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4 September 2020

US democracy in peril: Covid-19 and the threat of voter suppression

Lower turnout in the 2020 race for the White House could play to the Republicans’ advantage.  

By Theodore R. Johnson

The outcome of presidential elections hinges on a fairly straightforward principle that has long held true: the party that does a better job of shaping the electorate to its advantage wins. The strategy to accomplish this often employs candidates whose messages of optimism or fear are meant to inspire more of their voters while disheartening those who support the competition. But sometimes, a more direct approach is taken: voter suppression.

Enacting frivolous and cumbersome requirements to help win elections is nothing new. The votes of people of colour, black Americans in particular, were intentionally suppressed during the era of Jim Crow’s racial segregation laws through a variety of exclusionary measures: poll taxes levied a fee for voter registration; literacy tests were ostensibly administered to assess prospective voters’ mental fitness; grandfather clauses were intended to exempt white voters from new eligibility restrictions; and old-fashioned violence used to physically prevent black Americans from voting and intimidate others from even making the attempt.

Today, preventing voter fraud is the rationale offered for why stricter voting requirements and procedures are needed. The goal, however, is the same as in decades past – to win elections by making it more difficult for certain voters to participate. And voters of colour continue to bear the brunt of that difficulty.

As the 2020 US presidential election approaches, both parties have hinted at the respective approach to voting mechanics that they think gives them the best chance of winning the White House. Democrats recently passed a bill in the House that seeks to increase turnout by requiring states to adopt voting by mail, especially given the election day disruptions that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to cause. But Republicans are resisting such efforts, their position best captured in President Trump’s assertions that “mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters”, and that high voter turnout will lead to the party’s defeat.

In short, Democrats want to shape the electorate to their advantage by expanding it; Republicans by shrinking it. And given the changing demographics of party coalitions over the last couple of decades, with voters of colour clustering in the Democratic Party, efforts to reduce the electorate will target voters of colour.

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Since 2010, more than 25 states have implemented restrictive measures such as more stringent voter identification requirements, purging of registration rolls, reduction of polling locations and early voting days, gerrymandered districts, and complicating absentee and early voting. In one of those states, North Carolina, a federal judge found that the batch of voter requirements proposed in a new statute “target African Americans with almost surgical precision”.

Accusations of voter suppression are often met with the rebuttal that rooting out voter fraud is reason enough for stricter provisions. Yet voter fraud is exceedingly rare, having a national incident rate of just 0.0025 per cent – the same chances of being struck by a meteor. Even President Trump’s voter fraud commission, established within months of his taking office, was reportedly unable to uncover any significant occurrences of voter fraud.

No matter the rationale, the threat of voter suppression is of even more concern in the middle of a public health crisis. The coronavirus pandemic will affect the mechanics of voting, whether in-person or otherwise. There are worries that there will be fewer poll stations, longer lines and wait times, and a decrease in voter registration. In this way, many of the objectives of voter suppression are inadvertently achieved by the restrictions put in place to stall the spread of the virus.

Preventing coronavirus from being co-opted by those who want to reduce the size of the electorate for political gain will be a particular challenge for voting rights advocates in the 2020 race. It will require proactive efforts, like the expansion of vote by mail, to ensure every eligible voter who wants to participate in the election is able to do so without undue complications.

The circumstances surrounding the upcoming presidential will be unlike any other in our lifetimes. If the nation truly values participatory democracy, it will need to modernise its electoral processes and guard against attempts to exclude eligible voters. The pandemic will pass, but the threat of voter suppression is a much more difficult scourge to overcome.

Theodore R. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.