Voter-Suppression Tricks Are on the Ballot, Too

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Most Democratic operatives can easily identify their party's congressional and gubernatorial candidates. But even the most plugged-in ones would probably draw a blank at the mention of Katie Hobbs, John Barrow, Kathleen Clyde or Jocelyn Benson. Yet their electoral fate on Nov. 6 has an important bearing on the next presidential contest.

These four Democrats are candidates for secretary of state: Hobbs in Arizona, Barrow in Georgia, Clyde in Ohio and Benson in Michigan. They're all running on a promise to undo voting restrictions that Republicans have imposed.

The GOP systematically has pared voting rolls, required tougher proof of eligibility and shortened voting periods. There's a clear purpose: to hold down the votes of minorities and young voters, who tend to vote Democratic, under the pretense of preventing fraud.

Sometimes the restrictions come from Republican-controlled state legislatures, but often they're the handiwork of the state official who manages the electoral machinery, usually the secretary of state. Republicans control that office in 29 of the 46 states that conduct partisan elections, including the big swing states.

The tougher requirements aren't subtle in their partisan effect. In Texas, a permit to carry a concealed weapon entitles its bearer to vote, but a student ID does not. In North Dakota, the leaders of the Standing Rock Indian reservation say that the state's ID law requiring voters to show a current street address will make it hard for citizens on tribal lands to vote because they don't live on named-and-numbered streets.

Ellen Kurz, a Massachusetts political organizer, became a one-person Paul Revere, warning of the dangers of vote-suppression efforts in the form of registration laws and forming the organization iVote to focus on contests for secretary of state.

"There has been a systematic, well-funded effort by the GOP to stop certain people from voting, black people and students," she said in an interview last week. IVote has raised $6 million to spend on state elections this year.

A vote-suppression cheerleader, no surprise, is President Donald Trump. He set up a voter-fraud commission headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kris Kobach, the immigrant-bashing Kansas secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate who contends that there's an epidemic of illegal voting. The only fraud the commission could find was itself; it had to disband after less than eight months.

There have been many national and state investigations and studies of voter fraud. Every credible one has concluded that it's minuscule, especially when measured against the number of legitimate voters who've dubiously been denied the vote.

In Kansas, Kobach could only locate a few dozen non-citizens who actually cast votes out of 1.8 million voters. In North Carolina, where right-wing Republicans targeted black and Hispanic citizens, an investigation by the state Board of Elections found that 508 ineligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 election, out of a total of 4.8 million (for the mathematically inclined, that's 0.01 percent). Loyola University law professor Justin Levitt researched elections between 2000 and 2014 and found 31 incidents of fraud out of 1 billion ballots cast.

In Georgia, Brian Kemp, another secretary of state turned gubernatorial candidate, purged hundreds of thousands of people from the voting lists last year, many of them young or black. (A victory this year by his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, would make her the first black woman governor in U.S. history.)

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court's Republican appointees upheld Ohio's practice of stripping voters from its rolls if they didn't vote and didn't respond to a warning notice.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summarized the Democratic view of what's at stake in another voter-identification case in 2014, characterizing a Texas ID statute as "a purposely discriminating law" that "risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters."

More voter-suppression measures will be on the way if Republicans win secretary-of-state contests in November. In Michigan, the Republican candidate for the job, Mary Treder Lang, has said that without GOP voter purges a few years ago, "We wouldn't have President Trump today." She's vowed to continue "cleaning up the voter file."

The Arizona Republican candidate, Steve Gaynor, a Trump enthusiast, says that voting information and ballots should be published only in English, even though close to a quarter of the state's electorate is Hispanic.

That makes about as much sense as the punchline from one of my favorite bits of Texas political lore. The story, most likely apocryphal, has it that the state's first woman governor, Ma Ferguson, wanted to explain why English should be the exclusive teaching language of the Texas schools back in the 1920s.

"If the King's English was good enough for Jesus Christ," she’s supposed to have said, "it's good enough for the children of Texas."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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