Voter Suppression: An American Political Tradition

In her new book, The Politics of Voter Suppression Defending and Expanding Americans' Right to Vote, Tova Andrea Wang tells readers that voter suppression is one of our nation’s political “traditions," arguing that the U.S. has “an election system that’s exquisitely designed for low rates of participation."

And Wang has reason to know – a fellow at Demos and The Century Foundation, she worked as a consultant to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission established by Congress in the aftermath of the “2000 Florida election debacle”. Mandated “by law to study voter fraud and intimidation," the commission hired bipartisan consultants and charged them with investigating both and writing a draft report. According to this 2007 article by Wang, little evidence of fraud was found, but there was lots of evidence of persistent intimidation – findings that were later turned on their head by the political interplay of Congress and George Bush’s Justice Department.

So, it’s not really a huge surprise to find that a big story in the 2012 election cycle is “voter suppression” – meaning attempts to intimidate and deny the franchise to citizens who are legally eligible to vote – presented under the guise of a defense against virtually nonexistent incidents of voter fraud.

As we learn from Ms. Wang’s book, since early 2011, at least 180 restrictive bills have been introduced in 41 state legislatures, and 16 states have passed restrictions that have the potential to affect the 2012 elections.

Many, if not most, of these restrictions tighten up voter identification requirements in ways that clearly burden poor, minority and immigrant populations far more than they burden other Americans. These contemporary efforts to deny what many Americans regard as fundamental democratic rights appear to be unusually cohesive, well-funded and national in scope.

What’s going on? Unfortunately, nothing new. Overt voter suppression, though unconstitutional and illegal, has been and remains a part of every Election Day somewhere; as Wang points out, it's is as American as apple pie.  Attacks on voting rights are deeply rooted in U.S. history. Reaching back to at least the mid-19th century, Wang notes that both parties have engaged in voter suppression tactics, often with great “fervor.”  In past years, Democrats were most notoriously active in the Jim Crow South, while the GOP practiced its craft in northern states, in response to waves of European immigrants.

Bribes, intimidation, ballot-stealing, false and misleading voter information, onerous voter registration procedures – all are grist for the voter suppression mill. In the South, abuses such as poll taxes, literacy tests, Election Day challenges to individual voters and whites-only primaries ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In recent years, Wang writes, the GOP and its allies have taken the lead in trying to increase voting restrictions. The motivation appears to be strictly partisan: The targeted demographics-- lower income, minority, and immigrant voters – tend to support Democrats.  Alarmed civil liberties groups, joined by Democrats and progressive groups, have pushed back against these laws in the courts, winning temporary or partial victories in four states.

These attacks on voting rights are bad enough, Wang notes, but equally troubling is what it reveals about America’s ambivalence over the act of voting itself:  Is it a right or a privilege?

Although some forms of voting discrimination are prohibited, there is no constitutionally-protected “affirmative right to vote”. And Wang paints a picture of a nation divided over whether the franchise is a right conferred by citizenship, or a privilege that one must earn – requiring one to at least “walk across town” to vote, as one Florida GOP lawmaker put it.  “Voting is a privilege," he declared. “How easy should it be?"

Wang’s response? It should be very easy. She has conceived what she calls “The Inclusion Principle”, meaning that voting is a right to be encouraged for the health of U.S. democracy.

Voter participation should be made more accessible, she argues, not “purposefully” made more difficult. “The full functioning of democratic society requires that people claim their stake in it through the acting of voting," because voter suppression distorts election outcomes, and undermines trust in the system.  Wang offers a number of ideas: Election Day registration; better implementation of the National Voter Registration Act; registration at state Motor Vehicle offices and “state benefit” agencies; easier registration for students; and so on. None of these ideas is new and all are hotly contested.

Although Wang displays a deep understanding and great thoughtfulness about her subject matter, the book struck me as overly defensive in places. For example, she bends over backward to acknowledge the “sincere” concerns of some politicians about non-existent voter fraud.  She also dilutes the power of her argument by diving into the myriad details of individual state and local voting laws.  Especially at the end of the book, one has the sense that she was writing hurriedly, trying to get it all down in time for the 2012 elections.  She needed a skilled editor to help her focus her arguments, facts and proposals into a mandate for the reforms she claims are urgently needed.

Although progress has been uneven and slow, and the struggle often bitter, the overarching American narrative over the past 100 years has been to broaden and protect the franchise.  Wang is a worthy advocate on behalf of the expansion of voting rights in service of a truly representative government, but this great cause could use a more compelling writer to argue the case.

- Randall Garton

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