It's Not Just the Russians | Sojourners

It's Not Just the Russians

How to rig an election: The many faces of voter suppression.

WHAT DOES ELECTION-RIGGING LOOK LIKE? Often, on its face, it looks quite benign.

Take Ohio. The official elections website of Ohio’s secretary of state proclaims that “all eligible Ohioans have equal access to one of the best elections systems in the country.”

But “equal access” isn’t always what it appears.

Ohio provides only one polling station per county for early voting—which on the surface gives the impression that the system is fair and equitable. But—and here’s the rub—the counties are fundamentally different. For instance, Pickaway County, just south of Columbus, has fewer than 60,000 residents. Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is located, has a population of more than 800,000 people. But each county only has one early-voting station.

The results have been predictable—and have not been race-neutral. In the 2012 presidential election, there were no lines to vote early in Pickaway County, which is 94.5 percent white. But Hamilton County, with its 206,000 African-American residents, had a line that stretched a quarter mile. According to, voters in Cincinnati reported wait times of more than four hours, and other urban areas, such as Cleveland and Columbus, faced similar obstacles. (Comparable delays occurred in 2016.) The Republican Party chair for Columbus’ county defended the long waits, telling the Columbus Dispatch, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African American—voter turnout machine.”

Unfortunately, Ohio is not alone. According to a report in Mother Jones titled “Even Without Voter ID Laws, Minority Voters Face More Hurdles to Casting Ballots,” African Americans across the country waited about twice as long to vote as did white people in the 2012 election—and the trends are getting worse, not better. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found a strong correlation between precincts with significant minority populations and polling places that have a shortage of resources, such as voting machines and poll workers—and these are big factors in long voting lines, which tend to depress voter turnout. In South Carolina, the study found, areas with the longest waits had more than twice the percentage of African-American voters than the state as a whole.

Erecting obstacles to voting—for some

Restrictions on early voting aren’t the only obstacles and inconveniences put in place in recent years. For instance, an official in Randolph County, Ga., recently proposed closing seven of the nine polling places in the county, which happens to be majority black. For many of the county’s residents, that would mean the nearest polling place would be as much as 10 miles away. For every tenth of a mile that a polling place is moved from an African-American community, the black voter turnout goes down by .5 percent, especially in poor areas where transportation options are limited. Making polling places less accessible depresses the black turnout rate. (After an outcry, Randolph County backed off its plans to eliminate polling places for the 2018 midterms.)

The “consolidation” (read: closing) of polling places isn’t limited to Georgia. After the Shelby County v. Holder decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions that used to have to go under preclearance—places that were required to have their voting changes okayed by the Department of Justice because of their problematic histories of racial discrimination—had 868 fewer polling places in the 2016 election than they did before the court’s ruling.

The architects of voter suppression efforts have been systematic in their targeting of specific populations. In North Carolina, for example, legislators studied voting data from recent elections and saw that Sunday was a heavy-turnout day for African Americans—efforts such as Souls to the Polls encouraged voting on the Sunday before Election Day by helping transport people from churches to polling places. In response, the North Carolina Republican Party, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, “encouraged its appointees on the county boards to ‘make party line changes to early voting’ by limiting the number of hours and keeping polling sites closed on Sundays.” Republican-led election boards, the News & Observer reported, responded by reducing early-voting opportunities in 23 counties.

Party leaders have taken the same data-driven approach regarding photo-ID requirements. Politicians know the identifying markers of their constituency, and they know the markers of the other party’s constituency. In North Carolina, for instance, they received data, by race, on what types of identification, government photo IDs, that African Americans had and didn’t have, and then they crafted laws to require the ones that African Americans did not have. In Texas, students are seen as “a little too liberal,” so student ID doesn’t count at polling places—but gun-registration ID does count. So: Students no, gun owners yes. That’s how the electorate gets shaped.

Along the same lines, data shows that, proportionally, young people and minorities often don’t vote regularly in every election. So Republicans insist on “maintenance” of voter rolls—which can result in purging minorities and young people from the rolls and preventing otherwise-eligible people from casting their ballots. Many of these mechanisms sound reasonable, but the way that they’re operationalized are very unreasonable, and in fact sometimes downright racist. In Ohio, for example, African Americans were five times more likely than whites to vote during an early-voting period that Republican officials recently eliminated.

Intentional attacks on the 15th Amendment

Many of these measures to curtail people’s access to the ballot box, particularly moves to require certain forms of photo ID, are justified as alleged protections against “voter fraud.” But is voter fraud really a problem? Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a nationally recognized scholar of constitutional law, did a study of voting between 2000 and 2014. Out of 1 billion votes cast in those years—in general, primary, special, and municipal elections—he found only 31 credible allegations of potential fraud that might have been prevented by a rule requiring ID at the polls. That’s 31 out of 1 billion votes.

In-person voter fraud is, simply put, a lie. It’s a lie designed to create fear, to create a consternation in the body politic that something has to be done to “protect” the integrity of our elections—and then used to undermine that very integrity. The hypocrisy of talking about protecting democracy while you systematically deny the rights of American citizens to the basic right to vote is absolutely heinous.

The greatest crime, in my view, is that there are people who are actually putting intentional effort—time and money—into figuring out how to make voting hard, into denying American citizens their basic 15th Amendment rights. Certain states and party officials are systematically thinking through: How do we keep our populations from voting?

Our challenge, in the face of this, is to do the opposite: Instead of placing obstacles, we must seek ways to ease access to the ballot box so we have greater participation in democracy, not less. That’s the only way to build a truly representative democracy.

Voting is neither an obstacle course nor a privilege. It’s a right, and one that was not easily achieved. I’m acutely aware of how hard African Americans and others have had to fight, and how many have been beaten and died, for the right to vote. It is precious.

November 2018
This appears in the November 2018 issue of Sojourners