The most important aspect of any democratic election is participation. A democracy gains its legitimacy through elections only so far as those elections represent the will of the people. Limit voter participation, and there is a direct correlation between the legitimacy of an election and the democratic system. President Trump and Vice-President Pence’s “election integrity” commission is unequivocally declaring war on voters – our democratic legitimacy be damned.
The commission recently sent a letter to all 50 states asking that they provide all the names and associated birthdays, last four digits of social security numbers, addresses, political parties, and voting histories since 2006 of people on their voter rolls. This letter is helping to lay the groundwork for nationalized voter suppression.
The commission is requesting the same information that Republican state governments have used to create hyper-partisan gerrymandering and enact restrictive voter ID laws. Such measures have been disturbingly successful at suppressing voting of minority and low-income citizens, groups that tend to vote with Democrats. This assault on voters might seem farfetched, except that we’ve seen this strategy too many times before to claim ignorance now.
After slavery ended, white elites invented felony disenfranchisement as a means to delegitimize black citizens and prevent them from gaining influence. We saw Jim Crow gut-punch our democracy in yet another attempt to disenfranchise minorities. We are witnessing history repeating itself.
Nationally, the Democratic party is gaining support as the country’s demographics become increasingly diverse. The majority of black, Native American, Hispanic and Asian voters vote as Democrats. The Republican party has known for several years now that its best tactic to cling to power is not to build a party worth supporting, but to deny participation in the political process to Democratic party voters. Making matters worse, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Office, long heralded as the ultimate guarantor of civil rights, including voting rights, might unknowingly be supporting the commission’s efforts. The Civil Rights Office sent out a letter on Wednesday, the same day as the commission sent its letter, seeking information from states on how they maintain their voter rolls. The office charged with upholding the 1965 Voting Rights Act must resist playing a leading role in further dismantling this most fundamental democratic right.
I would expect these actions from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or any of the other authoritarian regimes we have sanctioned around the world – regimes that stay in power by suppressing their people and manipulating election results. We must not lie to ourselves when we see the warning signs here at home. This commission is a harbinger of a top-down, White House-endorsed assault on voters, specifically Democratic voters: the same voters who denied Trump the popular vote.
State leaders have a moral and constitutional obligation to our democracy and to their citizens to refuse to cooperate with this commission. States should refuse to hand over any of the requested voter information, as California, Virginia, Rhode Island and Kentucky have refused to do at this writing. The Connecticut, Oklahoma and North Carolina secretaries of state, on the other hand, have agreed to send “publicly available” information to the commission. This is a mistake.
Our democracy cannot afford to turn over any information now and ask questions later. States turning over any information, including publicly available information, legitimize the commission and betray the trust and privacy of voters. Having publicly available information for in-state use is different from providing information for a national voter database that will be placed at the hands of nefarious actors. States must take a stand to protect their voters’ most fundamental democratic right.
Additionally, Democrats must refuse to participate in the commission. The secretaries of state for New Hampshire and Maine should step down from the commission immediately. Participation risks granting legitimacy where there can be none. Two lone Democrats on this commission will stand no chance of preventing the pre-cooked outcomes. Instead, they and their states are being used to cloak the commission in the guise of bipartisanship. If Democrats refuse to participate, the commission will be left with no clothes on. The litany of research on voting in recent years has failed to come up with but a handful of voter fraud cases. On the other hand, voter suppression techniques, such as those employed by the Republican party, effectively disenfranchise scores of voters across the country. If the real goal of the administration is election integrity, the stated objective from day one should have been to maximize voter participation.
Rather than target minority voters with a modern gloss on McCarthyism, we should be prioritizing a 21st-century Voting Rights Act to protect voting rights and increase access to the ballot box.
Rather than voter ID laws that disenfranchise certain demographics, a new Voting Rights Act could set a national ID standard, granting maximum flexibility to voters. It could also ban felony disenfranchisement in national elections and require publication of new electoral changes to help educate voters.
The options are there to strengthen our democracy and truly protect “one person, one vote”. Instead, this commission appears intent on nationalizing the Republican party’s strategy of “one Anglo-Saxon, financially successful person, one vote”.