Opinion | John Shattuck

The war on voting rights

Voters cast their ballots early for the midterm elections at the Government & Judicial Center in Noblesville, Ind., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Voters cast their ballots early for the midterm elections in Noblesville, Ind., on Oct. 23, 2018.

Eight years ago, on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell declared that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

McConnell’s declaration of war on the Obama presidency ushered in the age of extreme obstruction and polarization in Congress. It also foreshadowed an eight-year Republican campaign to suppress or dilute voting by the coalition that elected Obama. That effort has intensified in the Trump era and is targeted at groups with low or uneven voting participation rates, especially minorities, young people, and immigrants.

Two weapons of voter suppression have been used to achieve the Trump-McConnell goal of undermining opposing votes at the polling booth — voting restrictions and gerrymandering.


After more than a century of struggles to expand voting rights for women, minorities, young people, and new citizens, the voter suppression campaign has reversed this long-term expansive trend. Since 2010, scores of new restrictions have been imposed on voters in 24 states, most of which have Republican legislatures. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 13 states now have more restrictive ID laws than they did before, 11 make it harder to register, seven have cut back on early voting, and three make it more difficult to restore voting rights for people with felony convictions.

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A particularly invidious voting impediment is today’s stepped-up purging of voter rolls. On its face, purging looks like a benign way to ensure that voting lists are up to date, but a purge is only as good as the information on which it’s based. In Virginia, for example, nearly 39,000 voters were removed from the rolls in 2013 on the basis of inaccurate information that they had moved out of the state.

Between 2014 and 2016, 16 million voters were purged from state rolls across the country. The only way to challenge a purge is to produce the kind of documentation now required by the stricter state voting laws. Any minor discrepancy between a name purged and the documentation will fail the “exact match” test of states like Georgia, where a new study shows that “exact match” could result in the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters.

The impact of these restrictions falls most heavily on groups targeted by the voter suppression campaign. This is especially true for minority voters, who no longer have the protection of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that mandated Justice Department “preclearance” of new voting regulations. This historic civil rights law was struck down by the Supreme Court as “outdated” in 2013.

Gerrymandering is a companion weapon of voter suppression. An aggressive gerrymandering campaign was launched in 2010 by the suppression movement. Aided by a Supreme Court decision that year invalidating all restrictions on campaign spending, independent political action committees tied to the Republican Party poured unlimited funding into efforts to elect Republican governors and legislatures. The success of this program in 10 states powered a wholesale redistricting campaign favoring Republican candidates and diluting the votes of Democrats.


The gerrymandering campaign, Redistricting Majority Project, “REDMAP,” was spearheaded by the Republican State Leadership Committee. Its goal was take over state legislatures before the decennial census and redraw congressional and state districts to lock in partisan advantages. REDMAP achieved new majorities in 10 states. It then employed sophisticated software techniques such as Maptitude to redraw districts favorable to Republicans, diluting the votes of Democrats by clustering them into a few districts.

The results were spectacular. In 2012, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives by a 234-to-201 margin, despite receiving 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats. Almost 2 million Democratic votes were wasted by being packed into gerrymandered districts. In Michigan, for example, Democrats received 240,000 more votes than Republicans, but as a result of the Republican gerrymandering campaign the state congressional delegation became 9-5 Republican.

The Republican voter suppression movement is skewering democracy, contributing to the polarization and gridlock that have become hallmarks of American politics. Fortunately, there is now a counter-movement working to restore the primacy and equality of voting rights. The gold standard of reform is automatic voter registration, guaranteeing the right to vote for all citizens who interact in any way with government agencies. Since 2015, 13 states and the District of Columbia have adopted automatic registration, which is being pressed across the country by the reform movement. Meanwhile, an anti-gerrymandering movement is gathering steam, spurred on by ballot initiatives and court decisions mandating nonpartisan mapping of legislative districts.

The moral father of the expanded right to vote, Martin Luther King Jr. once declared that “voting is the foundation stone for political action.” The 2018 midterm elections offer a golden opportunity for political action to reinforce that right.

John Shattuck is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and professor of practice in diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.