voting rights

Wisconsin Showed How Voter Suppression Efforts Can Backfire

A righteously angry marginal voter can quickly become a likely and then an actual voter. Photo: Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Evidence continues to mount that the Republican Party is planning to hold on to its power in Washington this November despite a lack of popular support. Some of its assets will include structural factors like the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the anti-democratic character of the United States Senate. But as the New York Times reported today, the GOP and its ideological and interest-group allies will augment those assets with a vast and expensive campaign of voter suppression, deploying lawsuits, “voter fraud” misinformation, voter registration purges, direct intimidation of voters at the polls, and anything else they can find to hold down participation by those people. In this campaign, Republicans will not hesitate to use COVID-19 as a silent partner that discourages some forms of voting even GOP legislators can’t prevent, or curtail others.

But in commenting on this sadly partisan (not that long ago, it really wasn’t) landscape of conflict over voting rights, Paul Waldman makes a very important point about how best to fight back:

 [Democrats] have their own legal teams mounting challenges to voter suppression laws, and groups organizing voters, and with the pandemic going on they’re pushing for more vote-by-mail. On Election Day, they’ll also be sending their own teams out to polling locations, to help push back on Republican challenges and help people assert their right to vote.

But there’s something else Democrats can do, something that might be even more important….

The more attention is given to GOP voter suppression efforts, the more voter suppression itself becomes a campaign issue, one that can boost turnout among Democrats. However you might feel about Joe Biden, it becomes more important to exercise your right to vote if you think someone is trying to take it away.

Which suggests that as important as legal efforts and grass-roots organizing are for Democrats to push back on the GOP’s well-funded campaign of suppression and intimidation, the best weapons may be public attention and outrage.

As Waldman points out, the recent primary in Wisconsin was a case in point: Republican legislators and conservative judges in both Madison and Washington insisted on curtailing voting by mail and going ahead with voting in person in the middle of a pandemic. The not-so-veiled idea is that a smaller and whiter electorate would protect a precious conservative position at stake on the very Wisconsin Supreme Court that helped hold down turnout. And it backfired spectacularly as Democrats made voter suppression a campaign issue and and a progressive judicial candidate romped to victory.

Totally aside from the fact that young and minority voters will resent efforts to keep them from participating in elections for which they are eligible, there’s a dirty little secret about voter suppression. A lot of Americans who aren’t young or black or brown or progressive fundamentally believe everyone should have the right to vote. And even if they aren’t angered by cynical voter suppression measures like restricted voting by mail, wholesale purges of the voting rolls, or right-wing bully-boys “policing” the polling places, they’re likely shamed by them. But they have to know about them. Supporting or opposing voting rights is not just some backstage duel between lawyers or campaign consultants, part of the inevitable if sometimes sleazy game of business-as-usual politics. It’s the moral and constitutional foundation that makes political competition legitimate. And it has to be treated that way every single day. If if is, people from a whole range of partisan and ideological perspectives will notice and react accordingly. And if we’re lucky, the vote-suppressors will be chased back into the shadow of the jailhouse where they belong.

Wisconsin Showed How Voter Suppression Efforts Can Backfire