- Interview by
- Luke Savage
When the Republican Party recaptured the House in the 2010 midterm elections, it marked not only the end of a relatively brief period of Democratic control but also the beginning of a wider offensive against voting rights that has been underway ever since. By capturing key statehouses in 2010 and in the years that followed, Republicans have been increasingly able to tilt the electoral process in their favor — a strategy that has profoundly affected the results of recent elections and was one of the major backdrops to Donald Trump’s surprise Electoral College victory in 2016.
Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman to discuss the history of gerrymandering and voter suppression — and the considerable impact both continue to have on the course of US politics.
In 2018, you told NPR that we’re “seeing a national effort by the Republican Party to try to restrict voting rights, and it’s playing out in states all across the country.” Can you describe what the term “voter suppression” means and the many different forms it can take?
I think of voter suppression as efforts to keep people from voting. It’s really that simple.
Back in the day, during the Jim Crow era, the tactics were more sweeping. You had things like literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses that were meant to keep people from voting — primarily African Americans, but not exclusively. There were efforts to keep poor white Americans from voting, efforts to keep new immigrant groups from voting, efforts to keep Hispanics and Native Americans from voting. So there’s a long history of this in the United States.
The modern-day tactics are things like requiring an ID to cast a ballot (which millions of Americans don’t have); making it harder for people to either register to vote or harder to stay on the voter rolls once they have registered; cutting back on the time people have to vote (like cutting early voting in states); closing polling places; or preventing certain people from voting altogether (certain states have felony disenfranchisement laws). So, there are a bunch of different tactics — it’s not one thing.
In a 2017 longform feature for Mother Jones, you wrote: “From the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to the election of our first black president in 2008, the US saw a gradual increase in voting access.” But since 2008, and in particular since 2010, there’s been a major offensive against voting and other democratic rights. Can you give us some context for how this offensive was born, and also how it fits into the wider history of voting rights in America?
In 2008, the Republicans saw not just the election of the first black president, but also that there was a very diverse coalition behind the first black president. You had 5 million new voters cast a ballot in 2008 and of those 5 million new voters, 2 million were African American, 2 million were Latino, and 600,000 were Asian American. So virtually the entire growth of the electorate was nonwhite voters, and these voters voted overwhelming for Barack Obama.
The Republican Party, which is a largely white party, saw the writing on the wall, and they really only had two options. They could either try and change their policies to go after this younger, more diverse, more progressive electorate, or they could try to prevent them from voting. They did the latter. The way they were able to do this was to get power at the state level, and once they had power at the state level they were able to begin checking the Obama coalition and enshrining white Republican power — both through efforts to make it harder to vote and then also through gerrymandered maps that would keep them in power for the next decade.
So beginning in 2010, the states became a laboratory for Republicans to try to prevent the Obama coalition from becoming the new normal in American politics.
A lot of people know Wisconsin as a laboratory for the worst of the GOP’s plans during the Tea Party era, including Scott Walker’s war on organized labor. But fewer are familiar with the experiments in voter suppression that have gone on there. As you recently noted, Wisconsin has been so effectively gerrymandered that even when Democrats won 53 percent of the vote statewide in 2018, they only took about 36 percent of the seats in the state legislature. Wisconsin also played a pivotal role in the 2016 presidential election. So let’s hone in on Wisconsin — what can you tell us about the efforts to suppress the vote there and their broader significance?
Wisconsin is a really fascinating place because historically, it had some of the best voting laws in the country and was among the leaders in voter turnout for decades. It moved from being a laboratory for what was good about democracy to a laboratory for subverting democracy, and it’s one of the most startling examples anywhere in the country.
What Republicans did in the legislature under Scott Walker was pass a law that required a government-issued ID to vote. In my reporting for Mother Jones, I found that tens of thousands of Wisconsinites had been turned away from the polls in 2016, and there was one study by the University of Wisconsin that found that up to 23,000 people in two of the state’s most Democratic counties were turned away from the polls by this voter-ID law. Donald Trump only won the state of Wisconsin by about 22,000 votes. So the voter ID law was not the only reason Trump won Wisconsin, but it certainly had a major effect.
There were lots of other things they did in Wisconsin, like make it more difficult to register and cut early voting. There were, I believe, thirty-three different changes that hindered democracy in one form or another, and that was done in conjunction with gerrymandering, where the Republicans came in and drew the maps to limit Democratic representation. They turned what had been a 50-50 swing state into a very hard-right, Republican state.
To what extent are voter suppression efforts part of a deliberate political strategy? How explicit have Republicans been about it?
They’ve been pretty explicit about it. You had a Republican member of Congress in Wisconsin say during the 2016 election that he thought voter ID would make a difference for Donald Trump, and indeed that’s what happened. You’ve had comments over and over again saying that this is going to help them win elections.
And there’s no way a bunch of state legislatures all of sudden would do the exact same thing in a vacuum. When I first started writing about this after the 2010 election, I saw virtually identical pieces of legislation in places like Texas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Clearly there were mobilizing forces behind this — for instance, groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They wrote “model bills” like voter-ID laws that were then distributed to state legislators. You had the Republican National Committee and other conservative groups helping Republicans gerrymander and helping make sure the same people were redrawing the maps in many states so they could do it as effectively as possible.
