Election Security or Voter Suppression?
In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undetermined.”
While in this case, Black was specifically referring to Wesberry v. Sanders, a decision that required all Congressional districts to be approximately equal in population, the spirit of the opinion rings even more true today. Few would argue that voting is not a central tenet of democracy, but a recent flurry of state legislation has suggested a disturbing trend: when it comes to voter rights, not all men are created equal.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy organization, 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting—the most in over a decade. And, as of December 2021, at least 13 bills restricting voting access have been pre-filed for 2022 legislative sessions in four states. These regulations include making mail-in ballots and early voting harder, or they impose harsher voter ID requirements. Others place strict criminal penalties on those who engage in ordinary tasks—such as one in Georgia where people can be charged for handing out food or water to voters in line.
“These early indicators—coupled with the ongoing mobilization around…false rhetoric about voter fraud—suggest that efforts to restrict and undermine the vote will continue to be a serious threat in 2022,” the Brennan Center writes.
A History of Suppression
Of course, such threats are not unprecedented; similar attacks on voting rights have occurred several times over the course of our history.
Following the ratification of the 13th–15th Amendments, which outlawed slavery and gave African Americans the right to vote, nearly 80 percent of Black men voted in the elections of the late 1860s. But once Reconstruction ended, southern states began enacting so-called voter reform measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests that made it much more difficult for minorities to vote. These measures, combined with increasing threats of violence by groups like the KKK, kept minority voters away. By 1877, only about 5 percent of African Americans voted.
These Jim Crow laws largely stayed in place for nearly 90 years until Congress addressed them with the 24th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Big Lie
If there’s such a strong precedent of these laws suppressing citizens’ rights to vote, why are legislators passing them? Most are in the name of battling voter fraud, an invisible monster that’s occasionally plagued elections throughout our history. “Ensuring the integrity of the ballot box is one of the most fundamental functions of government,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott wrote in a July op-ed for the Dallas Morning News. “Voter fraud is real, and it undermines the integrity of the election process in Texas.” It’s a soapbox Abbott has been on for several years now. In 2016, he told The Texas Tribune that voter fraud was “rampant”—a claim discredited by an investigative journalism group at Arizona State University, which found 104 cases of alleged voter fraud in Texas over a 10-year period, or 0.000291 percent of the ballots cast.
National studies have yielded similar results. Dozens of recent investigations found incident rates of voter fraud to be between 0.0003 and 0.0025 percent—many of which could be traced to other sources, such as clerical error or bad data matching practices. For comparison, the National Weather Services estimates your chance of being struck by lightning is around 0.0065 percent. Most importantly, there have not been any documented cases of systematic or widespread voter fraud that might change the results of an election. Never, not one.
The narrative driving much of the current legislation is former President Donald Trump’s claim that widespread voter fraud cost him the 2020 election, particularly in six key states. Exhaustive investigations—even some commissioned by Trump supporters—yielded few results. An Associated Press review of all voter fraud claims in the six states where Trump disputed the election results found fewer than 475 suspicious votes— 0.15 percent of President Joe Biden’s victory margin in those states.
But data hasn’t stopped Trump or his supporters from banging the fraud drum. According to a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll, 79 percent of Republicans believe Biden’s win was illegitimate.
A Nation Divided
For Red America, distraught by the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election, “voter security” is a top priority crisis that needs to be addressed immediately and comprehensively. But for those in Blue America, these measures are nothing but thinly veiled attempts at voter suppression—a bid to render voting more difficult for working-class minorities, who typically vote Democrat.
So which is it? When you look at the details of the legislation you see evidence of both of these narratives. In fact, these bills contain measures such as voter ID requirements that seem reasonable. Arguably, some limitations on mail-in ballots and procedures to review and strip non-citizens from voting rolls seems judicious in an age where myriad strains of fraud beleaguer secure operations recurrently.
But at the same time, the extension of partisan poll-watching and limitations on voting access—such as restricted hours for poll openings and limiting drive-through voting—are more than a little suspect.
In light of the clear data and a documented history in our country of commandeering voting regulations for the purpose of voter suppression—almost always under the pretense of voting security—shouldn’t we be a bit more circumspect regarding the sudden urgency of these measures? When we look at what’s happened in the past, we shed new light on the nature of the problem at hand, as well as more lucidly reveal the motivation for those proposing solutions today. History can act as a salve for our wounds, but only if we take the time and energy to apply it.
Some politicians are doing just that. The Freedom to Vote Act would expand early voting in all 50 states, modernize voter registration, and install procedures that would promote election security. Likewise, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore and strengthen portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But as demonstrated yesterday, the Senate—the world’s «greatest deliberative body» —is rendered impotent by its own arcane systems of dominion.
The American Experiment has proven most successful when we honor our Enlightenment inheritance based on the power of empirical observation and reasoned analysis. Within this context, and with this framework so suitable to crafting public policy, we have frequently disagreed politically but still forged workable solutions. Those who have arrogated false narratives have often and appropriately been exposed by the facts.
But if we reject the existence of objective truth, if we abandon rigorous examination of the facts, if we confound the data from its interpretation, a democracy cannot survive. Such is the breeding ground of the autocratic regimes so prevalent today. If the 20th century was marked by a battle between liberal free societies versus systems of totalitarianism (fascism or communism), the early years of the 21st century can be characterized as a struggle between that same open free society—our experiment in “self-government”—with autocracy. Don’t we want to pass down our democratic system of government to our children? Let’s Fight Unreason With Reason.