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How Republicans Game the Concept of Democracy Through Disenfranchisement

Voter disenfranchisement is just one of the techniques Republicans have employed to undermine democracy.

At some point the GOP decided that being outnumbered didn’t have to mean losing. Reporter Zachary Roth reveals how Republicans have been systematically leveraging gerrymandering, voter suppression, campaign finance and pre-emption laws in The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy. Order your copy by clicking here.

The following is a Truthout interview with Zachary Roth about the defrauding of millions of US voters by suppressing their electoral rights.

Mark Karlin: Let’s start with this notion that is assumed in the news media and most US history books that this nation was founded upon the concept of universal suffrage. Beyond the fact that slaves couldn’t vote, women couldn’t vote, and many other groups of people couldn’t vote, hasn’t this really been a country that has struggled to accept that every citizen has a vote?

Zachary Roth: As you note, we’ve had numerous formal restrictions on the franchise. But on a more fundamental level, there has rarely been a consensus around the principle of universal voting rights. Instead, many conservatives have feared that allowing ordinary people to vote will open the door to radical economic and social change, potentially jeopardizing the sanctity of private property.

Most of the Founders certainly didn’t see voting as a right, but rather as a privilege — which is why they didn’t put the right to vote in the Constitution. Even nearly a century later, during the debate over the 15th Amendment after the Civil War, some lawmakers favored a broad amendment guaranteeing a universal right to vote. But there wasn’t enough support for it, which was how we ended up with the narrower version that bars racial discrimination in voting, and which southern states easily found ways around. Even today, legislation to add a right to vote to the Constitution is introduced frequently in Congress, but goes nowhere. An Ohio state legislator told me last year that at a meeting to amend the state constitution, Republican lawmakers refused to acknowledge that voting is a right. And the ongoing practice of many states disenfranchising former felons suggests that if we see voting as a right, it’s certainly one that can be easily forfeited.

Can you identify a few of the ways that Republicans engage in legally institutionalizing voter suppression? To what degree, did many of the suppression tactics emerge from the days of Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction South?

Voter ID laws have gained the most attention, especially the strict versions passed in Texas, Wisconsin, Alabama, and elsewhere. (Texas’s has been significantly softened by the courts). We know that racial minorities are significantly more likely than whites to lack acceptable ID.

Zachary Roth. (Photo: Melissa Stewart)Zachary Roth. (Photo: Melissa Stewart)But there are plenty of other schemes. Among them: cuts to early voting days and locations (Ohio, Wisconsin and some North Carolina counties); requiring voters to show documentary proof of citizenship when they register (Kansas, Georgia, Alabama and Arizona, though only Kansas enforces its law); and restrictions that make it difficult to conduct voter registration drives (Texas and Wisconsin).

Many of these types of tactics were used in the Jim Crow South, as was the claim that the threat of voter fraud justified restrictive voting laws. But disenfranchisement laws weren’t confined to the South. Starting in the second half of the 19th century, many northeastern states used literacy, language and religious tests to make it difficult for mostly Catholic and Jewish immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to vote. The first voter registration law was passed by New York in the 1830s and applied only to New York City, where Irish immigrants were congregating. So without minimizing the social and political oppression of southern Blacks, it’s a mistake to see restrictions on voting as a purely Jim Crow phenomenon. Plenty of states have wanted to keep from the polls voters who threatened to upend the existing power structure.

States create the rules that allow people to vote. Many states that are under complete Republican legislative and gubernatorial control argue that voter suppression laws are necessary because of all the voter fraud in the United States. In reality, though, isn’t it true that the Department of Justice has studied the issue and found that the number of individuals who have committed voter fraud in this country is like one in a billion if one counts all the elections?

In defending its voter ID law, Texas was able to point to just two cases of in-person voter impersonation fraud out of many millions of votes cast in recent years. Neither Wisconsin nor North Carolina nor Pennsylvania (whose law was struck down in 2013) could point to a single one.

There is one type of fraud that does occur much more often, though still rarely: absentee ballot fraud. But most voter ID laws do nothing to stop that kind of fraud. Courts have found that this mismatch between what the laws do and what kind of fraud actually exists to any significant degree suggests that stopping fraud isn’t the real rationale for these laws.

In that case, isn’t the Republican voter suppression like trying to kill a bed bug with a neutron bomb? Furthermore, aren’t the Republican state legislatures committing legal “fraud” by denying many, many people (in fact, millions) enfranchised by the US Constitution and its amendments from voting?

It’s clear that many many more legitimate voters than illegitimate ones are kept from the polls by voter ID laws and other restrictive voting laws.

It’s hard to put a number on exactly how many people are kept from voting. In Texas, around 1.2 million eligible voters lacked acceptable ID before that law was modified. In Wisconsin, it’s around 300,000 registered voters. But what percentage of these people would have tried to vote is unknowable, and different studies have produced different results when they’ve tried to measure the impact of these laws on turnout.

What’s clear is that these laws violate the individual right to vote whatever the scale of their impact. And that Blacks and Hispanics are affected at a higher rate than whites, which is why many of these laws have been ruled to violate the Voting Rights Act.

How is the right-wing judicial activism enabling voter suppression?

I write in the book about the new phenomenon of conservative judicial activism. For decades, conservatives railed against judicial activism and against liberal judges who they said were “legislating from the bench.” But lately the shoe is on the other foot. A movement of conservative and libertarian lawyers and activists is urging judges to be more activist not less — that is, more willing to strike down laws passed through the democratic process, and less deferential to the will of the people.

Truthout Progressive Pick

The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy

Learn how the GOP has conspired to rig democracy in their favor.

Click here now to get the book!

In itself this is an aspect of the right’s disdain for democracy. But this philosophy also has undergirded two major Supreme Court decisions that have had severely undemocratic consequences. First, Citizens United v. FEC (2010), which struck down campaign finance laws passed by Congress, giving the wealthy and corporations much greater sway in our elections. Then, Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which invalidated a key plank of the Voting Rights Act, making it much easier for southern states to pass restrictive voting laws and rules. The Voting Rights Act had been reauthorized by Congress just seven years earlier.

What are some examples of how the legislative playing field is rigged to achieve the great suppression of valid votes?

During the Obama era, Republicans in Washington have perfected a range of techniques to stymie legislative progress and hang onto a share of power even at a time when they’ve mostly been rejected by voters.

Most important, they used gerrymandering to redraw congressional districts in key states, giving them a far larger share of seats than their vote share deserves. In the 2012 election, Democratic congressional candidates won over 1 million more votes, but Republicans won 33 more seats. This year, Democrats will likely need to win about 54-55 percent of the vote to win a majority of seats in the House.

They’ve also used techniques like the filibuster to thwart the clearly expressed popular will on issues like gun control, climate change, and more. And they’ve been helped by the flawed design of the Senate, which gives Wyoming as much power as California even though the latter state has 69 times more people than the former.

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