On Oct. 15, government officials ordered 40 senior citizens in Jefferson County, Ga., off a bus that was taking them to vote. All of the seniors were black, and the county officials were white. The county administrator defended the move, claiming the bus, organized by Black Votes Matter, was engaged in barred “political activity.”
This episode was not an isolated example of burdens imposed on minority voters in Georgia. Relying on a 2017 law passed by the Republican-led legislature, Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state who is running for governor, suspended about 53,000 registrations that lacked an exact match between information on the registration forms and driver’s licenses or Social Security records. Although the population of Georgia is only about one-third black, African Americans account for about 70 percent of suspended registrations. And in majority-minority Gwinnett County, election officials have rejected 8.5 percent of mail-in absentee ballots, more than four times the statewide rejection rate of about 2 percent.
In Georgia and elsewhere, the right to vote is increasingly imperiled. That has important implications not only for the outcomes of this year’s midterm election, but for American democracy.
Republicans say that voter restrictions are necessary to safeguard against purportedly widespread fraud. (In-person voter fraud is actually vanishingly rare.) But in adopting these voter-fraud arguments, Republicans are participating in a long-standing tradition. Critics of an expansive franchise have warned of widespread voter fraud since the adoption of the Constitution. Yet these charges have never been supported by systematic evidence. Instead, they have served as a false pretext, not a legitimate justification, for restrictions on the ballot throughout American history.
In the 19th century, those who wanted to restrict the vote only to white men claimed, without evidence, that racial and gender exclusion guarded against voter fraud by preventing unscrupulous politicians from buying the votes of allegedly dependent women and ignorant blacks.
New Jersey, for example, was the only state in the beginning years of the republic to authorize voting by both African Americans and women. In the early 19th century, when New Jersey followed most other states in restricting voting to white men, an opinion writer in the Trenton Federalist praised the legislature for ending “what has made our elections disagreeable, contentious, and corrupt; all Females and Negroes being now deprived of a vote, who, not being eligible to nor much acquainted with the affairs of government, need not any longer be made use of to answer a party purpose.”
During the first half of the 19th century, states expanded voting opportunities for white men by dropping economic qualifications, while extinguishing suffrage for African Africans. By the eve of the Civil War, standards for voting based on intrinsic qualities such as sex or race had largely supplanted standards based on property ownership. In 1800, only five of 16 states mandated white-only voting. By 1860, however, 28 of 33 states had adopted racially restrictive suffrage.
Suffrage for African American men expanded briefly during Reconstruction with the adoption of the Civil Rights Acts and the 15th Amendment, which forbade states from denying the vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, the white supremacists who “redeemed” the South after Reconstruction found means to disenfranchise African Americans through such allegedly race-neutral devices as literacy tests and poll taxes.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent amendments enfranchised many millions of excluded Americans by eliminating literacy tests and authorizing federal officials to register voters and monitor elections. But in 2013, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down one of the act’s most effective provisions, which required states and localities with a history of voter discrimination to clear changes in voting laws and procedures with the Justice Department or the federal district court in Washington. This requirement had forced jurisdictions to prove that such changes did not have a discriminatory purpose or effect.
The Shelby majority held that the “pervasive,” “flagrant,” “widespread” and “rampant” discrimination that Congress sought to correct in 1965 no longer existed in the 21st century. But by not considering new forms of voter suppression, the court unleashed a Republican push to erode voting rights nationwide. That restriction is vital to the political future of the GOP. The party’s base of older white Christian voters is shrinking. It cannot manufacture more of these voters, so it is attempting to restrict turnout by the rising Democratic base of racial minorities and young people.
Restriction has taken a number of forms. In North Dakota, after Democrat Heidi Heitkamp was elected senator by 3,000 votes in 2012, the Republican legislature required proof of a street address as a prerequisite for voting. The law placed a disparate burden on the Democratic base of Native American voters, who often live on unnamed roads and depend upon post office boxes for the delivery of mail.
About 10 states, all controlled by Republicans, have in place stringent photo-ID laws for voting that especially burden minorities who are less likely than whites to possess required identification. A study by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that the strict photo-ID law in Kansas resulted in a 1.9 percent to 2.2 percent decline in voter turnout. Black turnout dropped by 3.7 percentage points more than white turnout. Other Republican-controlled states have initiated stringent purges of voter rolls for nonvoting over a period of years, with minorities disproportionately represented among the canceled registrations.
Republican-controlled states also have closed numerous polling places, making access to voting more difficult, especially for less affluent minorities who depend on public transportation. A 2016 study of a limited sample of 381 counties in Republican-controlled states found that since 2013, 43 percent had closed polling places, piling up a total of 868 closures.
Yet study after study has demonstrated that voter fraud is extremely rare in recent elections. Even an analysis by the National Republican Lawyers Association aimed at uncovering as much voter fraud as possible found only 332 alleged cases of fraud of any kind nationwide from 1997 through 2011, out of many hundreds of millions of ballots cast.
The real problem with American elections is not voter fraud but abysmally low turnout that ranks the United States near the bottom of peer democracies. Only 38 percent of U.S. citizens voted in the 2014 midterm elections, leaving about 140 million votes on the table.
The challenge for policymakers is to come up with a way to expand turnout through initiatives such as same-day registration and government-assisted registration. Oregon, for example, pioneered legislation that would automatically register people who applied for a new or renewed driver’s license. The law resulted in a substantial expansion of registered voters and actual voters in 2016.
The many forms of voter suppression now in place could have an effect on the outcome of the midterm elections, with many House, Senate and gubernatorial races decided by a handful of votes. In Georgia, for example, recent polls show that Kemp is locked in a dead heat with Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is African American.
However, voting restrictions may backfire on Republicans by motivating minority voters to turn out. “The irony here” is that the Supreme Court ruling “was the best thing that could have happened to Heidi Heitkamp,” said Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, discussing voter suppression in North Dakota. “The Native vote has not necessarily turned out for her this time, but with tribes working overtime to help members obtain valid addresses and ID, she actually could get a turnout of Native voters she wouldn’t have gotten any other way.”