Keeping unpersuaded hearts and minds from casting their votes is ugly — but, damn, it works.
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Republican strategists have long realized that the worst part of elections are the voters. Going back at least to Florida in the controversial 2000 election, they have found it easier to remove voters than to persuade them.
The purging schemes, along with other targeted voter suppression tactics, have been an ongoing component of GOP electoral strategy ever since. And carrying the ball as the clock ticks down to this year’s general election, we find Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
‘Oops, Our Bad’ in Virginia
As early voting began for its closely watched 2023 election — regarded as critical for both state and national politics, as well as Youngkin’s own aspirations to higher office — Virginia purged from its rolls approximately 10,000 voters who were misidentified as felons.
A mere 10,000 voters might not seem like that much, but Youngkin defeated his Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe by just 63,480 votes in 2021, also an off-year election. Or consider that Donald Trump begged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to ”find” him just 11,780 votes to reverse that state’s 2020 presidential election results. And let’s not forget George W. Bush’s 537-vote official margin in the Florida election noted at top.
In this month’s election, aided by the anticipated low turnout typical in odd-year elections, Youngkin is banking on expanding GOP control to the state Senate in addition to the state House, surprisingly retaken by the GOP in 2021. The results will go a long way to determining his own political future.
Dusting Off an Old Scheme
Purging felons from the rolls — while also sweeping up people who have the same first and last names as felons, a name-sharing phenomenon more common among voters of color than among white voters — has borne great dividends for Republicans in the past.
A voter purge of felons in Florida back in 2000 — with loose parameters (so loose, in fact, that a county election supervisor found her own name on the list) deliberately set to include a large number of nonfelons — paved the way for Bush’s disputed 537-vote victory over Al Gore that was controversially ratified by the Republican majority on the US Supreme Court. Given that thousands of disproportionately Black and Hispanic would-be voters were illegitimately purged, it is highly doubtful that, in the absence of the cynical purging scheme, the election would have been close enough to call SCOTUS in to decide it. If these overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning constituencies had not been targeted for suppression, Gore would have been president.
Better schooled by now in the potency of the purging tactic, Democrats in Virginia are not just sitting back and letting this happen. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting an investigation of the voter purge. Andrea Gaines, a spokesperson for Youngkin, said that the Department of Elections for the state is working to reinstate the purged voters. Virginia Democrats say, however, that Youngkin is deliberately slow-walking the process whereby felons whose sentences have been completed can have their right to vote reinstated, which must be petitioned on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to the time-honored Republican tradition of purging the voter rolls, the Republican-controlled Department of Elections closed early voting locations in south Richmond, Richmond being the city in Virginia with the highest population of African Americans. In addition it closed eight voting locations in Chesapeake and ended Sunday voting in localities across Virginia, seen as a direct blow aimed at traditional “souls to the polls” efforts to bring people from churches to voting locations.
‘Not a Democracy’
If you are entertaining doubts about the motive for what might be taken as efficiency-oriented “administrative” reshufflings, here is Paul Weyrich — co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, a powerful right-wing think tank — saying to a church crowd that he doesn’t want everybody to vote, and that the more people who vote the less leverage conservatives have.
Many Republicans have taken to pointing out “We’re a republic, not a democracy,” a phrase that is considered a wink and a nod to the quiet embrace of minority rule. And just in case anyone needs it spelled out clearer than that, Donald Trump himself is on record as saying that Republicans would never win another election if it was made easier for Americans to vote.
From Sea to Shining Sea
Now, lest Virginia feel left alone in the 2023 world of voter purging, Mississippi has thrown its hat into the ring. In an article published October 26, the NAACP alleges that thousands of Mississipians have been improperly purged from the voter rolls. It is further alleged that, in addition to putting active voters on the inactive lists, there have been numerous polling location changes since the 2022 election without proper notice, so people won’t know where to vote in the upcoming election.
Perhaps it’s just a Southern thing, you might say. After all, suppression of the voting rights of minorities is as traditionally Southern as grits and gravy. But, alas, this is absolutely not the case: Ohio, a GOP-controlled state north of Mason-Dixon, purged 26,000 voters from its voter rolls. The purge was done in September but October 10 was the last day for voters to fix their registration issues in order to vote in the November 7 election.
Many see even the laws that classify voters as inactive after missing one presidential election cycle as being unfair and particularly impactful on minorities. In April 2023, Texas introduced just such a law that would remove voters from active registration if they went four years without voting.
While purging the deceased from voter rolls makes sense, in practice this aggressive purging is both overbroad and causes disproportionate harm to the economically vulnerable, who may not be able to vote every four years or who are less equipped to navigate the re-registration process. Democracy think tank Demos found this has a powerful cumulative effect on a national scale with “more than 19 million voters … purged from the rolls between the 2020 and 2022 general elections, [and with] more than one-quarter [of these] dropped for flawed reasons, like inactivity.”
‘We Got Plenty of Votes!’
There had been hopes in the first two years of the Biden administration that the federal government would pass legislation that would protect voters from purges and the closing of poll locations, especially those schemes that seemed targeted along racial lines. However in January 2022, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (then-D-AZ) refused to join their party in voting for a reform of the filibuster that would have allowed voter protection legislation to pass — a stinging defeat for the Biden administration and a serious setback for voting rights..
With the narrow loss of the House of Representatives to the GOP in 2022, there is now no chance of any federal protection for voters passing before the 2024 elections. Indeed, so confident is Donald Trump in his prospects with the system now in place that he recently told his New Hampshire rally attendees that, come November 2024, “You don’t have to vote, don’t worry about voting. The voting, we got plenty of votes!” A far cry, that, from his “Republicans will never win another election!”
Politics is inherently multifactorial: There are so many factors contributing to the popularity of candidates and the ascendancy of parties and governing philosophies. Elections, on the other hand, are a pure, linear numbers game: You need more votes to win and whether you achieve that margin by winning hearts and minds or by targeting the casting and/or counting of votes is, pragmatically speaking, immaterial. Keeping unpersuaded hearts and minds from casting their votes is ugly — but, damn, it works.
There is hope that, should Democrats recapture the House and hold on to the Senate and presidency in 2024, the American people might see desperately needed voting rights legislation. Should Republicans hold any branch, however, it will take them one step closer to their ideal world, where elections proceed smoothly with no voters from any opposing parties.
Doug Ecks is an attorney and a writer. He holds a JD from the University of California, Hastings and a BA in philosophy from California State University, Long Beach, Phi Beta Kappa. He also writes and performs comedy as Doug X.