Saturday, November 10, 2018

Barricades Blocking The Ballot Box

In the years between 1776 and 1789, our political ancestors accomplished two significant revolutions. The first was a military revolution securing our independence. The second was a governance revolution that established that people had a right to govern themselves through elected representatives. This new government would be a republic, based upon the will of the people as expressed by their periodic vote. Therefore, voting is the fundamental definition, and the basis for the existence, of our republic. When a qualified voter is hampered, the authority and very basis of the country is lost. So our moral and civic imperative is to take every possible step to ensure that each eligible voter is able to vote in as simple and accessible a manner as possible. Unfortunately, all too frequently that has not been the case, as the rules and mechanisms for voting have been skewed for political advantage on behalf of one political candidate, party, or societal group – including in the 2018 election.

The rules and responsibilities for voting are a “layered” responsibility, distributed yet interconnected among federal, state, county and local governments. The federal government establishes the qualifications for elected federal officials, and it establishes the definitions and processes for U.S. citizenship – a mandatory status across the country for voting (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, section 8). The Constitution also mandates that each State similarly use a republican form of government (Article 4, Section 4).

Beyond these basics, the federal government generally defers voting decisions and mechanisms to the states, and whoever is an eligible voter for state offices is also an eligible federal voter. In the beginning of the Republic, most states limited voter eligibility to white, adult, property-owning males. The “property-owning” requirement was ultimately dropped, but the other criteria were kept; federal amendments subsequently expanded access and made it more consistent:

-14th Amendment, 1868: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States  … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State may … deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

“The right of citizens … to vote shall not be denied …”: “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” -15th Amendment, 1870; “on account of sex” -19th Amendment, 1920; “by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax” -24th Amendment, 1964; [for 18 or older] “on account of age” -26th Amendment, 1971.

Within these overriding federal requirements, voting processes are carried out in the individual states as they see fit. Typically, the state legislature sets some ground rules, and divides the state into federal and state districts for elective offices. The state Secretary of State, usually through a state-level Board of Elections, oversees the state-wide mechanisms and timeframes for voting, and certifies the official ballot. County &/or local election Boards register voters, organize the precincts – including determination of voting sites and the technology(ies) to be used – and conduct the actual voting and counting. This pyramidal hierarchy allows for desirable flexible and discretionary decision-making across the levels, but opens the door to inequities, rogue actions, and a diffusion of responsibility. This has certainly been the case in Election 2018.

Gerrymandering Political Districts: Political districts are defined every ten years by state legislators who have a conflict-of-self-interest in drawing these maps to favor their own voters. This practice has been going on for over 200 years, but has reached its zenith over the past decade. It is one of the greatest current threats to our democracy, and requires a separate essay on its own to discuss fully. Suffice it to say that my adopted state of North Carolina has become a poster child for what is wrong. District maps look like a Salvador Dali painting; cities, college campuses, even city streets are inexplicably divided to break up concentrations of similar voters; Congressional seat outcomes by party have no proportional relationship to total votes cast (1,748,173 Democratic votes – 51.5% of the total – elected 3 seats – 23%; 1,643,790 Republican votes – 49.5% – elected 10 seats – 77%). Federal and state judicial rulings have overturned district lines drawn, but issued too late to be applied to the 2018 election. It has been a decade long fight wasting millions of dollars. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Wisconsin.

Voter Fraud: Claims of illegal voters and massive voter fraud have been made without evidence. According to studies by Arizona State University and The Brennan Center, cases of voter impersonation were .0003% to .0025% of votes cast in 2012-2016. (“One is more likely to be struck by lightning than represent another at the polls.”) Only a handful of voter fraud cases have been successfully  prosecuted. In 2016, almost all state Secretaries of State denied any substantive problem exists. Donald Trump’s special commission to investigate this “problem” disbanded due to a lack of interest and substantiation. A non-problem needs no “solution.”

Voter ID: These days we have to show a picture ID to conduct many daily services, so showing an ID when voting can seem reasonable. But as usual, the devil is in the details. What will constitute a valid form of ID? A driver’s license (not everyone drives); a college ID; a hunting license; a special state-created ID (how do you widely distribute and pay for those without it being a new poll tax)? States are inconsistent on this question, and the answer often smacks of favoring the lifestyle of favored voters (e.g. in Texas: hunting license-yes; college ID-no). Finally, how does a state philosophically reconcile requiring an ID to vote when such cannot be required for mail-in and absentee ballots? Theory and practice collide.

Voter Registration: In 2018, the Georgia Secretary of State was also the Republican nominee for governor in a tight race against an African-American female Democratic candidate. As Secretary of State, he sat on and suppressed over 50,000 new voter registration forms – 70% from black constituents – refusing to process or respond to them. An additional 3000 registrations were set aside due to a new “exact match” rule. The judiciary overruled him on this blatant conflict of interest and demanded that these forms and ballots be processed. (His last-minute charge – without proof – that the state Democratic Party hacked the Georgia voter database was appropriately widely derided.) 

Dirty Tricks-1: Kansas also had a Secretary of State that was the Republican nominee for governor. (He was the same individual that Trump picked to chair the now-defunct voter fraud commission.) Dodge City is an Hispanic-majority city. The local County Clerk shut down the ONE central voting site – the Civic Center – that had previously served all 13,000 voters. (The average for Kansas is one site for every 1300 voters!) Claiming that the original site was “inaccessible due to construction work,” she then moved the site outside the city limits to a place one mile from the nearest bus stop. A judge agreed with the lawsuit filed to reverse this action, but ruled that it was “too late to change it without causing even more disruption.” (In fact, there was no construction happening at the Civic Center.)

Dirty Tricks-2: North Dakota’s small population includes a substantial number of Native-Americans living on reservations, and who were the margin of victory for a Democratic Senator elected in 2012. It is the only state that does not conduct an advance voter registration. At the last minute, the Republican-dominated Board of Elections instituted a rule that voters show an ID that included the specific street number of their address – even though the reservations do not assign such to their residents – affecting around 5,000 potential voters. Once again, a judge agreed with the lawsuit filed to reverse this action, but ruled that it was “too late to change it without causing even more disruption.”

Voting machines changing people’s votes in Florida and Texas; reducing the number of polling sites and/or the days of early voting; long lines and inoperable voting machines. All are examples of barriers instituted to affect either one’s right to vote, or the ability to access and express that vote. It is said that when you cannot win on the strength of your position or your argument, then simply change the rules in order to win. We clearly have politicians more than willing to change those rules to win at any price.

We have had 200 years of suppression and barriers to voting in America, most invented during our slavery period or the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. Many of us thought such nefarious activities were now behind us in favor of inclusiveness and fairness. Instead, it appears that we still have a way to go. When we undercut voting, we undermine democracy itself. Voter suppression, in its myriad forms, is a real occurrence and genuine issue facing us today. With that understanding, we should begin preparing now for Election 2020.

©   2018   Randy Bell