Candidates should compete on ideas, not on how effectively they block their opponents’ voters from casting ballots.
Normally, in a democracy, this goes without saying. Yet it’s not so obvious in the United States anymore.
From Florida to North Dakota, elected officials seem to increasingly view elections not as a way to tabulate public preferences, but rather as a tool for forcing their own preferences upon the public.
They’ve done this by introducing hundreds of measures making it harder for citizens to vote, using as an excuse the imagined scourge of voter fraud. Such policies include restrictions on voter registration, cuts to early-voting hours, closed polling locations in minority neighborhoods and voter-roll purges.
And lately — whether because of who holds the White House, or because of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act — the suppression has become especially flagrant.
In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) is overseeing elections while simultaneously running for governor. He stalled 50,000 voter registrations, from black voters disproportionately, for discrepancies with other official records as small as a dropped hyphen in a name. He fought rules giving voters a way to appeal if a bureaucrat throws out their mail-in ballot because of a possible signature mismatch.
Then, two days before the election, with zero evidence, Kemp wildly accused Democrats of a “failed hacking attempt” of the state election system.
“This is some banana republic stuff,” says Richard L. Hasen, an elections expert and University of California at Irvine law professor.
In some cases, these actions may sway results. Certainly there are races where the
number of people being blocked from voting this election cycle is larger than the entire margin of victory last time around.
But we should care about voter suppression or manipulation policies even if an election result is likely to be unanimous. Efforts to rig the system dilute confidence in the electoral process, and in government more broadly.
To that end, here are four big-picture principles — which should be nonpartisan — for making our democracy work better.
1. You shouldn’t be able to count the ballots for a race in which you’re running.
This seems obvious. Politicians have a huge conflict of interest if they get to decide which polls are open and when, or which ballots seem “suspicious.”
Kemp is hardly the only one to abuse his power this way. A federal court sanctioned Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), who is also running for governor in his state, multipletimes related to unconstitutional election policies. (Kobach recused himself from handling his own primary recount in August but will be overseeing his tight general election race Tuesday.)
In fact, running elections should not be the job of politicians, period.
“We are the only major democracy that has partisan elected officials running elections,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Hasen further suggests having bipartisan boards make sure election machinery is accurate and not subject to hacking.
2. Voting, and voter registration, should be easy.
3. Voters should pick their representatives. Representatives should not pick their voters.
Neither federal lawmakers nor the Supreme Court seems inclined to do anything to reduce gerrymandering. But around the country, voters have taken action, reflecting widespread public antipathy for the practice.
In May, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to require a bipartisan redistricting process. On Tuesday, Colorado, Michigan, Utah and Missouri will vote on their own redistricting reform ballot measures.
Today’s politicians don’t know which party will be in charge of redrawing districts in 2021, after the next decennial census. Perhaps risk-averse Democratic and Republican state lawmakers could be persuaded to get on board now, with the fairer redistricting process that the public wants.
4. There should be stronger repercussions when officials try to rig the system.
The courts are playing whack-a-mole, striking down laws that unconstitutionally suppress votes; after one law gets blocked, another often pops right up. It sometimes takes months or even years to get a remedy through the courts. Short of getting voted out of office, policymakers responsible for mass disenfranchisement are usually shielded from punishment, too.
As a result, there’s no real incentive for bad actors to stop suppressing votes. That cost-benefit analysis needs to change — by, for instance, making it easier for officials to be held liable for monetary damages if they’ve illegally denied someone the right to vote.
I get it: We’re a divided country. But having good election hygiene is not a liberal or a conservative goal. It’s about making sure our democracy remains democratic.