As the 2018 midterm elections approach, there are signs everywhere of an imperiled American democracy. Four weeks before Election Day, Georgia officials put over 53,000 voter applications on hold—an estimated 70 percent of them from African Americans—partly through the state’s controversial “exact match” verification program. The Supreme Court upheld a North Dakota law that bars voting by people without street addresses on their IDs, despite the fact that thousands of Native Americans in the state live on reservations without such addresses. From Dodge City, a majority-Latino community of 27,000 in western Kansas, came the news that the town’s single polling place had been moved outside the city limits, to a location more than a mile from the nearest bus stop. “It is shocking that we only have one polling place, but that is only kind of scratching the surface of the problem,” said Johnny Dunlap, a Democratic leader in Kansas, where party activists are organizing to win a closely contested gubernatorial race.
Dunlap is right about the widespread assault on voting rights, but he won’t get much sympathy from the man charged with overseeing Kansas’s elections, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is also the Republican nominee for governor. In Georgia, the secretary of state who put the voter applications on hold is Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp. In North Dakota, after Democrat Heidi Heitkamp narrowly won a Senate seat in 2012 with strong support from Native Americans, Republican officials crafted a voter-ID law that blatantly discriminates against them. Now, the GOP is implementing that plan as Heitkamp bids for reelection.
There’s a pattern here, one that responsible politicians of all parties must wrestle with as the 2018 election finishes and the race toward 2020 begins. Conservative strategist Paul Weyrich announced in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Today, this thug mentality—whether explicitly acknowledged or spun into Donald Trump’s lies about “illegal voting”—has been infused into our politics by Republican officials who draft and implement voter-suppression schemes. What the Brennan Center for Justice has described as “a growing range of threats to voting” is not accidental. It is a deliberate antidemocratic ploy that must be addressed politically and programmatically.
This country needs more secretaries of state like Steve Simon in Minnesota and Alex Padilla in California, who have focused on cybersecurity issues, attempted to make it as easy as possible for eligible voters to cast ballots, and called out voter-suppression schemes like Kobach’s ill-fated Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Moreover, secretaries of state from both parties should establish clear recusal rules to ensure that they cannot take advantage of their position to aid themselves or their close allies. Democratic governors must follow the lead of Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who approved automatic voter registration after taking office, and Democrats in statehouses must promote high participation in the 2020 Census—and then use that data to end gerrymandering once and for all.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats must work with the few principled Republicans left to restore the Voting Rights Act and to enact Representative Mark Pocan’s proposal to protect our election infrastructure from cyber-threats. Democrats who campaign for the presidency in 2020 must do so with an agenda for renewing democracy that is bold enough to address this crisis. There is no place now for caution. Because the courts have failed us, that agenda must go big by embracing constitutional amendments to overturn Citizens United, to eliminate the Electoral College, and to declare, finally, that every American has a right to vote and to have that vote counted.