Democrats accuse the GOP of trying to discourage millions of citizens from casting ballots. Is that true? Here's everything you need to know:
What is the dispute about?
Since the 2010 election, 25 states have instituted new restrictions that make it harder to vote. The measures include shorter voting hours; the shuttering of polling places in minority neighborhoods; new limitations on early voting, especially on college campuses; new voter identification laws requiring a state-issued photo ID to cast a ballot; and new restrictions on Election Day registration. All these provisions, Democrats say, have a very distinct goal: to suppress voting among constituencies that tend to vote Democratic, including blacks and Hispanics, the poor, young people, and shift workers. Georgia, for example, has adopted an "exact match" system that rejects a voter's registration form if the name on it differs from the person's name in the state system by so much as a hyphen, apostrophe, or middle initial — a law that critics have wryly termed "disenfranchisement by typo." Other states have conducted campaigns to purge voters who have not voted in consecutive elections, or have moved or failed to reply to mailings. From 2014 to 2018, 33 million voter registrations were purged nationwide. "It's shocking," said Dr. Daniel A. Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida. "We don't ask gun owners to fire their weapons every two years and revoke their licenses four years later if they don't."
What is driving these new rules and laws?
Republicans claim the efforts are necessary to combat voter fraud. Numerous studies, however, have shown that fraud — especially impersonating someone else — is extraordinarily rare. After the 2016 presidential election, in which 136 million votes were cast, law enforcement officials in 34 states found a total of eight credible instances of fraud. Conservatives also argue that routine purging of voter rolls is necessary to remove those who are dead or have moved away. A 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States found 24 million registrations that were either invalid or inaccurate. Claims that voter registration purges are partisan and unfair, said David Harsanyi, a senior writer for the National Review, are "destructive scaremongering meant to undermine American belief in the veracity of our elections."
Why change voting rules now?
Democrats say the campaign to restrict voting is actually motivated by Republican fear that the white, older population is gradually losing its majority status to Latino and Asian immigrants and younger, left-leaning voters. Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor who studies voter's-rights issues, said that given the changing demographics and the current hyperpartisan atmosphere, Republicans have come to feel that "you need to push up against the rules to win." In many states, the rules have changed, thanks to a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court's conservative majority in 2013 that struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law had required certain states and local governments (mostly in the South) to clear any changes to their voting practices with the Justice Department. Within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas instituted a strict photo ID law and Mississippi and Alabama began enforcing photo ID laws that had been previously blocked as discriminatory. (Minorities, the poor, and the young are less likely to have driver's licenses or other photo ID.) Since the ruling, states formerly covered by the Voting Rights Act's restrictions have shuttered 1,688 polling places.
Does voter suppression work?
Charles Stewart III, an expert on elections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said research shows that voter suppression efforts "might reduce turnout by a percentage point or two." In dozens of recent races, a single percentage point has proved decisive. In Georgia's 2018 midterm election, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp by only 54,723 votes out of a total 3.9 million cast. Some voters in predominantly African-American districts said they had to wait as long as four hours to cast a ballot, while others claimed they never received requested absentee ballots. Kemp, who oversaw the election as secretary of state, had purged at least 1.4 million voters in the years preceding the election. Democrats also point to Florida, where 65 percent of the public voted by referendum to "automatically" reinstate 1.5 million–plus felons' ability to vote when they've completed their sentences. Republicans responded by passing a law prohibiting ex-felons from voting until they've settled all court-ordered fines, fees, and restitution — which can add up to thousands of dollars. Critics call that costly requirement "a modern poll tax."
How are Democrats responding?
In advance of the 2020 elections, the party has filed lawsuits across the country challenging the new restrictions. Republicans are planning their own counterattack. Justin Clark, a senior adviser to President Trump's re-election campaign, was recorded at a private event in Wisconsin on Nov. 21 admitting that "traditionally, it's always been Republicans suppressing votes." In 2020, Clark told a crowd of fellow Republican lawyers, "it's going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program."
Imprisoned for casting a ballot
Crystal Mason has paid a very personal price for the debate over voter fraud. On Nov. 8, 2016, the 44-year-old Texas mother of three found her name was not on the voting registry at her longtime polling place, the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Rendon. She had recently concluded a five-year federal sentence for tax fraud, and filled out a provisional ballot; officials told her that if her credentials checked out, her vote would count. What she says she did not know is that Texas bars felons from voting even after they are released (a law that covers 500,000 released felons), and Mason was later arrested on charges of voting illegally. Although her vote was never counted, she was sent back to federal prison for 10 months for violating the terms of her parole, and a state judge sentenced her to an additional five years in prison for voting illegally. Mason is appealing that conviction. "I'm not going to say that I regret my situation," she said, "because it has educated me and it has educated my family and it has educated a lot of people."
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, try the magazine for a month here.