If voting weren't important, it's been said, Republicans wouldn't work so hard to keep people, especially African Americans, from doing it. And with the 2018 midterm elections upon us, they're doing everything they can to put up a few last hurdles in front of those trying to exercise the franchise.
You can see why they're worried. Democratic enthusiasm is extraordinarily high this year, even among the young, who normally sit out midterms. States, counties, and districts from all over are reporting record turnout in early voting. Instead of the usual turnout of 30 percent or so we see in a midterm, this year it could approach 50 percent, more like a presidential year. Places where Republicans would ordinarily expect to win without expending much effort are competitive for the first time in years.
Even before they knew that they'd face a backlash against their repellent president, Republicans were using their power to limit whether Democrats could vote and whether their votes would matter. Over the past few years there has been a comprehensive nationwide effort, driven by Republican officials at the state level, to gerrymander districts, require IDs that many people (especially poorer people) don't possess, purge people from the rolls, limit early voting times, and close polling places in minority neighborhoods.
You may have heard some of the more recent stories. In Dodge City, Kansas, a single polling location serves the city's 27,000 (mostly Hispanic) residents, and a local official recently moved that location out of the center of town to a remote location a mile away from the nearest bus stop. In North Dakota, Republicans passed a law requiring that every voter have an ID with a street address, precisely because they knew that many Native Americans who live in remote areas of reservations have no street addresses and get their mail at P.O. boxes. And with the possible exception of North Carolina, there may be no state where African Americans have been targeted more aggressively for vote suppression than Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp is locked in a tight race for governor with Stacey Abrams.
Kemp is on a vote-suppression tear; one wonders if he isn't jealous of the infamy enjoyed by Kris Kobach of Kansas, another secretary of state running for governor as he oversees his own election, as America's foremost vote suppressor. Kemp has aggressively purged voters from the rolls, used an "exact match" system to toss out registrations for minor errors in forms (like a missing hyphen), which put tens of thousands of registrations (mostly from African Americans) on hold, and watched as country officials limited polling places in African American neighborhoods. And on Sunday, he announced that his office was mounting an investigation into the state Democratic Party over a supposed "failed attempt to hack the state's voter registration system."
In rather Trumpian fashion, Kemp presented no evidence for this explosive claim. We should note, however, that Georgia is one of the few states that uses electronic voting machines with no paper trail, because Kemp has resisted moving to a more secure system; he even rejected federal government offers of assistance in securing the state's computers from hackers.
With Brian Kemp leading the way, Republicans may never have been more brazen in their attempt to keep Democrats from voting than they are this year. But this is part of a long and concerted effort the GOP has engaged in over the last few years, one that continues to yield dividends. Kemp himself recently said that the turnout operation mounted by Stacey Abrams "is something that continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote," which is a pretty good summation of the Republican perspective. Everybody exercising their right to vote isn't something to celebrate, it's a disaster that must be forestalled.
You could argue that both parties are jockeying for partisan advantage as they confront this issue, which is true. The difference is that Democrats see their advantage in having as many Americans as possible get to the polls, so they want the process to be simple, easy, and open. Republicans, on the other hand, know they'd lose if everyone voted, so they see their advantage in putting up obstacles to registering and voting, throwing people off the rolls whenever they can, and making the process cumbersome, time-consuming, and difficult, at least for Americans who are more likely to vote for Democrats.
Unfortunately, they've gotten plenty of support from the Supreme Court for suppression measures like voter ID and purges. And that was while Anthony Kennedy, who occasionally voiced some small bit of concern about disenfranchisement, was on the Court (even though he voted with the other conservatives in 2013 to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act). Now that Kennedy has been replaced by Brett Kavanaugh, a longtime Republican hack, there is almost no doubt that any suppression measure a state passes will be upheld.
So is there any reason to feel optimistic? Perhaps. One thing we have seen is that the more shameless Republicans are in their attempts to suppress Democratic votes, the more likely there will be a backlash that drives people to the polls. In North Dakota, for instance, tribal officials livid at the attempted suppression of their votes have been providing free IDs to people who don't have them and mobilizing voters.
In addition, Democratic states have been moving aggressively to pass laws to make voting easier with measures like automatic and same-day registration. This year, Florida voters could overturn the state's felon disenfranchisement law, one of the strictest in the country.
But wherever Republicans are in charge, we can be assured they're going to keep trying to suppress the votes of African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, young people, and anyone else not likely to vote for the GOP. If they can't win, they'll try to rig the game.