The Rise of ‘Positive Good’ Voter Suppression

There was one thing that came up yesterday in our Inside briefing with Marc Elias that I wanted to share – just a general point, not something new or secret. In discussing the voter suppression issue Marc said that he thought 2008/2009 was a watershed. That was when the current version of the Democratic electorate came into full view – one which disproportionately drew voters not only from non-white minority groups but also disproportionately from the young. As we’ve discussed here before, this has a particular significance because with that demographic breakdown really across the board everything that makes voting harder hurt Democrats and helped Republicans.

What didn’t quite fit to me was that even in its current post-2000 form, voter suppression efforts have been core to Republican politics for much longer. That’s what the 2006 US Attorney firing scandal was about. That’s what all the pre-2008 trumped up ‘vote fraud’ hysteria was all about. Of course, as Rick Perlstein and Livia Gershon explained in this installment in our Retreat from Democracy series, this goes all the way back to 1960. But in its more recent, accelerated form it goes back to around 2000. So it didn’t make sense to me that 2008 and 2009 was a watershed.

But Marc pointed out a dimension of the story that I hadn’t focused on enough. He argued that even though the two parties weren’t equal in the pre-2009 era, they at least broadly both agreed that the point of election administration was to make voting as simple as possible and to get as many people to vote as possible. After 2009, that changed. Republicans in charge of running elections – which mainly means state Secretaries of State – shifted to not even agreeing with that as a matter of principle. They shifted to various tools openly to make voting harder and to limit the number of voters.

When I thought about it, this actually did match my own experience. One of my formative experiences with this issue was the 2002 South Dakota senate contest between incumbent Tim Johnson (D) and challenger John Thune (R). (Johnson won. Thune got into the Senate two years later by defeating Tom Daschle.) Today we have an absolute scandal unfolding in neighboring North Dakota where the state has passed a law, the clear goal of which is to disenfranchise the state’s Native American population. The Supreme Court just signed off on that law. These are different states but they share a common demographic reality, with a racial minority group – in this case, Native Americans – who largely vote for Democrats.

Back in that 2002 race Republicans whipped up a storm of claims of rampant vote fraud on the reservations. It’s the standard story we see in other parts of the country usually targeting African Americans in urban areas or Hispanic voters generally. The song and dance played out pretty much as you’d expect, with national right wing media outlets and blogs playing up phony vote fraud urban legends. But what I do remember is that the Republican state officials actually in charge of the election process, which I believe was the Secretary of State and (in a more indirect sense) the Governor, basically would not go along with it. The game playing and bad acting was largely the work of the Thune campaign and Republican activists. The Republican officeholders were mainly not part of it.

I don’t want to paint a too rosy picture. There were plenty of contrary examples. And I am not sure it was even that clear cut in South Dakota in 2002. But there is this basic difference. Voter suppression activities up until the Obama era were largely driven by GOP activists and campaigns, and in significant measure were done semi-secretly. In the last decade the work is being done by elected officials in charge of election administration and mainly in the light of day. That is a significant difference.

We see this trend come to full flower in this cycle in two cases in which you have the Secretaries of State (the election administrators) running for governor (in Georgia and Kansas and maybe in other states too) and using their official authority to disenfranchise voters to their personal advantage.

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