GOP Voter-Suppression Efforts Are Shifting to the Local Level

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Sometimes the easiest place to restrict voting options is at the local level, out of sight of federal judges and national media.
Photo: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Most of the fencing going on between federal judges and Republicans seeking to restrict voting opportunities for those people (who tend to vote for the wrong party) involves state election officials in GOP-controlled states. It has happened in Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, with varying short-term results. The impression that this is a fight in which one side is building barricades in state capitals is especially strong in the Tar Heel State, where a very self-conscious, conservative political-and-policy revolution engineered under the leadership of wealthy wonk Art Pope has been directed from Raleigh.

But as David Graham explains at The Atlantic, the battle in North Carolina has now shifted to the county level, where local GOP elected officials are employing every tool they have to restrict early voting — a key point of contention in their fight with voting-rights advocates, who are acutely aware that African-Americans disproportionately utilize this option. The reason for this change of venue is simple: The federal judges policing state election policies have left a lot of the details up to local election officials. It’s also, conveniently, less visible to national voting-rights organizations and media:

Democrats and voting advocates charge that Republicans are trying to use the county boards as a way to achieve many of the same discriminatory effects that the federal court struck down. They can point to a memo from the executive director of the state GOP to Republican board members, calling for them to push through “party line changes” to voting plans. The decisions could have a large impact in North Carolina, which has become a key swing state in the presidential election.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because county election boards were where much of the mischief occurred in Florida in 2000 — particularly the odd things that happened before Election Day, in the way of voter purges, as well as on Election Day, when precincts abruptly moved, voters got intimidating messages, ballots were designed in peculiar ways, and ballot security was compromised.

It’s all a reminder that our insanely decentralized system of electing public officials can, in the wrong hands, become a game of voter suppression whack-a-mole, in which practices prohibited at one level not-so-mysteriously pop up at another. And it’s one of the central reasons that a supposedly national constitutional right to vote can become a threatened privilege, depending on where, exactly, you happen to live.