Voter suppression remains largely in the eye of the beholder in America. It’s everywhere and it’s nowhere, and its ghostly presence promises to haunt the November elections.
Isabel Calderon is a prime example.
The former volunteer with the League of United Latin American Citizens committed voter fraud, made an honest mistake, or is a victim of voter suppression. It depends on whom you ask.
Texas authorities discovered that Ms. Calderon, 46, voted twice in the state’s March 3 primary, first during in-person early voting and again on election day.
She confessed to a Texas Ranger that she double-dipped at the polls, according to election officials. But her former colleagues at LULAC, a Hispanic civic and voting rights group, said she was a victim of voter suppression.
“LULAC condemns voter fraud by anyone. But we also know we’re dealing with racist terrorist organizations like the Texas Rangers, who have a history of police brutality and voter suppression in Texas,” said Domingo Garcia, national president of LULAC.
Voting rights experts of all political stripes use “voter suppression” as watchwords to frame the debate about election integrity and sometimes to challenge election results.
The political left says voter suppression is real, is happening everywhere and will get worse — and that Republicans are behind it.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, saw long lines at Georgia’s primary elections this month and said it was part of a “pattern” of voter suppression by Republicans.
“It is also a prelude to what could happen in November,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “[It’s] all part of the Republican playbook … because they’re afraid of the voters, they’re afraid of the vote.”
Liberal groups have a long list of what they say are voter suppression methods, including voter ID laws, lack of early voting and same-day voter registration, restrictions on registration drives, ballot shortages at the polls and felon disenfranchisement.
Conservatives say voter suppression is a myth and propaganda and that voter fraud will get worse without measures to safeguard the polls.
“I do not think there has been intentional voter suppression. I think if you’re going to have additional mail ballots that ballot harvesting should be outlawed,” Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, told The Washington Times. “A lot of the efforts in terms of mail ballots have gone into making sure everybody knows it is available. But you have to be ready to count them. And I think that’s also a challenge.”
Either way, charges of rigged elections seem unavoidable. Unequivocal incidents of voter suppression in recent elections are harder to find.
The Justice Department hasn’t taken major action to intervene in state elections, at least not since the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required preclearance of new election laws.
Several research organizations have dived deep into the Justice Department’s win-loss record in voting rights cases.
President George W. Bush directed the department to bring more voter fraud cases, but only 26 people were convicted or pleaded guilty to illegal registration or voting through the initiative, according to a study by Cornell University.
Meanwhile, 2,068 alleged election fraud cases were brought from 2000 to 2012 out of the millions of ballots cast, according to a study by News21, the student reporting project with headquarters at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.
The Justice Department ultimately monitored for possible violations of the Voting Rights Act in 35 counties across the country in the 2018 midterm elections, down from 67 in 2016. The number of states monitored for compliance in 2018 was 19, compared with 28 in 2016.
Most of the monitoring was in pivotal battleground states with tight races for the House and Senate.
The jury is still out on whether long lines at the polls amount to voter suppression.
Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said voter suppression could be made worse by consequences of the coronavirus and civil unrest nationwide.
She said long lines at polling places are a “very good indication” that votes are being suppressed and voters need to be vigilant in November.
“The lines are just a very visceral visual of many of the other types of implications that the structural inequalities for our country on voting specifically,” she said.
Recent primaries in the District of Columbia, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also had long lines and other problems. Some were linked to social distancing measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
A study by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice found that long waits at polling places disenfranchise voters and harm communities of color and demographically changing communities the most.
Voter suppression skeptics say long lines are not evidence of systemic racism or malicious election administrators but more likely evidence of government incompetence and unpreparedness.
Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation, said voter suppression is a “propaganda term” and has no real definition beyond whatever political operatives pick to help their side win on Election Day. Voters should not fret lines at polling places in November.
“You just need to expect that if you’re going to be voting in person, and a lot of people are this year, that things might take a little bit longer, but that’s not anything nefarious. That’s just the world we’re living in right now,” he said. “If anything, if you want to blame long lines on anyone in 2020, blame the Chinese.”
People who think voter suppression is real and those who think it is imaginary agree that the November elections pose new challenges that could undermine Americans’ confidence in the results.
The League of Women Voters has entered into 21 lawsuits since March to protect voting rights and diminish the impact of the coronavirus on suppressing the vote nationwide, according to the group.
The league reached agreements with New Jersey and Minnesota last week to change the way those states handle mail-in votes for upcoming primaries.
If judges in both states accept the terms of the agreements, the league says, then voters in New Jersey will be able to fix any issues with their signature-match process to have those ballots counted and Minnesota will suspend a witness requirement for absentee voters.
Conservatives share concerns about undue influence on voters casting ballots at the mailbox instead of the ballot box.
The Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky said electioneering laws that guide acceptable conduct at a polling place do not apply to a voter’s home and the threat of intimidation while filling out a ballot this fall is real.
“My biggest concern this year in the 2020 election is the same concern that the president shares, which is this push for all-mail elections because of the vulnerability of absentee and mail-in ballots to everything from being lost in the mail to being stolen, forged, altered, to one of the things you often see in these cases, which is intimidation, pressure on voters in their homes to vote a particular way,” Mr. Spakovsky said.
State officials, not the federal government, determine how elections are conducted. State officials make decisions about polling locations, the number of poll workers, the number of election machines and ballots on hand at polling locations based on projections of voter turnout. If the coronavirus’ disparate impact on communities turns the projections into guesswork, then states will need emergency plans to accommodate anyone wishing to vote and voters can’t necessarily expect results on Election Day.