How Voter Suppression Could Swing the Midterms


Campaigns are in the final dash to make sure people show up at the polls. But that doesn’t matter if you’re being systematically disenfranchised.

In the weeks before an election, political campaigns are focused on getting voters to the polls — holding rallies, knocking on doors and making phone calls to make sure people show up.

In Georgia and other states, the question in this election is not just about which candidates voters will support, but whether they’ll be able to cast a ballot in the first place. The fight over voting rights in the midterms is a reminder that elections are not solely about who is running, what their commercials say or how many people are registered to vote. They are about who is allowed to vote and which officials are placing obstacles in the way of would-be voters.

The issue of voter suppression has exploded in recent weeks, most notably in the Georgia governor’s race between Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, and Brian Kemp, a Republican. While running for higher office, Mr. Kemp, as secretary of state, also enforces Georgia’s voting laws. This month, The Associated Press reported that Mr. Kemp’s office had put more than 53,000 voter registration applications in limbo because the information on the forms did not exactly match state databases. Seventy percent of the pending registrations were from African-Americans, leading Ms. Abrams to charge that Mr. Kemp was trying “to tilt the playing field in his favor.” Mr. Kemp claimed a voter registration group tied to Ms. Abrams had “submitted sloppy forms.”

Since the 2010 election, 24 states overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans have put in place new voting restrictions, such as tougher voter ID laws, cutbacks to early voting and barriers to registration. Republicans say these measures are necessary to combat the threat of widespread voter fraud, even though study after study shows that such fraud is exceedingly rare. Many of these states have hotly contested races in 2018, and a drop in turnout among Democratic constituencies, such as young people and voters of color, could keep Republicans in power.

This month, the Supreme Court upheld a law in North Dakota that could block 70,000 residents who don’t have a qualifying ID from the polls, including 5,000 Native American voters. The law is particularly burdensome for Native Americans because it requires an ID with a “current residential street address,” but some Native Americans live on reservations and get their mail through post-office boxes. This is worrisome news for Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, who is trailing her Republican opponent in the polls. She won election to the Senate in 2012 by 3,000 votes, thanks largely to 80 percent support from the two counties with large Indian reservations.

Could Blocking Voters Swing Elections?

A comparison of winning vote margins in recent elections and voter restrictions or purges in those same states.


Lacking voter ID required by new law

70,000 people

North Dakota

Heidi Heitkamp,

2012 Senate race

2,881 votes

Including these Native Americans



Donald Trump, 2016


Disenfranchised in 2 largest counties by voter ID law

Up to 23,000


Kris Kobach, 2018

primary for governor


Blocked from registering by proof of

citizenship law (later struck down by court)



Nathan Deal,

2012 governor’s race


Purged from voter rolls, 2012-2016

1.5 million

Pending voter purge



Ex-felons who can’t vote

1.6 million

Rick Scott, 2010 governor’s race


Amendment 4, on the ballot in Florida next month, would restore the right to vote for people with felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including parole and probation.

Rick Scott, 2014 governor’s race


To view the original chart, click on this link:

By Bill Marsh/The New York Times | Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections; Brennan Center for Justice; The Sentencing Project; Elections Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Ballotpedia; Times and other news reports

In Florida, where Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, is running for governor — he would be the state’s first black governor — 1.6 million ex-felons won’t be able to vote in this year’s election, including almost half a million African-Americans. Florida is one of only four states that prevent ex-felons from voting unless they’re pardoned by the governor. The architect of the current law, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, is running for the Senate. Mr. Scott’s predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who later switched parties, restored voting rights to 155,000 ex-felons; of those who registered to vote in 2012, 59 percent signed up as Democrats.

But Mr. Scott, who won two elections as governor by just 60,000 votes, reversed that policy and has restored voting rights to just a little more than 3,000 people while in office, with white ex-felons twice as likely to have their rights restored compared with African-Americans. He’s now locked in a dead heat with Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat. Though there’s an amendment on the ballot that would restore voting rights to up to 1.4 million ex-felons in the state, those directly impacted by Mr. Scott’s felon disenfranchisement law won’t be able to vote this year. Nearly 100,000 people who were on track to get their rights restored under Mr. Crist lost that chance when Mr. Scott changed the rules — a stark example of the precariousness of voting rights.

