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Commentary Politics

These Midterms Aren’t Just a Fight for Votes—They’re a Fundamental Struggle Over Whose Ballots Count

Marc Elias & Sarah Baker

We must do everything we can to combat voter suppression, which demoralizes individuals and is so devastating to our democracy.

The 2018 midterm elections battle is in its final week, and it’s clear that this election isn’t just a fight for votes. It’s a fundamental struggle over the integrity of our elections and whose ballots are cast and counted. At stake are millions of eligible voters who are at risk of being blocked from participating in and influencing our political system.

In the days leading up to November 6, the state of Georgia has become Exhibit A. Since 2012, the office of Secretary of State Brian Kemp, which is in charge of overseeing voter registration and elections, has canceled more than 1.4 million voter registrations, with nearly 670,000 of those registrations canceled in 2017. As many as 53,000 (mostly Black) voter registration applications had been held because of Georgia’s “exact match” signature verification process.

Fortunately, last week, a federal judge temporarily blocked this restrictive signature match law. But we must remain vigilant. Based on the latest polling, the hotly contested governor’s race may only turn on a few thousand votes, and voter suppression—regardless of the form—should have zero impact on the outcome.

Unfortunately, that is not the reality: Voter suppression could determine whole elections and undermine the will of voters. We must do everything we can to combat such a strategy that demoralizes voters and is so devastating to our democracy.

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Voter suppression takes on many different forms. Florida extended the voter registration deadline a single paltry workday for filing paper registration forms, even though the original date fell during the state’s mass evacuation for Hurricane Michael. Tough luck for people who weren’t able to return home that single day and tried to use the state’s glitchy online registration system. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a restrictive North Dakota law that will largely disenfranchise Native Americans, a group that helped carry incumbent U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) to a narrow 2012 victory.

Nefarious efforts like these reverse what had been a bipartisan movement in the right direction over the last 50 or so years. Beginning in 1965, Democrats and Republicans agreed that voting laws should be simpler, more inclusive, and more convenient. Disagreements remained and some states reformed faster than others, but we progressed. In 2009, however, Republicans upended this longstanding consensus that political participation was a public good.

Following President Barack Obama’s election, the GOP decided that the rise of a new electorate—the young, people of color, and first-time voters—threatened their party. Instead of appealing to them, Republicans decided to disenfranchise them altogether.

Conservatives launched a cascade of bad legislation: Since 2010, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 13 states have passed restrictive voter ID laws, 11 have raised barriers to voter registration, a half-dozen have cut back on early voting, and three have made it harder for those with past criminal convictions to reclaim their ballot access. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act strengthened these efforts.

And the Trump administration has accelerated them: It reversed the Justice Department’s opposition to harsh voter ID laws and did a federal about-face on voter roll purges, going so far as to sue Kentucky in June to force the commonwealth to trim its rolls. When Trump dissolved his farcical voter fraud commission in January, its vice chairman said that he expected immigration enforcement officials to pick up the commission’s work, paring back the number of registered voters. Last month, Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, working with the local U.S. attorney, demanded millions of voting records from counties in eastern North Carolina. Never mind that this could lead individuals who worry about their privacy, or who might come to doubt their very right to vote, to cancel their voter registrations.

As if these obstacles from within aren’t enough, our system is also under attack from ongoing Russian cyber-operations. The Putin regime used such attacks to undermine the 2016 elections.

With all of these threats, it is incumbent on all of us to be proactive in helping to protect the vote. And the best way to defend the system against voter suppression is to revitalize it with engagement.

The most important thing any citizen can do is talk to their friends and family. Go knock on doors. Drive people to the polls. If you’re a lawyer, volunteer through organizations like We The Action to protect the vote and help identify barriers to the election process. The confluence of increased barriers to voting, an election season that has had unusually high turnout so far, and ongoing foreign meddling raises the specter of administrative and other electoral problems. Those with a legal background will need to be on hand to ensure things run smoothly and justly.

Don’t let those forces trying to harm the political system, from within or without, win; beat them with the ballot. We’re not powerless. The small things citizens do to engage with our political process does, in fact, add up to make a real difference in our elections.

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