning machines or other technical difficulties. These ring similar to the obstacles faced by voters in Ohio in 2004, where polling place consolidation led to long waits and many voters deciding not to cast a ballot.

The fact that Brian Kemp was able to oversee his own election only places the close results in further question. Kemp has resigned his position as Secretary of State, albeit because he’s looking to transition into the governor's office. This means that any potential runoff will not be administered by Kemp, a glimmer of hope in the effort to overcome voting obstacles. The current margin between the two candidates is around 58,000 votes, just a few thousand higher than the 53,000 registrations Kemp’s office placed on hold. Many of these voters likely would have gone Abrams’ way, as 70 percent of them were black and Abrams would be the first black female governor in the United States. While no official tally on how many of those 53,000 voters actually turned up, the size of the pool in proportion to Kemp’s margin merits attention, considering that even 70 percent of it would trigger a runoff election.

Also in the mix is the fact that 107,000 voters were purged from Georgia voting rolls between 2016 and 2018 for voter inactivity, double the vote margin of Kemp's victory. Similar efforts were challenged and upheld in Ohio. Also consider that 214 polling places in predominantly rural and minority-dense areas have been closed since 2012, and it appears as though Georgia Republicans are reading right from the voter suppression playbook.

This playbook was also put into use in North Dakota and Florida, yielding similar beneficial results. In Florida, vote margins are close enough to force a machine recount. Former governor and current Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott has repeatedly accused his opponent, incumbent Bill Nelson, of being a “sore loser” and has made unfounded claims of voter fraud and cheating by Democrat officials. The race for governor is similarly close, with Democrat Andrew Gillum trailing Republican Ron DeSantis by 0.41 percent. The state has received praise for voting to grant felons the right to vote upon completion of their sentence, a measure which may have impacted the razor-thin margins in this election if it had been enacted earlier. Efforts by state officials to prevent early voting on college campuses also sent a message of voter suppression, serving to restrict a newly-energized voting bloc that likely would have delivered victory for the Democratic candidates.

In North Dakota, laws which prevented Native Americans from voting helped prevent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from winning re-election. Heitkamp won her seat in part due to broad Native American support, but, that support was quelled by a recent law requiring voters to register with a home address. This is problematic to Native American voters, who often only have a P.O. Box due to the nature of their reservation life and culture. While the margin of disenfranchised voters wouldn’t have pushed Heitkamp over the top, the reactionary measure against a non-Republican friendly group is significant for its blatant partisan skew.

All these cases deliver the same message: Republicans fought off the blue wave by skewing races in their favor. Not a single suppression measure taken so far was supported by liberal groups or Democratic officials, and for good reason. It’s almost common knowledge in politics that when turnout is high, Democrats tend to win. This is why liberal activists pushed incredibly hard to increase registration and turnout leading up to and on election day. This is also why Republican officials made concerted efforts to decrease registration and turnout among predictably liberal groups, effectively quelling the blue wave momentum in key races. Senate victories by Democrats in Texas and North Dakota may have kept margins close enough to hold things in contention until the next election cycle. Democratic governorship wins in Georgia and Florida would help unlock the potential for expanding the voting bases of those states, putting increasingly-diversifying states into play in future elections. Above all, what these efforts do is take away the ability of citizens to choose a government that represents them. This is the founding principle of a republic, and the fact that it's under attack by Republicans only furthers the idea that democratic institutions are under threat.

The tight margins of these elections are evidence enough that voting demographics are changing across red states. However, without effective changes to voter registration and future prevention of partisan meddling, these changes may not fully be felt in statehouses and Washington. What this means for citizens is they can no longer trust the government to carry out their best interest and be a reflection of the will of the people. This is one of the most troublesome threats to democracy, as it enables the perpetuating of a ruling class not beholden to the will of the people. The puppet masters behind elections in the United States have played too large a role for too long, and it’s time for Americans to cut the strings and allow voters to freely elect candidates who represent them.

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