Bill Newman: Voter suppression is still winning

  • Trump supporters wave flags in front of the Clark County Election Department, Thursday, in Las Vegas.   AP

  • A demonstrator calling for all votes to be counted holds up a sign toward protesting supporters of President Donald Trump outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Thursday, in Philadelphia.  AP

Published: 11/6/2020 4:28:27 PM

Donald Trump’s recipe for victory in 2020 had two essential ingredients: turn out his voters and suppress Joe Biden’s. The first part of the plan actually worked well — Trump received about 4 million more votes than he did in 2016 — and, sadly, so did the second.

Trump’s voter suppression efforts consisted of five easy-to-understand pieces: 1) Prevent likely Biden voters from registering to vote. 2) Stop registered voters  from casting a ballot. 3) If they voted, stop their ballots from being counted. 4) If their votes initially were counted, get a court to throw them out. 5) If all that didn’t work, manipulate state legislators, the Electoral College and Congress to reinstall himself as the head of the government. As part of this authoritarianism stew, mix in threats and violence as necessary (“Proud Boys stand by”).  

Step 1: Choke off registration. Florida, for example, was, as usual, expected to be a tight race, so the Republican-controlled Legislature, in cahoots with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, disenfranchised more than 774,000 citizens, disproportionately people of color, by passing legislation that effectively negated the 2018 landslide state plebiscite that gave former felons who had served their sentences the right to vote.

In addition, many Republican-controlled states engaged in voter purges. Georgia, for example, removed hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls between 2017 and Election Day, 2020.

As it turned out, Trump could have won Florida without felony disenfranchisement, but Republicans didn’t want to take that chance. In Georgia, Fair Fight Action, the anti-voter suppression organization founded and led by Stacey Abrams, has fought a gallant fight against extraordinary odds and maybe changed the election result in her home state and for the country, as well, changing history.

Step 2: Suppress voting. Notwithstanding the Trump campaign’s efforts to minimize voting, there was, by America’s standard, a large turnout. The tactics? Don’t send all voters a mail-in ballot. Create additional unnecessary requirements for absentee ballots, such as witness signatures. Shut down polling places in Black communities. (In recent years, nearly 1,700 polling places nationwide have been shuttered.) Make people in poor communities stand in line for six or eight hours before they can cast a ballot — a surefire way to reduce turnout. Call out the Trump “army,” volunteers in open-carry states to intimidate voters at the polls — a resurrection of the Jim Crow South.

And — this Republican voter-suppression ploy was a doozy — make dropboxes unavailable. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott restricted dropboxes to one per county. Heavily Democratic Harris County, the third largest county in the United States with 2.4 million registered voters, had one dropbox. Trump won Texas by 650,000 votes.

Step 3: Just don’t count the ballots. Justifications abound for this one: They arrive after Election Day, or without the outer-envelope, or with a signature on the envelope that a poll worker asserts differs from from the one on file.

“But wait,” as TV hucksters say, “there’s more!” Gut the United States Post Office so that mail-in ballots (Democrats used mail-in voting twice as much as Republicans) won’t arrive by Election Day, and then get courts to rule that those ballots are untimely and shouldn’t be counted.

Step 4: Exploit the Republican and Trump-controlled courts. Trump’s campaign tried to get a state court to throw out 127,000 Harris County ballots cast by voters who used drive-through voting, devised to keep early them safe during the pandemic.

The don’t-count-the-ballots schemes, of course, were devised with an ideologically aligned and obsequious federal judiciary as the final fulcrum. Trump wanted Amy Coney Barrett confirmed before the election to assure his victory when he brought the 2020 election to the Supreme Court.

Step 5: Create chaos. Trump has already filed multiple lawsuits and is trying to undermine the validity of mail-in ballots. His true believers have caused disruption outside ballot-counting locations. His close adviser Steve Bannon has called for attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Voter suppression has long been a tenet of the Republican Party’s electoral strategy. The problem with robust voter participation, according to Trump, is that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

All of which raises the question for Trump: What went wrong with this scheme? To which the answer is, not that much. The election has been nerve-wrackingly close. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by 2.9 million and was elected. He thought he could reprise the popular vote loss/Electoral College win, although maybe he didn’t expect to lose, as he has, by over 4 million.

This country could easily stop some of these abhorrent anti-democratic voter-suppression practices, and two pieces of legislation that would do so have already passed the House of Representatives.

The first is the For The People Act of 2019. That bill expands voting rights, limits partisan gerrymandering and strengthens ethics rules. The second is the Voting Rights Advancement Act. That bill restores the core of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court, 5-4, struck down in 2013. This remedial legislation prevents systemic voter suppression on the basis of race.

For almost two years, Mitch McConnell had refused to let the Senate vote on either one. The so far overwhelmingly complicit Republicans could stand up to McConnell, demand a vote and join in an effort to support democracy. But they won’t.

To which we the people should respond as attorney Joseph Welch famously said to Sen. Joe McCarthy: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

Bill Newman is a Northampton-based lawyer and radio show host. His column is published the first Saturday of the month.

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