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Elizabeth Drew Headshot

Voting Wrongs

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The Republicans' plan is that if they can't buy the 2012 election they will steal it.

The plan, long in the making and now well into its execution, is to raise great gobs of money -- in newly limitless amounts -- so that they and their allies could outspend the president's forces; and they would also place obstacles in the way of large swaths of citizens who traditionally support the Democrats and want to exercise their right to vote. The plan would disproportionately affect blacks, who were guaranteed the right to vote in 1870 by the 15th Amendment; but then that right was negated by southern state legislatures; and after people marched, were beaten, and died in the civil rights movement, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now various state legislatures are coming up with new ways to try once again to nullify that right.

In a close election, the Republican plan could call into question the legitimacy of the next president. An election conducted on this basis could lead to turbulence on election day and possibly an extended period of lawsuits contesting the outcome in various states. Bush v. Gore would seem to have been a pleasant summer afternoon. The fact that their party's nominee is currently stumbling about, his candidacy widely deemed to be in crisis mode, hasn't lessened their determination to prevent as many Democratic supporters as they can from voting in November.

This national effort to tilt the 2012 election is being carried out on the pretext that the country's voting system is under threat from widespread "voter fraud." the fact that no significant fraud has been found doesn't deter the people pursuing this plan. Myths are convenient in politics. Want to fix an election? No problem. Just make up a story that the other side is trying to rig the election -- and meanwhile try to rig the election. (Jon Stewart recently concluded a searing segment about the imagined voter fraud by saying: "Next, leashes for leprechauns.")

The Republicans have been making particularly strenuous efforts to tilt the outcomes -- in most of the "swing states": Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. The Republican leader of the House in Pennsylvania, previously considered a swing state, was careless enough to admit publicly that the state's strict new Voter ID law would assure a Romney victory in November. In fact, a state document submitted in court offered no evidence of voter fraud. On September 18, Pennsylvania's supreme court sharply rebuked a lower court's approval of the law, questioning whether the law could be fairly applied by the time of the election. This battle continues despite the fact that the Romney campaign in mid-September suspended its efforts in Pennsylvania because polls show that Obama was substantially ahead. Even if the state's electoral votes are not in question the outcome could still decide whether a great many people will be allowed to vote in November, and could also affect the popular vote.

Eight states have already passed Voter ID laws -- requiring a state-approved document with a photograph in order to register or vote, a form of identification that an estimated 11 percent, or more than 21 million, of American citizens do not possess. But these laws are just part of an array of restrictions adopted to keep Democrats from voting. Some use other means to make registration difficult, or put strict limits on the number of days before the election that votes can be cast, or cut back the hours that polling places can stay open.

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, which was characterized in Ohio by lines at voting places in black districts so long as to discourage voters, Ohio Democratic officials made voting times more flexible; after the Republicans took over the state they set out to reverse that.

Iowa, Florida, and Colorado tried to purge the voting rolls of suspected unqualified voters, but their lists turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Florida officials compiled a list of 180,000 people whose qualifications were questioned, but after voting registrars checked (some protesting the unfairness of the purge) only 207, or 0.0002 percent, of the state's registered voters, were found to be unqualified to vote. Nearly 60 percent of the 180,000 names had Hispanic surnames, another 14 percent were black. Officials said that whites or Republicans were unlikely to be on the list.

While a combination of outraged citizens and legal challenges led all three states to ostensibly give up on the idea of purging voters, Florida and Iowa officials have said that they intend to pursue those who haven't been proven innocent. As a result, hundreds of thousands of citizens don't know if they'll be allowed to vote -- which, like a number of the restrictions, could be a disincentive to even subjecting oneself to what could be a hassle or humiliation at the polling place. Florida also enacted a voter ID law, which was struck down by a federal court. Ever on the lookout for ways to keep Democratic supporters from the polling places, the state cut short the number of days for early voting, and established rules that in effect barred outside groups such as the League of Women Voters from conducting registration drives. Though this restriction was later overturned by a federal court, voter registration groups said that important time had been lost while they contested the new restrictions on their activities.

