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The bedrock of democracy is the free election of those who govern. Our founders created the world’s first constitutional democracy in 1789, but only white men with property were allowed to vote at the beginning. Although some highly undemocratic states allow everyone to vote under very restrictive conditions, democracy has become synonymous with universal suffrage. The United States only achieved universal suffrage because of the protests of the 1960s, after which Jim Crow laws excluding African Americans from the franchise were gradually dismantled.

Free Elections

Voting is complicated. Two weeks ago, over 116 million Americans voted for thousands of political offices, the highest proportion of eligible voters in a midterm election since 1914. Hundreds of jurisdictions across America set their own rules, make their own ballots, and supervise their own elections. The rules for voter registration, absentee ballots, and the possible need for identification are all over the map.

My wife and I decided to be election judges in our county in central Illinois. Judges here perform the official functions of insuring that someone who wants to vote is registered and votes in the proper precinct, and then documenting that the person has voted. But the unofficial work on Election Day is just as important: helping people to vote, who are confused about some element of this system. At my polling place, which included three precincts, we helped voters find the proper precinct or told them where to go if they were at the wrong place. We guided new voters to the county courthouse if they were not yet registered, because Illinois allows voters to register on Election Day. Voters who had recently moved, who had changed their names, whose polling place had moved since the last election, or who had made a mistake in filling in their ballot were all handled with courtesy and care. It was a long day, from 5 AM to 8 PM, but everything went smoothly. Nobody had to wait more than 5 minutes to cast a ballot. Democracy in action.

The likelihood of unusually heavy turnout had been discussed for months, but many polling places were unprepared for large numbers of voters.

That was not the case for all American voters.

Voters had to wait for hours in Georgia and other states. Voters in big cities, like New York and Philadelphia, reported very long lines. The likelihood of unusually heavy turnout had been discussed for months, but many polling places were unprepared for large numbers of voters.

There were problems across the country with voting machines. Most states use voting machines that are more than 10 years old, and 43 states have machines that are no longer manufactured. Inadequate numbers of outdated machines, some of which broke down almost immediately, caused long delays for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of voters. We had two machines at my polling place, which broke down several times during the day, once at the same time. A technician who came from the courthouse to fix them said there were many machine problems across the city. Fortunately, we had paper ballots for anyone who wanted them.

Not so easy to fix are the structural problems that make it hard to vote. Inadequate staffing at many polling places caused preventable delays. Siting of polling places far from where voters live reduces voting.

The Republican legislature in North Carolina recently passed new rules which resulted in the closure of one-fifth of all early polling places. That came after a federal court ruled that the legislature’s 2013 law, which reduced early voting by a week and eliminated same-day registration, was designed to reduce African American voting with “surgical precision”.

Racial vote suppression has been a permanent feature of American democracy, even after the end of Jim Crow. Democratic and Republican Congresses felt the need to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for nearly 50 years. In Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, the Supreme Court eliminated that federal scrutiny of local electoral behavior, when it decided that systematic racial discrimination no longer existed. Suppression of the black vote, and of other non-white Americans, had become more subtle.

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The placement of voting machines in Ohio in 2004 led to long lines in black districts. A thorough analysis of the 2012 elections showed that most voters there waited only a matter of minutes to vote. But in some communities, the average wait was almost two hours. The only way to explain these differences was race: African Americans had to wait twice as long as white voters.

Where polling places are located can encourage or discourage voting. My polling place was over one mile away from one of the precincts we covered.

Purging people from lists of registered voters has been another tactic used by Republican state officials to tilt the results. In Ohio, two million voters were purged between 2011 and 2016, overwhelmingly low-income, black Democratic voters. Voter purges have been used recently in many states, eliminating millions more, always predominantly Democrats.

Democrats did it, too. American history provides a gold mine of notorious examples of every political party cheating about elections by gerrymandering the geography of electoral districts. But Republican officials across the country developed such extreme methods to target their most persistent electoral foe, African Americans, that the same Supreme Court admonished them to stop.

The justices rejected Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered electoral maps, designed prevent Democratic victories. Republicans had won 13 of 18 congressional districts in 2016 with only 54% of the popular vote, but only 9 two weeks ago.

Federal judges struck down the North Carolina electoral map engineered to insure that Republicans won 10 of 13 congressional districts, but that map was still used in this election, and 10 Republicans won again. The vote totalsshow how the Republicans did had concentrated all the Democrats they could into a few districts. In all three districts that Democrats won, the margin was more than 40%. In four of the districts that Republicans won, the margin was 10% or less.

Republicans don’t even try very hard to hide the purpose of their voting “reforms”. North Carolina Republican consultant Carter Wrenn told the Washington Post in 2016, “Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was.” The map creator himself, Republican state rep. Dave Lewis, said, “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats, so I drew the map to help foster what I think is better for the country.” He explained, “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

Legal proceedings will only catch the worst electoral criminals. Voters this time had a chance to voice an opinion about how voting should proceed. Voters in Colorado (71%), Michigan (61%), Missouri (62%), and Utah (by a hair’s breadth) passed proposals to put the drawing of district lines in the hands of non-partisan authorities, as did Ohio (75%) earlier this year. Ballot measures passed in Nevada and Michigan to automatically register as voters anyone who proves their citizenship while obtaining an ID card.

There are many ways to cook an election. We must always insure that our governers are not cheating. The methods are new, but the targets are the same. As long as Republicans believe that their power depends on preventing some Americans from voting, we will have to fight for the basis of our democracy.

steve hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives