In Wisconsin, 1.47% of the electorate cannot vote because they are felons. That seems like a small number. But it adds up to 65,606 voters. In 2016, Donald Trump took the state by just 22,748 votes.
Gerrymandering is openly employed here, in effect allowing parties to choose the voters they need to keep them in power.
On Tuesday there will be elections in the US for the entire lower chamber (the House of Representatives), a third of the upper chamber (the Senate) and several governors and state legislatures. The results will be consequential. But the process will not be democratic. Millions of people will be excluded, potentially hundreds of thousands of votes suppressed and many voting districts brazenly configured to favour one party or the other; not all citizens are eligible, not all those who are eligible are permitted to vote, and not all votes will carry the same weight.
When it comes to felons, Wisconsin is far from the worst offender. One in 10 voters in Florida has been disenfranchised because they are a felon, and it is one of 10 states where felons may lose the right to vote permanently.
But on other fronts Wisconsin illustrates the point all too well. Gerrymandering, where politicians draw electoral boundaries to favour their own side, is openly employedhere, effectively allowing them to choose the voters they need to keep them in power. The result is a series of preordained outcomes that make seats less competitive, candidates less responsive, politicians more extreme (since to keep their seat they only have to keep their base happy) and the entire process less credible.
Both parties do this when they get the chance; Republicans have simply had more chances recently and are more shameless and therefore more effective at it. In 2012Republicans received 46% of the popular vote in Wisconsin state elections but received 60% of the seats in the state assembly; nationwide that year Democrats got 1.4 million more votes while Republicans won 33 more seats.
Efforts to suppress the vote, by demanding identification that many eligible voters don’t have – often because they cannot afford it or do not know how to get it – has also eroded confidence in the process. Voter ID laws are ostensibly aimed at countering voter fraud; the trouble is voter fraud barely exists. In the 2016 election there were four documented cases of impersonation, while a 2017 academic study put the upper limit for incidents of double voting at 0.02%.
But while the fraud is illusory the disproportionate number of disenfranchised black and poor voters is not.
In Georgia 53,000 voter applications, most from African Americans, are currently being held up by the secretary of state, Brian Kemp, some for such petty reasons as a missing hyphen. Kemp is running for governor in a tight race against a black opponent. In a recently leaked video recording he expresses concern at his chances, “especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote”. Nicala Aiello, a poll worker in Racine, says she saw about 11 people turned away from the polling station she works at in 2016, the first election in which a new, more stringent voter-ID law was in place.
Those most likely to be marginalised from the process are those most likely to be marginalised in the economy and the polity – the black, the brown and the poor. In Kentucky, home to the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, one in four black voters cannot participate in elections because of a felony conviction; nationally it is one in 14. Felony convictions have at least as much to do with discrimination as they do with criminality. Drug use is equally prevalent among African Americans and whites, but the former are six times more likely to be imprisoned for it. Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of a drugs offence than white people.
The voter ID requirements often demand money some people don’t have and are more onerous for the young and the poor who move a lot or may not have a driving licence. Last month the supreme court upheld a North Dakota law that demanded ID with a “current residential street address”. This is burdensome for Native Americans living on reservations who use post-office boxes to get their mail, and where street names and numbers are either nonexistent or inconsistent.
And as the electorate continues to get more diverse these efforts to stop some people voting will only get more perverse.
The stakes are high. Four of the states with the highest proportion of felons removed from the voter rolls – Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona – all have very close state-wide races this year. The current North Dakota senator is in a tight race that she won by just 3,000 votes in 2012.
Meanwhile, Aiello believes if what she saw in Racine were replicated across Wisconson, it could have significantly affected the result there. Neil Albrecht, the most senior election official in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, agrees. “It is very probable enough people were prevented from voting to have changed the outcome of the presidential election in Wisconsin,” he told the Mother Jones website last year.
Gerrymandering and voter suppression could be reversed quite straightforwardly. But some of this unfairness is baked into the polity. In the Senate each state has two seats; even though California has 68 times the population of Wyoming, they each get the same representation in the upper house. Moreover the presidency does not go to whoever wins the most votes, but whoever wins in the “electoral college” – a body also weighted towards less populous states.