In Ohio -- the swingyest of the swing states, now in Republican control -- Secretary of State Jon Husted is trying to block voting on any weekend before the election; he has appealed the ruling of a federal district judge ordering him to allow voting even during the last weekend before the election. Husted also made the extraordinary proposal that voting hours in Ohio be extended solely in white districts, but this preposterous idea couldn't withstand a citizen outcry. Two Democratic county election officials from the Dayton area (one the few predominantly Democratic counties in the state) who objected to Husted's proposal to permit no weekend voting were fired.

Where did all this come from?

Florida 2000 was the poisoned apple of our electoral system. Republicans saw that by manipulating the rules they could -- when it comes down to it -- steal an election. Ample evidence exists that a majority of Floridians intended to, did, or thought they did, vote for Al Gore. Following the success of the George W. Bush team in winning Florida and thus the election came Karl Rove's zealous use of alleged "voter fraud" as an instrument for expanding the power of the party and the Bush White House. At the behest of the Bush White House in 2007, the Justice Department fired seven U.S. Attorneys on the ground that they hadn't pursued voter fraud, which the attorneys said they could find no evidence of. (Rove had other motives.) The next step would be gaining control of as many state governments as possible: The Republicans took over 12 in 2010, to reach a total of 22. Through them, the Republicans launched a national drive to intimidate and hinder the Democratic party's constituencies from voting -- in the name of protecting the political system against a cooked-up threat.

Conveniently, the five conservative Justices of the Supreme Court, in an unusual bout of the "activism" they usually deplore, overturned in Citizens United over more than a century of law protecting the political process from uncontrolled contributions by corporate interests as well as labor (which cant compete on raising such funds). Corporations that would prefer more relaxed regulatory policies and lower corporate taxes have combined with the Republicans and others who want to get rid of Obama in making huge contributions to the new Super PACs. And Sheldon Adelson, under legal challenge for his management of his casinos in Macao, and willing to shell out $100 million to get a friendlier Justice Department, became one of the most powerful people in America. Candidates, including the newly chosen Republican vice presidential contender, paid court to Adelson in his Las Vegas headquarters.

The highly conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), financed by the Koch brothers and big corporations drew up a "model law" to guide Republican-controlled states in designing ways to keep Democratic supporters from voting. Other conservative groups -- some originating in the Tea Party, which is also supported by the Koch brothers -- have also sprung up to join the fight to restrict voting by allies of the Democrats. The group True the Vote, for example, is operating on a theory of pure fantasy: its literature imagines busloads of unqualified You-Name-The-Democratic-Group being dropped off at registration places. True the Vote officers say that they will go to polling places to make sure that unqualified people are not permitted to vote. The country may now be entering into a period marked by confusion or even chaos in our election system. Hundreds of thousands of people are about to start to go to the polls before their states have settled their voting requirements, or without knowing what they are. Though the rules have yet to be decided in either state, voting has already begun in North Carolina, and is scheduled to begin in Ohio on October 2. Either candidate needs to win by decisive margins in both the popular and electoral college vote to avoid a legal mess.

The challengers to a democratic system think long-term, something which the Republicans are better at than the Democrats. Some of these laws cannot be finally enacted or survive court challenges in time for the 2012 election, but voting rights advocates are even more alarmed about 2016. According to Census data, whites will become a minority in the coming year, a shift that is likely to spur even more attempts to restrict voting participation by blacks and Hispanics. Many also fear that the Roberts court will strike down a special provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act -- Section 5 -- that requires nine states, all in the South, and parts of an additional seven states, to submit any proposed changes in their voting laws to Justice Department for prior clearance. States covered by Section 5 have long complained that they are being discriminated against and the Supreme Court is expected to take up challenges to the provision's constitutionality in its next term.

Having covered Watergate and the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and more recently written a biography of Nixon, I believe that the wrongdoing we are seeing in this election is more menacing even than what went on then. Watergate was a struggle over the Constitutional powers and accountability of a president, and, alarmingly, the president and his aides attempted to interfere with the nominating process of the opposition party. But the current voting rights issue is even more serious: it's a coordinated attempt by a political party to fix the result of a presidential election by restricting the opportunities of members of the opposition party's constituency -- most notably blacks -- to exercise a Constitutional right.

This is the worst thing that has happened to our democratic election system since the late 19th century, when legislatures in southern states systematically negated the voting rights blacks had won in the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.

This post originally appeared on the New York Review of Books.

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