One hundred years ago, women won the right to vote in the United States. The women’s suffrage movement took decades of organizing to achieve success, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, to mass civil disobedience and protest leading up to the adoption and ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Now, a century later, the right to vote is on perilous ground, with aggressive and systematic efforts to disenfranchise voters in states across the country.
Voter suppression has long been a central strategy of the Republican Party. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, a conservative Republican activist who founded right-wing institutions including The Heritage Foundation, said in a speech: “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 … our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
States in the so-called Rust Belt, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, were critical to Donald Trump’s win in 2016. In each of those states save Ohio, Trump won by less than 1 percentage point. Now, in Wisconsin, a county judge ruling in a case brought by a conservative organization has ordered that 209,000 people be purged from the voter rolls. The state’s Elections Commission has delayed the purge while the case is appealed. In 2016, Trump won Wisconsin by just over 23,000 votes.
2016 was the first election in which Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law was in force. The progressive advocacy group Priorities USA reported that the law suppressed the votes of more than 200,000 residents in the 2016 election. Voter ID laws that require people to present photo identification at polling places disproportionately prevent poor people and people of color from voting.
“The largest drop-off was among black and Democratic-leaning voters,” investigative journalist Ari Berman said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, commenting on the report. “They found that there was a much larger drop-off in Wisconsin than Minnesota, which does not have a voter ID law, that counties with a large African-American population had a larger drop-off.”
The Associated Press published a report two weeks ago based on a leaked audio recording from a Nov. 21, 2019, meeting of the Wisconsin chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association. “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places,” Justin Clark, a senior counsel to Trump’s reelection campaign, was recorded saying. “Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better- funded program.” He was talking about organized poll watching activities, where party operatives position themselves at Democratic-leaning voting precincts to challenge voters, demanding election staff verify their identity or bar them from voting. Clark later said his words were misinterpreted.
In Georgia, the Republican-controlled state government purged 100,000 voters from the rolls in December. The move was approved by a federal judge, dismissing a lawsuit brought by Fair Fight, an organization founded after the 2018 election by Democrat Stacey Abrams to promote fair elections in Georgia and around the country.
The 2018 Georgia governor’s race pitted Abrams against Republican candidate Brian Kemp, who was the secretary of state at the time, responsible for overseeing the election and maintaining the voter rolls. In July 2018, months before the election, Kemp oversaw what has been called the largest mass disenfranchisement in U.S. history, purging over 500,000 voters from Georgia’s list of 6.6 million registered voters. Kemp received about 50,000 more votes than Abrams, out of close to 4 million cast, and claimed victory. Stacey Abrams refused to concede, noting Kemp’s corruption of the election, but did not fight the results.
Despite the aggressive efforts by the right wing to suppress the vote, voting rights advocates are making progress. In Florida, voters passed Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to 1.4 million ex-felons. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill forcing those prospective voters to pay “all fines and fees” associated with their earlier convictions, significantly slowing the restoration of these “returning citizens” to the voter rolls. Many call it a poll tax.
In five Western states from Colorado to Hawaii, mail-in ballots have increased voter participation, reduced costs and provided an auditable, paper ballot trail to allow easy verification of election results. The National Vote at Home Institute is working to expand the practice state by state. And the National Popular Vote project is working with state legislatures around the country to allocate Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationally.
Democracy is a constant struggle. From the suffragettes to today’s voting rights advocates, securing the right to vote should be a common pursuit of us all.