The mainstream media have treated Donald Trump’s claim that the election will be rigged against him as a dangerous threat to the very legitimacy of the American election system. And they’ve warned that his call for poll “observers” to prevent people in “certain parts” of Pennsylvania from voting “five times” reeks of intimidation. They’re right on both counts.
But at the same time, the corporate media, especially on television, have largely ignored the actual attempts to rig state and local elections across the country through laws that make it much harder for certain people to vote. Voter suppression—that Republican-generated roster of voting restrictions that disproportionately impact minorities, students, and other traditionally Democratic voters–comes in many guises. There are strict voter ID laws requiring hard-to-come-by documents; illegitimate purges of the voting rolls; hurdles to voter registration; cut backs on early voting days; reductions in polling places, often resulting in three- and four-hour lines. Courts have recently blocked or weakened restrictions in six states, but voter suppression in one form or another will likely affect hundreds of thousands of people in this, the first presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013
“The only reason that the Republicans can get away with a policy that is beyond unconscionable is that the MSM don’t really seem to care,” Neal Gabler wrote on BillMoyers.com. “More, Republicans count on the media not caring.”
Of course, not all media have ignored voter suppression. In addition to great work by local papers, you’ll find plenty of aggressive coverage in print and online, from the New York Times’s Michael Wines, who reported recently on how sheriff’s deputies in Sparta, GA, track down black people to question their registrations to MSNBC Digital national reporter Zachary Roth, author of The Great Suppression, who says there’s evidence to suggest that voter suppression can swing elections. “The best example might be the 2014 race in Texas’s only competitive congressional district, which the Republican won by just over 2,400 votes,” Roth told me. A Rice University study found that in the confusion and misinformation surrounding the state’s new voter ID law, some 14,000 registered voters in the Latino-majority district didn’t vote because they mistakenly believed they lacked the proper ID.
Most local elections never get that kind of retroactive study, so it’s hard to quantify just how effective voter suppression really is. All the more reason for the press to step up, especially the TV press, which has the ability to make the abstract palpable. Shows like Chris Hayes’s All In and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have done terrific segments on the subject; some nightly news reporters have correctly pointed out that in-person voting fraud is virtually nonexistent (one study found a total of 31 credible instances out of 1 billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014). But ongoing, day-in, day-out TV coverage of voter suppression is as rare as some guy slapping on a fake mustache to vote as his dead uncle.
“What coverage?” asks Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. A former paid contributor for CNN and now an occasional guest on MSNBC, Belcher says, “neither is covering this like the political scandal that it is.”
“The courts have said states are trying to disenfranchise African Americans with surgical precision. That should be a big story—this is Jim Crow all over again. But the news media cover it hit and miss—when a court case comes up and then they roll onto the next story,” he continued. “Why aren’t they doing hardcore reporting, going to state legislatures with microphones and cameras? Instead, it’s more like: ‘They don’t want black people to vote?’ Shrug. ‘Is that news?’”
Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot and my Nation colleague, told me, “The media have mostly treated [voting rights] like a fringe issue. For me, it’s a central issue.”
If people can’t vote, what’s democracy for?
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The central issue for the media, however, is anything out of Donald Trump’s mouth. After he got the bad news that some voter ID laws were being reversed, Trump began his rigged-election rants, and in the media, “context and nuance was lost,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The main narrative I heard was ‘Donald Trump is trying to raise questions about the legitimacy of the elections.’ And the second narrative was, ‘Is voter ID good or bad?’ Not about a string of cases finding that laws are keeping hundreds of thousands of people from being able to participate in voting.”
It’s as if the bugaboo of “voter fraud” (which a majority of Republicans falsely believe is a major problem) and actual voter suppression exist in two different universes. The voter ID laws whose absence shocks Trump are voter suppression. Stopping non-white and poor people from voting, or making it damn hard for them to do so, is the meat of the story, but much of the press has suddenly gone all vegan.
Typical of coverage that presents voter fraud in a vacuum is a CNN report from earlier this month. Shortly after Donald tried to drumpf-up a little mob rule in Pennsylvania, correspondent Jessica Schneider reported that “he talked about the fact that the only way that he could lose Pennsylvania and that Hillary Clinton could win this state would be if cheating goes on…. He also talked about the voter ID laws that have been struck down by many judges throughout the country in recent weeks and recent months.”
Forget the sloppy language: It’s not a “fact” that the only way Trump would lose is if Hillary cheats. But consider the mention of judges striking down voter ID laws: There’s no indication of why they were struck down. It’s presented in a Trumpian frame, unrelated to the suppression from whence it comes.
When the subject of suppression does surface on TV, it’s often because a black journalist or politician brings it up. A CNN panel was arguing over voter fraud Saturday when Basil Smikle, executive chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, said, “This conversation about voter fraud is really a proxy for a lot of what has been happening over the last few years where something like 20 to 30 states have enacted laws to make it more difficult for people of color to vote…. Communities of color have historically had multiple barriers to get to the voting booth.”
Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn: “That’s all gone now.”
