This is not a new phenomenon. For some years, Republicans at the state level have instituted barriers to voting. They have done this in the name of ballot integrity, despite the absence of evidence of widespread fraud in voting.
In 2013, the Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, eliminating the need for a group of mostly Southern states to obtain preclearance from the Justice Department before making changes in voting practices. The state of Alabama moved almost immediately to implement a voter identification bill that had been held up in the state legislature under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The state then closed more than two dozen driver’s license offices, a principal place for obtaining a proper ID. The offices closed were disproportionately in areas with large Black populations.
Before 2006, no state required voters to produce identification. The first was enacted in Indiana and later upheld by the Supreme Court. Today, 36 states have voter ID laws, some more strict than others. In 2012, civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against a voter ID law in Pennsylvania. In the filings, the state, in defending the law, acknowledged that there had been “no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania” and that none of the parties in the suit had any direct knowledge of investigations or prosecutions in other states.
The ends to which the GOP has gone are extensive. Two years ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to most ex-felons who had fully served their time in prison and parole. Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature then crafted a law that said the newly eligible voters would be prohibited from casting ballots until they had paid all outstanding court fines or fees. It is described by critics as a modern-day poll tax.
The issue has gone back and forth in the courts, but the Florida requirement still stands. Recently, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg pledged $16 million to help pay the fines. Several prominent athletes and entertainers have also chipped in. People have been scrambling to register and mobilize these newly enfranchised voters with time running out.
There are other ways in which voters can be discouraged or frustrated, and they are on display this fall as state and local officials deal with what could be a record turnout in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. In one place after another, Republicans have put themselves on the side of making it more difficult to cast a ballot safely.
Here’s a recent example, seemingly small but perhaps not. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Oct. 1 ordered that there can be no more than one drop box for mail ballots in each of the state’s 254 counties.
Voting rights groups sued, and late Friday, a federal judge overturned Abbott’s order, though the state has filed an appeal. The state argued that it had expanded options for early voting and therefore Abbott’s order was justified. The judge rejected those arguments, saying the limits on drop boxes hurt older voters and those with disabilities especially hard.
The issue has particular implications for Harris County, which encompasses the city of Houston. Harris County sprawls over nearly 1,800 square miles. Its population is about 4.7 million people, about 40 percent of whom are non-White and nearly 20 percent of whom are Black.
It is also increasingly a Democratic stronghold. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Harris County with 54 percent of the vote and a margin of 162,000 votes. In 2018, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, in his unsuccessful race against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, carried Harris County with 58 percent of the vote and a margin of 201,000 votes.
Some analysts believe Trump could lose the county by an even larger margin in November than he did in 2016. Who in Harris County is able to vote and who isn’t will help decide whether Texas, which the polls show is potentially competitive, goes blue in November.
Because of the pandemic, concerns for safety in voting are paramount. Election officials across the country have sought ways to provide easier options for those citizens who prefer not to stand in long lines on Election Day. They have done this by making it easier to vote by mail or by expanding early voting. Some officials have sought to extend the deadlines for when mail ballots must arrive. Some have tried to allow election officials to begin counting mail ballots ahead of Election Day in a move to accelerate what is often a slow process.
Recently, the city of Madison, Wis., another Democratic stronghold that could tip the balance in one of the country’s most competitive battleground states, decided to hold what was called Democracy in the Parks. The city clerk announced that, on designated Saturdays, people could go to city parks, where they would find poll workers who could answer questions about the process of voting and also would be able to accept absentee ballots.
Republicans protested, with the GOP state House speaker and the majority leader of the state Senate arguing through their attorney that the event violated state law. “The threat that this procedure poses to ballot integrity is manifestly obvious,” the letter to the city clerk said. Republicans have said they might seek to have such ballots invalidated.
Last week, the Supreme Court sided with Republicans in South Carolina and said that mail-in ballots have to be signed by a witness, a requirement that in a time of a pandemic is more burdensome than normal. The requirement was not in place during the state’s primary due to considerations related to the coronavirus, and an appellate court had agreed that it need not be in place for the general election. The high court made one exception to its decision reinstituting the witness requirement, saying that ballots already cast without a witness’s signature would be valid.
The president has called the process of voting by mail “rigged” and rife with fraud. He has called for his supporters to form an army of poll watchers on Election Day to scrutinize the balloting and counting in what could become clear intimidation as citizens come to cast their votes. He also has said that Republicans will not be able to win elections if what he calls Democratic proposals to make voting easier are widely adopted.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer who dealt with election laws for decades, wrote this in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “The president’s words make his and the Republican Party’s rhetoric look less like sincere concern — and more like transactional hypocrisy designed to provide an electoral advantage. And they come as Republicans trying to make their cases in courts must deal with the basic truth that four decades of dedicated investigation have produced only isolated incidents of election fraud.”