Voter suppression is as American as apple pie. It has been part of the country’s history since its foundation. For instance, in the wake of the civil war many southern states (and some northern states too) introduced literacy tests and “good character” tests to prevent African Americans from exercising their newly won right to vote.
The last fundamental progress on expanding voting rights was made during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Most notably, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 put several southern states under federal supervision. While this didn’t root out voter suppression, it made it much harder to organize practically and uphold legally.
But the supremecourt struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, in Shelby County v Holder, arguing that it went against basic principles of federalism and that “40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day”.
Since then, Republican legislators have unleashed a flood of new voter suppression initiatives, most notably in the southern states previously under federal supervision.
Most of these initiatives enacted restrictive ID laws, which disproportionately affect minorities and the poor, who overwhelmingly tend to vote Democratic. Conveniently, recent anti-immigration bills had already made it harder for Americans to get an official ID in several states.
Other initiatives decreased the number of voting precincts – again, predominantly in minority and poor areas. My state of Georgia, for example, has closed 214 precincts since 2012, or roughly 8% of all polling places. One-third of the state’s counties have fewer precincts now than they did six years ago.
Still other initiatives reduced the number of voters. Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brian Kemp, purged 1.5 million voters from the rolls, roughly 10% percent of the state electorate, as he got ready to launch his campaign for governor.
Despite overseeing his own election, and failing to approve 53,000 voting applications, Kemp is barely ahead in his still-undecided race against Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams. And Abrams just won a federal court case against the second-most populous county in the state, Gwinnett county – which in the past years has shifted from majority white to majority non-white – for violating the civil rights act.
Voter suppression may have swayed key elections in several states, including Georgia and Florida. And the south in general still has major problems with discriminatory voting laws. But this is truly an all-American story – and it should be the major story of the midterms.
After decades of lackluster opposition to Republican voter suppression, it looks like the Democratic party has finally understood this. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives announced that its first bill would be “a magnum opus of provisions … to strengthen US democratic institutions and traditions”. Included in the bill are nationwide automatic voter registration and a reinvigoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This might look merely symbolic at this point in time, with the presidency, Senate, and supreme court – as well as most of the problematic counties and states, which actually organize elections – firmly in Republicans hands. But there were crucial victories in the fight against voter suppression last week that are likely to have profound effects on the outcome of future elections.
Most importantly, Florida passed Amendment 4 by a margin of 2-1, ending blanket disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions in the state. It restored the right to vote for 1.4 million Floridians and a staggering one out of every five blacks in the state.
At the same time, Nevada established automatic voter registration, Maryland and Michigan will allow election-day registration, and four states (Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah) created independent redistricting commissions, which will hopefully put an end to bipartisan gerrymandering.
It is important that progressive forces capitalize on these major victories and continue to oppose both old and new voter suppression initiatives. While most of these initiatives come from the Republican party, it is important to keep this struggle non-partisan, if only because the Democrats also have a history of voter suppression and are still involved in gerrymandering. Institutional support for grassroots action should instead come from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who can help ensure that the Democratic party does not go back on its commitment to strengthen the democratic system.
Finally, it is vital that progressives finally look beyond federal politics and fight this struggle one county and one state at a time. Election outcomes in many counties could have state-wide consequences, which could in turn have country-wide effects. The midterms have proven that voter suppression remains an American problem, but they have also shown that vital progress can be achieved.
- Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist, Professor in International Affairs at the University of Georgia and a Professor II at the University of Oslo. He is the author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction and The Far Right in America
This article provided by NewsEdge.