Next day, next CNN panel:
Former SC state representative Bakari Sellers: “I have a very, very big problem with voter ID, which has gone rampant in the Republican Party as they try to prevent black and brown people from voting and those seniors from voting.”
Former AZ governor Jan Brewer: “Oh, that’s absolutely ridiculous.”
You expect rightwing politicians to suppress talk of suppression. Fox News has pushed the big lie of “fraud” and banished “suppression.” But why do centrist media tend to pass on the issue?
Many simply dread seeming like the “liberal media,” of seeming partisan by even recognizing suppression as a partisan issue. Though, as Berman says, “Of course it’s partisan, because one party is putting it out there and another is opposed to it.”
For corporate media, it’s safer to stay within the comfy template of false balance: Trump and the R’s say voter fraud is rampant; the D’s say it’s not. It is an improvement that some journalists are stating the obvious fact that voter fraud is a myth. But the debate seldom digs deeper. Doing so would require dealing with thorny issues that Americans tend to avoid in most public settings, namely the racism and inequality wrapped up in voter suppression. The “voter fraud—yes or no” conflict papers over all that.
In fairness, it should be said that the media’s aversion to suppression stories echoes their aversion to all rigged-election stories. Trump’s whine that he’ll lose only if Hillary cheats has rightly been called out as a dangerous narrative. And Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s media show Reliable Sources, has been leading the way here, telling journalists they “must challenge this.”
But some journalists seem to feel that lending airtime to anything about rigged elections—whether voting machine hacks, the DNC vs. Bernie, or Bush v. Gore—carries the risk of de-legitimizing the winner. And of sounding like a conspiracy theorist.
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Voter suppression is a big, technical, multilayered story spread across hundreds of jurisdictions and complicated by frequent legal switchbacks. The general trend since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been to make voting easier, not harder. The efforts to reverse that have come mostly after the GOP lost two wars and crashed the world economy, peeling off millions of indie voters and leading to the election of the first black president. Efforts to trim the franchise began in earnest just as the Tea Party got on its feet, and yet Obama won re-election by a comfortable five points.
True as that may be, TV talkers don’t see the horserace appeal in suppression stories. Besides, they have some poll numbers to recite for the 25th time today!
But why not use that poll fetish as a hook to hang reminders that some of the people robo-polled in August might be effectively barred from the polls in November? I’m not talking about reporting on a “margin of suppression,” exactly—that would be impossible to calculate. But couldn’t, say, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, apply some of his numbers skills to note, for instance, that while Ohio’s POTUS race is close, the state has a “use it or lose it” law (currently being litigated) that has purged tens of thousands of people who haven’t voted since 2008 from registration lists–a predicament affecting far more blacks than whites?
Similarly, I’m always a little amazed that analyses of how different demographic groups will vote never seem to take voter suppression into account. The Times’ Jeremy Peters said recently on Morning Joe that with Trump polling only 20 percent among Latinos, “he can’t possibly win.” You don’t have to believe in skewed-math to see that the votes of Democratic-leaning Latinos don’t always reach the ballot box. It just happened in Arizona’s primary this spring. Officials in Maricopa County reduced the number of polling places from 200 in 2012 to 60 in 2016. That left one polling place for every 21,000 voters (compared with one for every 2,500 voters in the rest of the state), up to five-hour lines, and untold numbers of people who never made it to the ballot booth. “The areas most affected,” the Washington Post wrote, “were predominantly Latino.”
And we shouldn’t let recent headlines about setbacks to voter ID laws lull us into complacency.
“In 15 states it’s still going to be harder to vote this year than it was in 2012,” says the Brennan Center’s Wendy Weiser. Meanwhile, the legal precedents “are far from settled,” UC-Irvine law professor Rick Hasen wrote recently. “Things are very much in flux, and the possibility of disenfranchisement through confusion or reversals of recent gains remains.” On his Election Law Blog, Hasen runs down the latest flux in each embattled state.
North Carolina, for instance, is asking the Supreme Court to restore parts of its voter ID law that a lower court had overturned, in part because it targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” But the state’s case may be undermined by a recently discovered a memo that the North Carolina Republican Party executive director sent to GOP officials urging them, despite the overturned law, to take other steps to restrict voter access in order to produce favorable election results.
Suppression has and will continue to affect and possibly swing elections. The media should not discount it. “There are very concrete numbers coming out of these court cases; we have razor-thin margins in many elections,” Weiser says. The press could be more regularly asking, she says, “what do voting rules mean for control of our House, state legislature, and federal races, which communities are going to win, which are going to lose with the current rules?”
We know that the fake “voter fraud” Trump rails about is not going to swing the presidential election. But could suppression do it (without factoring in the effects of any potential machine hacks)? It likely happened in 2000, Ari Berman writes, when Florida wrongfully purged an estimated “4,752 black Gore voters—almost nine times Bush’s margin of victory…”
This time, it depends in large part on whether the media will aggressively report that voter fraud is a fraud and that suppression is real–and keep their eyes on what else is at stake.
Whether suppression “swings the presidential election or not isn’t the most important point,” as Zachary Roth says. “The real point is that everyone has the right to vote.”