Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Plum Line | Opinion

How Republicans are gaming the voting system to tip the 2016 election in their favor

By Paul Waldman

March 24, 2016 at 12:05 PM

Our voting system is a mess, folks. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

In all the discussion of Donald Trump's romp to the Republican nomination, you might have missed that there was actually an electoral catastrophe in Arizona on Tuesday, and it didn't involve Trump's victory. It was about polling places, a seemingly mundane topic that threatens to put a thumb on the scale for Republicans in the fall. And it's just as they planned.

People all over Arizona are livid about the fact that they had to wait as much as five hours to vote on Tuesday, because Republicans in the state drastically cut back on the number of polling places. In Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix and is home to about 4.2 million people, the number of polling places was slashed from 200 a few years ago down to 60, or one polling place for every 70,000 residents. Many voters, faced with hours-long waits, simply walked away in frustration. And why did this happen? In part, you can thank John Roberts and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Ari Berman explains:

Previously, Maricopa County would have needed to receive federal approval for reducing the number of polling sites, because Arizona was one of 16 states where jurisdictions with a long history of discrimination had to submit their voting changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This type of change would very likely have been blocked since minorities make up 40 percent of Maricopa County's population and reducing the number of polling places would have left minority voters worse off. Section 5 blocked 22 voting changes from taking effect in Arizona since the state was covered under the VRA in 1975 for discriminating against Hispanic and Native American voters.

But after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013, Arizona could make election changes without federal oversight. The long lines in Maricopa County last night were the latest example of the disastrous consequences of that decision.

In that 2013 decision, the Supreme Court conservatives said that key parts of the Voting Rights Act are no longer needed because discrimination in voting is a thing of the past. As soon as the decision came down, Republican state legislatures moved swiftly to pass new voting hurdles that previously would have required Justice Department approval before. Here's a summary of the Republican voting program:

  1. Impose voter ID requirements
  2. Shorten early voting periods
  3. Eliminate early voting on Sundays, when many African-American churches organize “souls to the polls” voting drives after services
  4. Eliminate same-day registration
  5. Restrict the ability of citizen groups to conduct voter registration drives
  6. Reduce the number of polling places

Especially since the GOP sweep of 2010, Republican-controlled states have selected from this menu to restrict voting rights in any way they could. Here's a map produced by the Brennan Center for Justice showing where voting restrictions have passed since then:

Looks familiar, doesn't it?

I don't know about you, but I've voted in four different states, and in every one my polling place was close enough to my home that I could walk there, and even in the election with the largest turnout (2008), I only had to wait about half an hour to vote. But maybe that's because all those states were run by Democrats.

There's a simple difference of philosophy and goals at work, which is that Democrats want to make it as easy as possible to vote, and Republicans want to make it as difficult as possible. You can argue that both are simply acting out of their partisan interest, since Republicans know that their voters are more likely to overcome the hurdles (and those hurdles are apportioned selectively, of course), while Democratic voters are more likely to be stymied by them. But even if that's true, it doesn't change the fact that Republicans are trying to place obstacles in the way of American citizens' voting rights.

So how will this affect the 2016 election? Many of the states with these restrictions are Republican strongholds anyway, so it won't make much of a difference. But many are swing states, like Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida — and Arizona, which hasn't been a swing state but is moving in that direction as its Latino population increases. In close races, both for president and for other offices, the fact that thousands of people who would have voted mostly Democratic find it inconvenient, difficult, or virtually impossible to cast a ballot could alter the outcome in Republicans' favor.

There's a trend going in the opposite direction, which is that some states controlled by Democrats have been looking for ways to make registering and voting easier. Oregon and California have instituted automatic registration through the DMV — when you get your driver's license, you're registered to vote (once you turn 18). West Virginia may become the third state with automatic registration, after Democrats in the legislature successfully added an amendment providing for it to a Republican voter ID bill.

And Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have each issued a list of voting reform priorities that would go a long way to making voting easier. Both include universal automatic registration, longer early voting periods, and a renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Sanders would also make Election Day a national holiday, so people who have to work would have more time to vote, and make no-fault absentee voting universal (in some places you're still required to provide a reason like illness or overseas military service if you want to vote absentee).

Could they pass those reforms through Congress? Not through this Congress, but maybe one controlled by Democrats. The fundamental problem, however, is that voting is still administered by the states. As long as that's true, we're going to continue to have what is essentially a third-world voting system almost everywhere where Republicans are in charge.

Watch more!
At a press conference in California on Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said his campaign had received an e-mail from a woman who had to wait five hours to vote. (Reuters)

Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.

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