Midterm elections are attracting more attention than usual this year and, as they approach, the focus on the possibility of voter fraud is growing sharper. So is the attention to efforts that block legitimate voters from going to the polls. Two recent court rulings and a sharp debate in the Senate highlight how important the stakes are.
First came last month’s unfortunate 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in an Ohio case that said voters who skip a few elections and fail to respond to a notice from election officials may be stricken from the rolls. The court’s ruling essentially guts the 1993 federal law, known as the Motor Voter Act, that was designed to make it easier for Americans to cast ballots.
But the law gave states latitude on how to implement the rules. In Ohio, residents who have not voted in two years receive a postcard from the state. If they return the card, they stay on voter rolls. If not, they can be removed if they fail to vote in two subsequent elections.
Given the state of snail mail these days, it’s easy for a postcard from the government to be lost or overlooked. That circumstance shouldn’t be able to effectively disenfranchise voters. But limiting the number of people who are allowed to cast ballots has been a sneaky but effective tactic of Republicans in recent years, and the Supreme Court ruling gave it a big boost.
Washington University law professor Greg Magarian called the court’s ruling “another blow against democracy and voting rights.”
He added: “The Supreme Court has given other Republican state governments an engraved invitation to join Ohio’s attack on poor and minority voters. The court in the 1960s worked valiantly to end the electoral discrimination practiced most flagrantly in the Jim Crow South. Today’s court appears bent on restoring Jim Crow and spreading voting discrimination from sea to shining sea.”
A more positive development in the voting wars came in a federal judge’s rejection of misguided efforts by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to enforce a state law that would have required Kansans to show proof of citizenship before they could vote.
Kobach has become a symbol of sorts for efforts to limit access to the polls. But despite assertions by him – and by President Donald Trump – that voter fraud is rampant nationwide, U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson ruled that he had failed to prove his case to require proof of citizenship.
Robinson acknowledged that while proof exists that shows a “small number of noncitizen registrations in Kansas, it is largely explained by administrative error, confusion or mistake.”
Kobach had argued that the small number of cases were “the tip of the iceberg,” but Robinson countered: “Instead, the Court draws the more obvious conclusion that there is no iceberg; only an icicle, largely created by confusion and administrative error.”
Kobach, who is a candidate for governor of Kansas and led Trump’s short-lived commission on voter fraud, also drew a rebuke from the judge for his conduct during the case, saying he violated rules “designed to prevent prejudice and surprise at trial.” She ordered him to complete six hours of legal education to bring his conduct up to expected standards.
Then voter fraud took center stage when Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testified last month in Washington before the Senate Rules Committee. He claimed that fraudulent balloting was a far bigger threat to democracy than hacking by Russians or anyone else.
In response, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and other Democrats sharply disputed Ashcroft’s contention. Durbin noted that Illinois was one of 21 states targeted by Russian hackers, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
“When it comes to this hacking,” Durbin said, “it is an exponentially greater threat to our voting system than voter fraud.”
In the United States, the power of the people rests in access to the polls. In the Civil Rights era, Americans died in their quest to secure voting rights. Efforts to cast voter fraud as a much more pervasive problem than it really is amount to a not-so-subtle attempt to limit those rights and block people from the ballot box.
Don’t let that happen. Take full advantage of your right to vote. If you aren’t registered, sign up now to make sure your voice is heard. If you are registered, don’t fail to exercise the opportunity that is denied so many people around the globe.