Voter suppression stories aren't just about which party wins or loses in November -- they're about racist disenfranchisement in the long term
Recent reporting has revealed indisputable voter suppression efforts in North Dakota and Georgia that appear to specifically target Native and Black communities. While these racist disenfranchisement efforts are obviously notable in the lead-up to next month’s midterm elections, media fail the public when they simply focus on the impact in the short-term and turn the story into another horse-race conversation. The real story here is the long-term, conservative-led effort to systematically dismantle voting rights for people of color -- and it won’t go away after November.
On October 9, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to suspend a lower federal court ruling that requires North Dakota voters to show identification with a residential address in order to vote. This requirement effectively disenfranchises Native American tribal residents, as many do not have the acceptable identification or don’t list residential addresses on their IDs. As the plaintiffs in the original court case explained, the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t deliver to residences in rural tribal communities so residents instead list P.O. boxes on tribal IDs. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that “the risk of disfranchisement is large” in clearing the way for the state to enforce this voter ID requirement after it had previously been blocked during primary voting.
On the same day, The Associated Press reported that Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (who is also currently running for governor on the Republican ticket) has actively purged “over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012,” and currently has “over 53,000 registrations sitting on hold.” AP’s analysis revealed that nearly 70 percent of the 53,000 “on hold” registrations were those of Black voters, an astonishing statistic when the state population is only 32 percent Black. The reasons for holding a registration vary, and can include simple errors in entry or “a dropped hyphen in a last name, for example.”
Both of these efforts began well before the current election cycle. Mother Jones reports that North Dakota Republicans began tightening state voter ID laws after Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was first elected in 2012. Kemp was first elected secretary of state in 2010, but his office began its purge as early as 2012 as well. It’s not even the only move Kemp has made to suppress votes in Georgia in recent months. Both fit into the broader systemic dismantling of voting rights in America, signaled by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, and subsequent rulings granting states greater freedom to dictate their own election maps and voting requirements -- tools that some states have used to create stricter barriers to voting access for communities of color.
Right-wing media have been cheering on the conservative voter suppression campaign for as long as it has been underway, helpfully propping up bogus claims of widespread voter fraud to justify this clear and targeted racist disenfranchisement.
Media silence about the systemic dismantling of voting rights -- as was the case for coverage of the 2016 races -- should not be an option. Instead, media’s responsibility is to present the full context and actively counter the decades-long trend in voter suppression perpetrated by the right-wing political and media ecosystem.
Coverage ought to focus on conveying the message that instances of voter suppression are both far from isolated, and far from random in the communities they affect. And even summing up in-depth reports that do provide this context with narrow midterms-focused headlines, like these, is itself a disservice:
[New York, 10/10/18]
It’s just one step above a headline that tells readers nothing at all.
Framing the latest voter purges from Georgia and North Dakota as purely horse-race developments effectively erases the opportunity to address the racist erosion of voting rights. This is not simply about a red or blue wave, or about polling numbers, or campaign strategy. This is not a matter of being bad for Democrats or good for Republicans. And this will not go away after next month.
Black and Native people are being robbed of their voices at the polls in service of a conservative structure that will only work to systematically reinforce and further these voter suppression efforts in the future. Racism is a feature of this system, not a bug.
Every time we see a headline about one specific and seemingly isolated disenfranchisement effort, we are deprived of the chance to make larger connections; to understand the rot at the core of our electoral system; and to fight it.