‘We shall be as a shining city on a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.’ Words of the Puritan lawyer, John Winthrop, in 1630 as he sailed to America in the Arbella on his way to becoming Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The city on a hill is not shining brightly today. Both political parties in the USA have been hitting the dimmer-switch on democracy. The level of voter suppression practised by the Republicans has recently amounted to a war on the young, the poor and, especially the non-white, voter. This has included, quite apart from gerrymandering, making registration as difficult as possible, selective cancelling of voter registration, making black citizens access to the polls intimidating and time-consuming and finding creative ways to invalidate likely opponents’ votes. Add to this in 2016 a bombardment of advertisements, influenced by personal data, targeted at African-American votes to deter them from voting. Doubtless to be repeated. Trump is now deploying the full repertoire of voter suppression, and more, to stay in power.
Since 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, denial of the right to vote based on ‘race, colour or conditions of servitude’ has been prohibited. But in many states the Fifteenth Amendment was honoured in an ‘unremitting and ingenious defiance of the constitution’. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Acts which came at the price of much African-American blood-shed and sacrifice during the civil rights movement allowed the Federal Government to regulate electoral practices in 16 states. These were mostly in the Deep South, where fewer than half of the state’s ‘minority voters’ were registered to vote. Any future Jim Crow voter measures would have to pass ‘pre-clearance’, scrutiny by the Federal Government’s Ministry of Justice. Voting rights seemed more secure.
In 2013 and partly by way of reaction to Obama’s Presidency, the case of Shelby (a county in Alabama) v Holder (the Federal Attorney- General) reached the Supreme Court. The court found 5-4 that the protective pre-clearance clause in the 1965 Act did not apply in contemporary circumstances, opening a Pandora’s box of Republican tricks to reduce the number of African-American, young and poor voters, and finding procedural ways not to count their votes when they did vote.
The magnitude of the voter suppression that the Republicans have been trying to perpetrate is not immediately apparent. A kind of noble patriotic omerta reigns. Defeated US politicians do not shout about the illegality or injustice of their opponents’ electoral practices. After he lost his challenge to George W. Bush, out of respect for the Supreme Court, poor Al Gore slipped into the ozone layer of public life without a peep. Condemning unlawful electoral practice is simply not done at least not by Democrat leaders. Trump has no such scruples.
No omerta, though, for Greg Palast, a zany, trilby-hatted ferret of an investigative journalist who has been down several holes and come out with a rabbit the size of Wallace & Gromit’s Were-Rabbit. Palast’s How Trump Stole 2020, a popular- press collage of outrageous cases of electoral malpractice illustrated by Ted Rall’s cartoons, is a treasure trove of hard won data on voter suppression from several states including the key swing states of Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The Republican enemies of democracy featured are the former Governor of Ohio, Jon Husted, and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, along with the then Secretary of State for Kansas Kris Kobach.
There are two major ways of removing large numbers of voters from electoral lists. First to claim they have moved out of state or county and the second that they are double-registered. One of the biggest scams was invented by Kobach. He produced a list, spread across states, of 7.2 million potential alleged ‘double-voters’ - people with names common amongst ethnic groups such as Jackson, Brown, Mohamed and Rodriguez. Hence Trump’s repeated tweets about electoral fraud. The list was used for cross-checking names, allegedly recurring in different states, and then purging them on the grounds they had moved out of county or state while remaining on their original register. And this linked further to listing ‘inactive voters’. This was taken as evidence to show that those claimed to have not voted in two previous elections had moved house out of state or county. This contravenes the 1993 National Voting Registration Act which says failure to vote is not a reason to cancel a registered voter.
The list simply ignored differences in middle names, and those purging them failed to follow the recommended procedure of checking against social security numbers. Purges of this kind took place in swing states such as North Carolina.
Palast ferreted out the voter lists used by the Governors and Secretaries of State controlling elections and then had the names and addresses individually checked using accurate and current data held by Amazon and Ebay for deliveries. He discovered that Kobach was disseminating a list that was inaccurate on an epic scale. Following an earlier purge of half a million voters, Ohio’s Husted, during the lead up to the 2016 election, purged a further 426,781 voters. In the case of Georgia 340,134 of these ‘absentee voters’ still lived at their home address in the state or country they were alleged to have left. Those who moved house within their own neighbourhood or country were also struck off (the poor were over four times more likely to move locally compared with the average American). Overall, this eliminated 1 in 7 African-American voters. In early 2020, Georgia purged another 120,000 voters. Wisconsin trying the same game is fortunately running into legal problems. Its Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a lawsuit that would see 129,000 removed from the voter rolls on grounds they’d moved from their registration addresses. The nation’s top experts in address verification, including the official licensee of the US Postal Service, says that a minimum of 39,722 “movers”, mostly African-Americans, had not moved. Trump won Wisconsin last time by 23,000 votes.
The 2002 Federal Help America Vote Act created a ‘provisional ballot’ available to voters whose eligibility to vote is challenged. For example in some states a gun licence is a valid ID while a student’s university ID is not. Under the Help America Act a direct-mail form has to be sent them; the different boxes have to be filled in carefully and returned. This is exactly the sort of communication that’s likely to be binned, mislaid or accidently spoiled. If the document actually reaches the correct recipient and is sent back correctly, there is no guarantee the provisional ballot will be counted, and you can guess in which states they aren’t.
Now COVID has increased the electoral importance of postal ballots; it means voting according to instructions avoiding the many possible technical errors that can cause a vote to be rejected, and getting your vote counted – (eight states require double verification).* You can guess who will negotiate the electoral chicane most easily and who won’t. Given that Trump won 2016 by 74 Electoral College votes while Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million, and given Trump’s narrow victory in swing states still subject to voter suppression, Biden has a much higher hill to climb than the opinion polls indicate. And he won’t find a shining light at the top. Rather a President claiming massive voter fraud and determined to cling onto power at any cost.
As for the scale of voter fraud throughout the United States, the total number of documented cases of double voting in 2016 was four.
*For state control of postal balloting see “Letter from America: How to Rig an Election” 15/09/2020
See “The Scandal of US Voter Suppression” TheArticle 25/09/2020