As a result Republicans have only won the popular vote for the presidency once since 1988. In a more consensual political culture this would matter less. But when politics is so polarised, the fact that a president who was not favoured by most Americans is ramming through a deeply divisive agenda helps explains why so much opposition has spilled out on to the streets. No country’s electoral system is perfect. But America’s political class has wilfully decided to make the inherent flaws in its system worse, while adding new ones.
Here are the chilling tricks we’ve caught Georgia using to disqualify voters: We are in a fight for the soul of our democracy
A young woman learned her name was no longer on the voter rolls in Georgia. Ironically, she discovered this while training as a canvasser for new voters. Since registering and casting her first ballot in 2008, she hadn’t returned to the polls, and under the new “use it or lose it” rule, the system purged her registration.
A dentist in Macon received a letter from the secretary of state, warning him that he was at risk of being labeled an “inactive voter” for changing addresses, not voting or not responding to election-related mail. None of that was true, he said: He’d participated in every Georgia election in the past 40 years and had lived in his home for 30.
A man was moved to a “pending” list of voters and told he had to prove his identity before he could cast a ballot, because the clerk registering him had missed the hyphen in his first name. It took a three-way phone call between him, a team of election lawyers and the Fulton County Board of Elections to secure his status as an eligible voter.
These individuals called the New Georgia Project, the voter rights group for which I serve as chairman, and we sent in a phalanx of legal experts to defend their rights. But not everyone is so lucky, and these are not rare and random instances of people accidentally falling through the cracks. The system is functioning exactly as it was designed. They’re the consequence of the policies pursued by Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp (who, like a boxer refereeing his own bout, oversees the election in which he’s running).
My beloved state of Georgia has followed seemingly every strategy in the voter-suppression playbook, like partisan gerrymandering and closing polling locations. It even charged a poll worker with a felony for helping someone use a voting machine. Moreover, the state has pursued aggressive voter purges, removing 1.6 million names from the rolls between the 2012 and 2016 elections, and another 670,000 last year. More than 100,000 of these were due to the new “use it or lose it” standard. Anyone sincerely concerned with the health of our democracy, whose voter turnout trails most developed countries, would invite citizens into the process, not punish them for being unable to make it to the polls for two seasons.
The state has also made it harder for new voters to participate, by implementing “exact match,” demanding that voters’ names on the rolls exactly match the state’s driver’s license and Social Security records. This system has put the registrations of nearly 47,000 new voters on hold, 70 percent of them African American. It is extremely error-prone. Discrepancies as small as a missing hyphen, an extra space, or an initial in place of a middle name could put a voter in the crosshairs, making women and people of color particularly vulnerable to having their applications stalled. So are new citizens: The system routinely flags them as “noncitizens,” because state agency records do not automatically update when they’re naturalized. All “pending” voters may still cast a ballot if they bring adequate evidence of their identity or eligibility to the polls. Even so, there is substantial collateral damage. Such policies depress turnout by sowing confusion, discouraging voters who are unclear about their rights.
[Think your vote doesn’t count? Then why are people trying to suppress it?]
We are witnessing, in broad daylight, an assault on the American covenant, summarized in those simple and sublime words “We the people.” That’s not just a political problem; it’s a moral problem. It speaks to the integrity of the process and the character of the country. We are in a fight for the soul of our nation’s democracy. If we lose that fight, then everybody loses, Republicans and Democrats.
At Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I am pastor, we register people virtually every Sunday to vote. Theologically, worship or “liturgy” literally means “the work of the people,” and that’s what voting is: When we vote, we raise our collective voices. In that sense, voting is an act of worship, a prayer for the kind of country that we want to live in. In a 1957 speech, Martin Luther King Jr., co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, also spoke of the vote in sacred terms. With the preacher’s refrain, he intoned: Give us the ballot. “Give us the ballot,” he said, and the people would elect leaders “who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.”
In America, we have noisy, contentious and sometimes rambunctious arguments about public policy and taxes, about bread, butter and guns. Those who seek to win the argument or enter public office must first convince the people. In this process, the people — all of the people — get to speak. That is the covenant we have with one another.
As told to Washington Post editor Sophia Nguyen