The Democrat’s Sisyphean Challenge – Part Two

My previous post, on the institutional barriers facing Democrats, outlined that Democrats will need at a minimum a very decisive win to take back control of the US House.  As I wrote, gerrymandering is a significant obstacle to overcome – indeed it cost Danny O’Connor a win in Ohio’s 12th District – but so too is the assault on voting rights, as illustrated by the recent Supreme Court decision allowing Ohio to purge the names of about one million non-habitual voters.

The Assault on Voting Rights

Not content to draw congressional lines that unfairly favor the GOP, the Republicans have been on a multi-decade crusade to limit the ability of voters to cast their ballots freely and fairly.  As David Faris makes clear in It’s Time to Fight Dirty, a number of elements have been put in place to make it harder, or impossible for low income and minority voters – those who heavily favor Democrats – to cast their ballots.  There are a couple of points on this.

First, an ID requirement at polling places prevents low income voters and minorities, who are less likely to have a government issued ID like a driver’s license, to be allowed to vote.  Think this doesn’t matter?  Faris points out that Trump won Wisconsin by less than 28,000 votes, but 300,000 voters lacked the necessary ID to vote.

Second, there has been a systematic effort by the GOP to reduce the number of voting machines in urban and minority areas. This has the result of discouraging time-pressed workers, juggling childcare and multiple jobs, from casting their ballot.  They can’t wait on long lines.  The DNC estimated that in 2004, more voters gave up waiting in line in Ohio (174,000) than was Bush’s margin (118,000).

Third, there has been an effort underway in states like North Carolina and Ohio to reduce early voting which benefits Democrats – something that makes voting easier and more convenient. The United States is the only industrialized nation to have a national election take place on a regular working day.  Too bad Democrats are on the defensive here instead of following the lead of countries like France and Sweden, who automatically enroll their citizens as registered voters once they reach the proper voting age.

Purging Voters

While this is part of the assault on voting rights, “purging” deserves its own discussion.  Purging is the practice of removing voters from the voter rolls, causing them to be no longer eligible to vote.  While that practice is bad, it’s about to get even worse.  The recent Husted v. Randolph Institute Supreme Court decision paves the way for Republican Secretary of States to purge non habitual voters – those most likely to be minorities, low income, and thus Democrats.  Here is the amazing summary from the New York Times’ write up about the Court’s decision:

“The case concerned Larry Harmon, a software engineer and Navy veteran who lives near Akron, Ohio. He voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections but did not vote in 2012, saying he was unimpressed by the candidates. He also sat out the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014.

But in 2015, Mr. Harmon did want to vote against a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana and found that his name had been stricken from the voting rolls. State officials said that they had done so after sending Mr. Harmon a notice in 2011 asking him to confirm his eligibility to vote and that he did not respond. Mr. Harmon said he did not remember receiving a notice, but he was dropped from the voter rolls.”

So Harmon, a non habitual voter, didn’t respond to a notice (like most others didn’t) and thus they all lost their right to vote – more than 2 million (no typo!) voters since 2011 in just Ohio alone!  It is an amazing turn of events that the Court agreed that Ohio’s purging was OK.  And Harmon is a navy veteran!  No doubt this will have a chilling effect in swing states, where in 2000, 2004, and 2016 literally a change of a relatively small number of votes could have elected a Democrat.  And if you are not registered, you can’t vote!

As an example, Ari Berman has written that the US Civil Rights Commission found that the state of Florida in 2000 wrongly purged 12,000 voters (44% of whom were African American) from the voter rolls through faulty matching with the felony database.  Through sophisticated statistical analysis, Berman projects that 4,752 of those people would have likely voted and overwhelmingly for Gore, more than enough to put Gore over the edge against Bush.

So in totality, gerrymandering, an assault on voting rights, and purging eligible voters, all mean the Democrats need to come close to having a royal flush on Election Day if they are to prevail.  The deck is stacked against us – that’s why we need to get the politics and messaging exactly right – we cannot win otherwise.

Bradley Honan is CEO and President of Honan Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and digital analytics firm.