Voter suppression isn’t just a potential problem in 2018 — it seems to have already had a decisive impact in recent years. In 2016, the year of the first presidential election with Wisconsin’s voter ID law in place, the state saw a plunge in black voter turnout, which undoubtedly helped Donald Trump carry the state. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the ID requirement kept up to 23,000 people from voting in two of the state’s most Democratic counties, Milwaukee County and Madison’s Dane County; African-Americans were more than three times as likely as whites to be deterred from voting by the law. Mr. Trump won the state by 23,000 votes. “It is very probable,” Milwaukee’s top election official, Neil Albrecht, told me last year, that “enough people were prevented from voting to have changed the outcome of the presidential election in Wisconsin.” The ID requirement remains in effect today, and its biggest cheerleader, the Republican governor, Scott Walker, who claimed it was “a load of crap” that the law kept people from the polls, is locked in a close race for re-election against Tony Evers, a Democrat.

Kris Kobach, former vice chairman of President Trump’s election integrity commission, is also running for governor this year. A voter ID law Mr. Kobach championed led to a 2 percent decrease in turnout in 2012, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office, with the largest drop-off among young, black and newly registered voters. Mr. Kobach won his primary in the governor’s race by just 350 votes and is now in an extremely tight race against Laura Kelly, a Democrat, and an independent candidate, Greg Orman, so even a tiny reduction in participation among Democratic constituencies could put him in the governor’s mansion. Since Mr. Kobach became secretary of state in 2011, more than 1,200 ballots have been tossed because voters showed up at the polls without a sufficient ID, a much larger number than the 15 cases of voter fraud his office has prosecuted.

Nowhere have hopes for high Democratic turnout collided with the reality of suppressive voting laws more than in Texas. In 2016, there were three million unregistered voters of color in the state, including 2.2 million unregistered Latinos and 750,000 unregistered African-Americans. Though Texas set a new voter registration record this year, it’s unlikely that the number of unregistered Latinos and African-Americans has changed much. Texas has the most restrictive voter registration law in the country — to register voters, you must be deputized by a county and can register voters only in the county you’re deputized in. The number of unregistered voters of color is a major obstacle for the Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke in his race against Senator Ted Cruz. Though the demographics of the state suggest that it should be trending purple, the state’s voting rules help keep it red.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in the 2013 Supreme Court ruling he wrote that gutted the Voting Rights Act, dismissed the idea that voting discrimination was still “flagrant” and “widespread.” Instead he wrote, “Our country has changed.” Yet since that decision, state and local governments that formerly had to approve their voting changes with the federal government, like Georgia and Texas, have closed 20 percent more polling places per capita than other states have, many in neighborhoods with large minority populations. More than half the states freed from federal oversight have put in place new voting restrictions in recent years. The 2016 election had the unfortunate distinction of being the first presidential contest in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act; in 2018, the threat of disenfranchisement has gotten worse, in the South and beyond.

People tend to focus on obstacles to voting when they believe it will affect a close election, as in Georgia. But efforts to erect barriers to the ballot box are wrong regardless of whether they decide the outcome of an election. If Democrats turn out in large numbers on Nov. 6, as the early-voting data suggests is happening in some key states, it will be in spite of these barriers, not because they didn’t exist or didn’t matter.

Despite rampant suppression efforts, there is some hope. In seven states, ballot initiatives would restore voting rights to ex-felons, make it easier to register to vote and crack down on gerrymandering. If these pass, we could see 2018 as a turning point for expanding voting rights, instead of an election tainted by voter suppression. But first people need to have the right to cast a ballot.

Ari Berman (@AriBerman), a senior reporter for Mother Jones, is the author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Blocking the Ballot Box. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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