Voter suppression -- voter ID laws and other measures to make it harder for the poor and minorities to vote -- are a nationwide strategy of the right, including even here in Maryland. Here's a map of how the struggle is playing out, including in our own and neighboring states.

/By Woody Woodruff/ PM BlogSpace Report/ “Many Americans face an ever-shifting voting landscape. The national struggle over voting rights is the greatest in decades.” That observation from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University gets truer every day, as onerous voter suppression efforts in 17 states are challenged and in some heartening cases overturned by courts, while other states – possibly including Maryland –  try to find wiggle room for their restrictions to survive court scrutiny.

Simultaneously, activist groups try to find work-arounds to beat restrictions the courts won’t overturn.

Voter suppression comes in two basic flavors: measures that actually disqualify otherwise eligible voters from casting a ballot, and measures that make it more difficult for voters. What these flavors have in common is their disproportionate effect on the poor and working poor and minorities, who often vote for Democrats, and their near-perfect alignment with the list of states run largely or solely by Republican state governments.

The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, says “Today in dozens of states, laws are being used in partisan politics to keep millions of Americans from voting. These include new measures that require voter ID or proof of citizenship, eliminate early voting days or locations, restrict or shut polling locations, and a myriad other tactics designed to unfairly limit and discourage voter participation by African-American, Latino, Asian, young, and lower-income Americans.”

It’s about class, finally.

Progressives who find the presidential race an occasion for holding their noses can nevertheless agree that the people most affected by voter suppression are the people we want to help emerge from the toils of capitalism-fueled inequality through the whole panoply of democratic means. Voting is not the only weapon of the weak in the armory of progressive democracy, but it is central. Activism on the terrain of expanding the vote and including the excluded in use of the tools of power is, progressives all agree, a social good. Conversely, voter suppression frequently takes advantage of capitalism’s more general form of oppression – keeping workers and out-of-workers alike anxious and busy with survival. When your life offers few opportunities to raise your head and examine your rights and opportunities to effect change, it takes fewer and more seemingly trivial barriers to keep you from the polls.

And although voter suppression is something we expect to see taking place in states of the Old Confederacy or the far Southwest, it can happen anywhere, including Maryland. An early example came in the last (primary) voting cycle, when a local election board closed polling places in Montgomery County that served largely minority communities.

As the Baltimore Sun article pointed out in late 2015, “The dust-up in Maryland's most populous county could portend partisan conflict in other jurisdictions because every election board in Maryland now has a GOP majority after Republican Larry Hogan became governor this year.”

The furor in Montgomery led to a rollback of the move. But in many Maryland counties where the GOP majority on the election board can count on the support of conservative local officials and voters, such moves might stick.

Maryland progressives and their allies have numerous opportunities to work against voter suppression and for voter inclusion in neighboring states, principally in Virginia and West Virginia. The Mountain State’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a voter-ID bill this spring “right out of the ALEC playbook,” according to one dissenting Democratic legislator. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, later signed a conference version of the bill in which he cannily negotiated a wider range of possible IDs acceptable at the polling place and, quite positively, “requires the Secretary of State's Office to work with the Division of Motor Vehicles to create an automatic voter registration system.”

Virginia beckons activists this year because its voter ID law, upheld by a lower court earlier, will be weighed by the 4th Circuit appeals court in Richmond beginning Sept. 22 and however the decision falls there will be little time left to organize before the Oct. 17 voter registration deadline. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s campaign to mass-enfranchise tens of thousands of ex-offenders now barred from voting was blocked in court by GOP legislators but McAuliffe vows to use his robopen to approve as many individual cases as possible before the election.

 Pennsylvania, another neighbor state, passed a voter-ID law in 2014 but it was overturned by a court. Now run by a Democratic governor’s administration, Pennsylvania is less vulnerable to top-down voter suppression but (as we will see) may still have varying levels of access in the many counties between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that are GOP bastions.

Positive attempts to improve the access to voting for poor and minority voters frequently run into resistance from those same Republican forces. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey recently vetoed a very progressive automatic voter registration law that would have broadened access for many marginal voters. Perhaps surprising to many, there is not an affirmative right to vote in the US Constitution – just a recitation of items that may not be used to deny that implied right, such as race, gender etc.

The news on voter suppression has not been muted, and the court decisions of the past six weeks or so have highlighted them nicely for a wider public. One of the most complete accounts is from ProPublica. Sarah Smith reported on Aug. 12 that “There are 15 states with new voting laws that have never before been used during a presidential election, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. These laws include restrictions like voter ID requirements and limits on early voting. Many are making their way through the courts, which have already called a halt to two laws in the past month — one in North Carolina and one in North Dakota. Most recently, the US Supreme Court deadlocked on whether or not to review the 4th Circuit panel’s devastating rejection of the North Carolina law, but the Washington Post, in a lengthy backgrounder, showed that local officials were still trying to restrict low-income and minority voters even after the state law, clearly crafted to impose such restrictions, had been invalidated for at least the November 8 election.

“ ‘All the sides were pushing for opinions over the summer so that nobody would run into the concern that it was all of a sudden too late to shift what the state had been planning to do,’ said Jennifer Clark, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.”