So this happened at the local level, but it wasn’t a grassroots effort that spread state to state. These were the most powerful people in the Republican Party and the most powerful people in the conservative movement using their power at the state level to generate a national strategy to suppress the vote.
You alluded to this already, but how do the efforts to gerrymander and suppress the vote fit into the broader history of racial exclusion in the United States, particularly in southern states?
Voter suppression has been going on in the South for centuries. First, during slavery, obviously African Americans weren’t allowed to vote. Then you had the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, when millions of black men were enfranchised for the first time, and you had black governors and senators in states like Mississippi and Louisiana. That was countered by a vicious white supremacist campaign that led to things like poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. White segregationists took control of the South following the end of Reconstruction, and that situation basically maintained itself until the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965.
The VRA was absolutely instrumental in countering voter suppression in the South. First, it struck down all the discriminatory laws that had prevented African Americans from voting, but secondly, it required states that had a long history of discrimination to approve their voting changes with the federal government. That provided a very powerful check on voter suppression in places like Alabama and Georgia for decades.
The turning point was in 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and said that those states didn’t have to approve their voting changes with the federal government. That made it so much easier for places like Alabama and Georgia and Texas and a host of others to do the kind of voter suppression the Voting Rights Act is intended to stop.
I’m glad you brought up the courts, because the courts have of course played a major role in setting the terms of voting rights and also in setting the terms by which infringements of voting rights can be challenged. There was a Supreme Court decision just in June that basically said partisan gerrymandering can no longer be challenged in federal court, that rigging the electoral map to help one party is basically outside of their jurisdiction. Can you talk about that 5–4 decision?
It’s such a radical decision to say not just that federal courts cannot strike down partisan gerrymandering, but that they can’t even review it. I think if you asked the average person on the street if they think parties should be able to draw districts to entrench their own power, and that the federal courts can’t even review it, they would think that’s a pretty insane thing to happen.
The party in power in a lot of states are going to say, “Well, now I can gerrymander and not even have to worry about the Supreme Court.” It could still get struck down in a state court or possibly be checked by other means, but as far as the federal courts are concerned, they’re staying out of this.
This is a big deal, because we are entering a new redistricting cycle in 2021. The 2020 election will determine the composition of the state legislatures that draw new districts, so heading into a new redistricting cycle the Supreme Court is basically saying that if the new maps are drawn in a really crazy and insane way, they’re not even going to try and review it.
The Trump administration recently backed down on its push to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census. For those unfamiliar with the significance of that effort, unsuccessful as it was for now, can you discuss what the administration’s motivations were and how it fits into the broader picture of Republican voter suppression?
The Trump administration claimed the question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which was even too much for Chief Justice John Roberts to believe because the Trump administration has not brought a single lawsuit to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
I think they wanted to do this for three reasons. Number one, they wanted to create an undercount of immigrant areas so that immigrant areas would have less political-economic power. Second, they wanted to get a tally of noncitizens which they could try and use for immigration enforcement. (Although I’m not sure how that would work because they wouldn’t know who was documented or undocumented, they would just know who was or wasn’t a citizen, and of course a lot of people would lie or not answer that question.)
Finally, I think they wanted the citizenship data so they could exclude noncitizens from counting towards representation. Right now, districts are drawn based on total population, but you could say, “We’re not going to count noncitizens.” So areas with a lot of noncitizens like California, New York, or Texas would have less representation. Not only that, but within states it would make it easier for Republicans to gerrymander because generally speaking, noncitizens tend to live in areas represented by Democrats.
The overarching strategy was to try and maintain conservative, white political power. They couldn’t do it with this one question on the census, but they will try other ways to maintain white conservative power going forward, whether by the census or other means.
Those pushing for tougher voter-ID laws or similar measures often say that these are necessary to prevent fraud. To what extent are complaints about voter fraud legitimate?
Voter fraud is a very small problem in American elections. This has been an almost entirely manufactured controversy.
For example, voter-ID laws are meant to stop a type of fraud, voter impersonation, that is almost nonexistent. One study looked at over a billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014 and found only thirty-one cases of voter impersonation. And usually when it happens, it’s detected, and penalties can include five years in jail.
The real purpose of these efforts is to try and keep certain people from the polls.
Lastly, there are many different state- and national-level campaigns and organizations that are pushing back against gerrymandering and voter suppression. If someone was looking to get involved or just get informed about these efforts, where can they start?
First off, just keeping track of what’s going on. So obviously read my stuff, but there are a bunch of different outlets that are covering this closely now — not just the New York Times or Washington Post, but Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. National voting rights groups have done a lot of work on these issues, as have civil rights groups like the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund.
We also have to look at where voter suppression is coming from. There is such a focus on the presidency now with Trump, and secondarily a focus on Congress, but there is very little attention paid to state legislatures, even though they are the ones leading the effort to pass these undemocratic policies.
So I think people should get involved at the state level, first and foremost, to fight back against these laws or try and pass better laws. It is much easier to try and change policy at the state legislature level then it is to elect or defeat a president. One of my big fears in 2020 is that people are going to spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over the presidential race, as important as that is, and they’re going to ignore the state legislature races that are going to be critical — especially as we go into a new redistricting cycle that will determine legislative districts and congressional districts for the next decade.