GOP moves to cut voter turnout across U.S.

Suppose you are the head of one of the two major American political parties, and elections are giving you a headache.

In five of the last six presidential elections, spanning almost a quarter century, the other party has won a nationwide majority of popular votes. If you add up all the votes nationally in elections for the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives, the other party has won a majority.

Perhaps even worse, national polls show that your party is much less popular than the other party and has been the second choice for several years.

To solve these problems, you come up with two possible solutions. The first is to develop new policies to broaden the party’s appeal among voters. The other is to find ways to reduce the number of voters who normally support the other party. That’s called “voter suppression.”

In short, the way to make democracy work, at least for your party, is to have less of it. Participation in voting in the United States is well below many other countries even without suppression, so the plan would be for an even more dismal voter turnout.

You are the head of the Republican Party. And you have opted to find ways to make participation harder for some traditional Democratic Party voters – the poor and minorities.

Your policy focuses on those elections having the greatest effect on presidential and congressional outcomes. You have discovered something the Democrats’ electoral strategy seems to have missed.

The key is not presidential or congressional elections. The most important elections to control who votes are for the state legislatures and governors. If you can win control in the states, you can impose the rules governing voting in national elections.

In some states with a pattern of discrimination, especially against African-Americans, the Voting Rights Act used to require them to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing voting rules. The Supreme Court threw out that requirement.

The GOP has stepped up its efforts to make voting more difficult for people likely to support the Democrats, the New York Times reports.

In the last decade, the Republicans claimed new measures were need to prevent fraud – ineligible people voting. The method of choice was better voter identification.

New laws require voters to show photo identification and increasingly a second document like a passport or birth certificate proving American citizenship. Many poor people, traditional Democratic supporters, do not have either and getting them may be difficult.

When evidence showed virtually no voting fraud, the focus shifted to simply making access to voting more difficult. Registration and voting on the same day, proven in Maine and elsewhere to produce higher participation, is being eliminated in some states.

States under GOP control have reduced the length of early voting periods. They have made applying for an absentee ballot more difficult and cut the number of polling places.

There are 23 states with a Republican governor and legislature, meaning they can readily change voting laws. In 2013, eight tightened voting rules.

Discrimination against minority voters appears to be growing again. Right after the Supreme Court decision, some states moved to adopt plans previously denied federal approval.

The other piece of GOP election strategy is the redrawing of congressional district lines every ten years. Republican-controlled state legislatures pack as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible to leave the GOP the rest of the seats.

With all the talk about political deadlock and who will run for president in 2016, most of these changes escape public notice. When people vote for state legislators, they almost never see the national implication of their choices.

The Republicans may be doing nothing illegal. The Democrats seem to have been too passive at a national level in working against the GOP effort to influence elections by voter suppression.

Nationally, the Democrats could make it more of a campaign issue. While suppression has not been a problem in Maine, people in any state favoring participation should understand their votes are devalued when other states distort national election results by limiting voting.

There are now 14 states where the Democrats control both the legislature and the governorship. Perhaps the GOP has already written them off, but the Democrats there could use reverse tactics to increase participation and draw better district boundaries.

Beyond trying to counter voter suppression, if the Democrats fail to develop outreach programs to help the poor and minorities register and vote, the GOP strategy could have the long-lasting effect of protecting its hold onto power.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.