Controlling who can vote is one of the time-tested ways to control the outcomes of elections. And the outcome of elections in the United States determines who has ultimate power and who does not. Many Americans like to think that they live in an open, democratic society, but happily look the other way when the participation of others who might not share their particular views is blocked.
Voter suppression takes several forms. Among the tricks are limiting polling places, demanding certain kinds of identification, and gerrymandering voting districts as a way to preserve majorities — mostly crafted by white lawmakers. Republican-led states have made it more difficult for people with disabilities, the elderly, and students to participate in elections. They have turned to purges of names from voter rolls and cuts to early voting. These practices are widespread. By some counts, there are more than 250 pending bills seeking to limit voting in 43 states.
Exaggerated claims of fraud have provided cover for the shady dealings. Despite all the attention, actual prosecutions are extremely rare. In Texas, for example, State Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Election Integrity Unit has brought fewer than 100 cases to court since it was established in 2015. There are 17 million registered voters in the state. In 2020, the voting unit staff worked 22,000 hours in total but yielded just 16 resolved cases, all of which involved improper addresses among one county’s residents. An investigation of voting nationwide conducted by the United States Justice Department last year came up with no evidence of widespread fraud. William Barr, the Trump administration attorney general, even observed that investigators had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
But lack of proof has not stopped Republicn legislatures from attempting to pass all sorts of mostly race-based exclusions. Congress is wrestling now with the For the People Act, a massive, 800-page voting rights bill that would make it more difficult for states to cheat. Republicans fear that full participation would banish their party to a permanent minority and openly say they are ready to do whatever they can to preserve their repressive measures.
Time is of the essence, and it appears that the bill’s expansive wish list might be too much too fast, given Democrats’ narrow lead in the Senate. Protecting the vote in the U.S. must remain the top priority. If that means whittling the bill down to assure the greatest possible participation in elections and nothing else, so be it. Tackling other issues contained in the bill, such as reining in political contributions and dark money spending, will have to wait for another opportunity. Democrats should be willing to accept a more targeted measure.