Not Voting Only Encourages Them

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By Frank Llewellyn

“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”—Ruth Bader Ginsberg dissenting on allowing the Texas revisions to election law to be enforced for the 2014 election.

The expansion of voting rights over time is one of the recurring themes of U.S. history. The glaring exception is the post-Reconstruction period, in which poll taxes and other measures were consciously used to disenfranchise male freed slaves. We are now in a period when the power of government is again being used to reduce the numbers of certain voters to achieve a different political result.

Voter suppression campaigns are not new. However, until relatively recently, voter suppression was mostly an unsavory aspect of some political campaigns—the semi-secret counter to the other side’s get-out-the-vote operation. Legislative efforts were less frequent in part because of the Voting Rights Act, particularly its pre-clearance provisions.

Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and his re-election in 2014, legislative efforts to change the electorate have increased dramatically. The Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act has increased the chances that such laws will escape scrutiny before they are implemented.

Since 2010, 21 states have adopted restrictions on the electorate that will be in place for the 2014 election. In 2011-2012 over 180 restrictive laws were introduced in 41 states. leading to new legislation in 19 states, a pattern that continued in 2013 and 2014. These laws are in place despite, in some cases like Texas, unresolved court challenges.

The new laws—often written or promoted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council—have similar provisions. New voter ID requirements are the most common provision, but reductions in early voting, curbs on voter registration drives, elimination of election-day voter registration laws, and making it harder to restore voting rights to persons with past convictions for crimes have been enacted into law. To see if your state has made into this hall of shame you can visit the Brennan Center for Justice. If you are concerned about making sure you have the correct ID to cast your vote you can check this chart.

In Texas alone, it is estimated that at least 600,000 potential voters could be affected. The impact in the 21 states will surely be felt by millions of potential voters. We already know that mid-term electorates are older, whiter and richer than the electorate in presidential elections. The impact of these new laws falls mostly on poor and minority voters. Their impact will increase the GOP turn-out advantage in the midterm election, and close the gap in presidential election years.

Republicans deny that they have a partisan agenda. Unfortunately for them, their office holders occasionally blurt out the truth. Most recently, Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey and head of the Republican Governors’ Association, stunned voting-rights advocates  by arguing that Republican governors should control “voting mechanisms” in order to help the party win the 2016 presidential election.

I remember a time when the cynical slogan of the day was “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.”  In 2014 in many states the act of voting itself is now an important protest against the status quo.  Now, the not-so-cynical slogan of the day must be: “Not voting only encourages them.”

  Frank Llewellyn is a former National Director of the Democratic Socialists of America. Follow Frank on Twitter @FrankLlewellyn. 

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