Zachary Roth

Zachary Roth is a former national reporter for MSNBC and the author of The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy (Crown, 2016). He has written for The Atlantic, The New Republic, Slate, Politico, and The Daily Beast, among others, and is the founder of The Daily Democracy.

Articles by Zachary

Josh’s post from last night, “That One’s Settled,” makes a key point: We like to think there are certain shared principles — respect for the rule of law chief among them — that the American left and right share, even as we disagree about healthcare or the proper size of government.

In fact, this isn’t true. As Josh points out, the Freedom Caucus is now going after Attorney General Jeff Sessions for failing to adequately protect Donald Trump from Robert Mueller’s investigation. It’s a blatant attempt to prevent an impartial probe and thwart the rule of law. The news that the Justice Department has revived its investigation of the Clinton Foundation, after calls from President Trump to do so, may point in the same direction.

As Josh writes: “This right — which is the only meaningful American right today — is consistently authoritarian and hostile to any checks on a rightwing President.”

In my book, The Great Suppression, I made a version of this point in reference to election issues like voting rights, redistricting, and money in politics.

These fights aren’t just isolated spats over process, or self-interested inter-party skirmishes. They reflect fundamentally divergent world-views. One sees democracy as a normative good in itself, and as crucial to any claim of political legitimacy. To the other, it’s at best a method for achieving effective government, and at worst a blueprint for chaos.

That leads to a troubling conclusion: Most of us like to think that although Americans might disagree profoundly on some issues, and even on values like how to balance liberty with the common good, we all share a commitment to democracy as the way to resolve these differences. In fact, that consensus may be far more fragile than we’d like to think.

The book came out before the 2016 election, when issues like the rule of law and the impartiality of the justice system were a bit less salient than they are today. But whether we’re talking about voter suppression or using the Justice Department to target your political opponents, the broader point is the same: Today’s conservative movement and GOP, or a big part of it, doesn’t believe in the democratic and republican principles that many of us consider foundational.

For us at TPM, one takeaway is that the war on voting that we’ve covered closely for a long time here isn’t really separate from the Trump-Russia investigation, and from Trump and allies’ efforts to use all the powers of the federal government to push back against it. The same anti-democratic, authoritarian ideology is driving both. And both storylines should be understood in that light.

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I tried to tease out in an Editor’s Brief (Prime access) just where the shuttering of the bogus Kobach voter fraud commission leaves us in terms of the fight over access to the ballot. TL;DR version: Don’t exhale yet.

And since this is my first post here, a bit about me: I’m a former TPM reporter, and I’m back as a senior editor. I’ve also been a reporter at MSNBC, and I wrote a book about the conservative assault on voting rights and democracy, published by Crown in 2016. Looking forward to offering my analysis on voting and democracy issues, among others, for Prime readers.

Voting rights advocates are warily celebrating the news that President Trump’s bogus voter fraud commission is folding. Their caution is largely because the panel’s leader, Kris Kobach, has said he plans to work with the Department of Homeland Security to continue the effort to root out fraud.

Kobach has for many years sought access to DHS data on non-citizens, so he can compare it to state voter rolls and identify non-citizens registered to vote. That’s even though DHS itself has warned that the data isn’t well suited to that purpose, and experts say it’s likely to produce numerous false positives, risking large-scale disenfranchisement of legitimate voters.

Tierney Sneed lays out, in fascinating detail, the myriad challenges Kobach will likely face in working with DHS — including the fact that the department doesn’t exactly sound like its chomping at the bit to collaborate.

But here’s the key thing to keep in mind: Whether Kobach succeeds in this project (and make no mistake, success means making it more difficult to vote) depends almost entirely on whether he can convince states to go along with him and purge their rolls.

In that sense, using DHS rather than the commission might give Kobach a bit less authority. But let’s face it: everyone already knew the commission, which had seven Republicans to four Democrats, was a sham. Working with DHS might also affect the types of data Kobach has access to. But remember, Kobach doesn’t need accurate data. He just needs a process he can point to that lets him say publicly that he’s generated a list of registered voters who aren’t eligible.

That isn’t to say Kobach will succeed. But whether or not he does will likely come down to the level of pressure that states face on the issue of whether to act on his findings by removing voters from their rolls. Outside of Kansas, where he’s the secretary of state, Kobach has no power to make state governments do anything. That means ground-level efforts to raise the profile of voting issues and create a political price for state officials who restrict access to the polls are more important than ever.

Late Update: I wanted to add another thought, too. Over the last year, plenty of states haven’t waited for a green light from the Kobach commission to restrict access to voting. New Hampshire, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, and North Dakota all passed new laws in 2017 that make voting harder (New Hampshire might be about to pass another). That represented sort of a second wave of voter suppression, after a quieter period during the later Obama years. So in that sense, the commission was always a bit of a side-show. And there’s little reason to think the push for state-level suppression laws is going to wane.

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