Still, the uncertainty about voting in North Carolina and other states where suppressive measures are in play means that many voters on the margin will have less incentive to assert a right to the polls and more incentive for the induced passivity that has frequently reduced the ballot-box impact and power of poor and minority voters in the past. This is open terrain for activism.

Republicans are not missing the opportunity this affords. The Trump campaign, according to Politico,[Cc1]  is recruiting election observers to pursue the (quite debunked) notion that voter fraud is rampant – which is the pretext for many of the more onerous voter ID laws. “In a move that's unprecedented in a presidential election, the [Trump] campaign late this week launched a page on its website proclaiming, ‘Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election! Please fill out this form to receive more information about becoming a volunteer Trump Election Observer.’, " Politico reported Aug. 13. Voter fraud has in fact been almost entirely absent from US elections and “ballot security” efforts are notoriously prone to tactics of intimidation and discrimination. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Right Under Law, parent group of Election Protection, assembled a 75-organization coalition that wrote an open letter to chairmen of the four parties contesting this presidential election urging them to refrain from ballot security activity and discourage it throughout their organizations. Election Protection’s state by state information map is among the most complete in the array of progressive organizations working to expand ballot access.

The source of the immediate peril is laws in a wide array of Red states modeled on American Legislative Exchange Council proposals and introduced quite quickly after the Shelby decision in a lockstep fashion that is hard to see as merely coincidence. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a report earlier this year mapping the state-by-state danger. The Afro-American published in our region reported June 22: “Scott Simpson, the report’s co-author and director of Media and Campaigns for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, said there’s reason for concern. ‘As we approach the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, we’re seeing the perfect storm of a diversifying electorate and a set of states and localities responding by implementing a broad array of voter discrimination tactics,’ he said. “In 2016, it is entirely possible that the presidency, control of the Senate, and a number of governorships could be determined by the voter discrimination made possible by Shelby.”

Voter suppression is of course no new wrinkle; the poll taxes and arcane questionnaires arbitrarily applied in the Old Confederacy (and elsewhere) to suppress black votes are part of the history. The documentarian John Wellington Ennis, investigating the 2004 election in Ohio, catalogued “a staggering number of approaches to voter suppression and election theft: Biased officials, voter registration prevented, wrongfully purged voter rolls, voter intimidation, voter misinformation, confusing polling places, untrained poll works, voter ID barriers, long lines, provisional balloting, and that’s all before you even get to cast your vote on what may be a touch screen voting machine unable to verify your vote was properly recorded.”

The civil rights organization Advancement Project catalogues those practices in a handy graphic: not only voter ID laws, for instance, but requirements for cross-checking ID and systematic closure of motor vehicle offices in the state that can make it convenient to get an ID.

Many of the state voter suppression measures were quickly passed after the Supreme Court (in Shelby v. Holder, 2013) overturned portions of the Voting Rights Act as having served their purpose, being no longer needed. Those states that because of their long history of Jim Crow discrimination formerly had to clear their voting regulations with the US Justice Dept. were off the hook, and moved quickly. The American Civil Liberties Union argues “We cannot let this be the first presidential election in 50 years without full protections for voters of color.” And the NAACP is one of many organizations supporting passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, filed in 2015 and restoring most of those protections (S. 1659 / H.R. 2867).

A new congressional voting rights caucus has formed to back the voting rights rehab bill, with Virginia’s Bobby Scott as one of four chairs and Maryland’s Elijah Cummings a deputy vice chair. Members also include Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen and D.C.’s Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Another of the chairs, Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas, has filed a more specific bill that prohibits any state from requiring an ID that costs money to acquire – a “poll tax” prohibition.

Activism on the ground is only beginning to be visible at this point, about 60 days out from the election, though many organized voter registration efforts roll in a push to make sure that registrants have easy access to the polls, including transportation options and help understanding ID requirements and securing the paperwork they need. In many states efforts will also be under way to combat other typical voter suppression tactics such as reducing early voting days or the hours for voting on Election Day, cutting the number of polling places or the staff at those polls in poor or minority areas. Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), said it provided live assistance for voters in Arizona and Florida during the August 30 state legislative and federal primaries.

One of the hot battlegrounds, of course, is North Carolina, with one of the earliest, most wide-ranging and most draconian voter suppression bills. There, a governor facing a tough election is digging in his heels on court-ordered easing of the state bill in order to excite his base. As noted above, though the law itself has been downchecked for the Nov. 8 election, local boards controlled by Republicans are deploying the full array of difficulties to keep poor and minority voters away from the polling places.

DSA activists in the DC-Maryland-Northern Virginia area have in the past traveled to neighboring states to register voters in underserved areas, and other work against voter suppression can be folded into that effort. Virginia beckons this year because its voter ID law, as noted above, will be under appeal probably into October before there’s a decision and however the decision falls there will be little time left to organize before the Oct. 17 voter registration deadline.

Voter suppression can exist at many levels and masquerade as ignorance or accident, but increasingly the tools of deliberate suppression are becoming clearer to the public and easier to combat. However, the battle still must be fought on the ground as well as in the courts.


 A version of this post appeared in the Labor Day issue of the Washington Socialist.

woody woodruff


M.A. and Ph.d. from University of Maryland Merrill College of Journalism, would-be radical, sci-fi fan... retired to a life of keyboard radicalism...