Roving thoughts and provocations

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A Victory Over Suppression?

Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images
Waiting in line to vote in Crawfordville, Florida, November 6, 2012

Despite their considerable efforts the Republicans were not able to buy or steal the election after all. Their defeat was of almost Biblical nature. The people, Democratic supporters of the president, whose votes they had plotted, schemed, and maneuvered—unto nearly the very last minute—to deny rose up and said they wouldn’t have it. If they had to stand in line well into the night to cast their vote they did it. The lines were the symbol of the 2012 election—at once awe-inspiring and enraging. 

On election night, the Romney camp had at least four planes ready and aides had bags packed to take off as soon as a state’s result appeared narrow enough to warrant a challenge. But they ended up with nowhere to go. The Republicans’ effort to stop enough votes of Obama supporters to affect the outcome in any given state—even prevent the president’s reelection—failed. Obama’s margins, while narrow, were sufficient to render any challenge futile. So the nation was spared the nightmare of reliving Florida 2000, a fear that had gripped many until late Tuesday night.

Yet the fact that the Republicans’ voter suppression effort didn’t succeed doesn’t mean it didn’t cause a lot of damage: to individuals who had to struggle or weren’t able to exercise their right to vote; and to the soul of the democratic process. Small minded men, placing their partisan interests over those of the citizenry, had concocted schemes to subvert the natural workings of our most solemn and exhilarating exercise as a self-governing nation. By the time of the election, more than thirty states had passed laws requiring voters to present some form of identification, often a government-issued photo ID card that they didn’t possess and couldn’t obtain. The point was to make it more difficult for constituent groups of the Democratic Party—blacks, Hispanics, low-income elderly, and students—to exercise their right to vote. 

Though most of these new ID laws had been put on hold or weakened by the courts, they nevertheless created a great deal of confusion on Election Day. Pennsylvania’s voter ID law had been suspended by a state judge on grounds that it couldn’t be properly administered by the time of the election, yet poll workers were permitted to ask for the IDs anyway, and some of them thought that voters were required to have them. In some parts of the country, confusion was sown deliberately: intimidating billboards appeared in predominantly black areas; the Wisconsin Republican party distributed misleading information to poll workers. There‘s no statistical proof, but this had to have kept some people from voting or caused them to cast erroneous ballots.

This was no sneak attack but a national, coordinated enterprise that could not go unnoticed. At first only a few voices were issuing warnings, but as Election Day neared it was well known that Republicans were conspiring to keep Democrats from casting votes that would be counted. Broadcast networks and newspapers were covering the story; where necessary public service announcements on the radio told people how to meet newly imposed requirements–for example, what form they needed. On election day, a nationwide coalition of lawyers manned 5,000 call centers around the country, its phone line 1-866-OUR VOTE having been widely advertised, was flooded with roughly 100,000 calls, mainly from distressed voters saying that they had been told at the polling places that they weren’t eligible to vote. The Voting Rights lawyers’ group is conducting an investigation into whether there was a purge of voter rolls in Pennsylvania.

The long lines were a testament to the significance the right to vote holds in the minds of American citizens. But they were also deliberately caused by limits imposed by Republican officials on the amount of time allowed for early voting. In both Ohio and Florida, the number of days allotted for early voting was sharply reduced from 2008. In theory, early voting is supposed to provide voters opportunities to avoid long lines and cast their votes before election day, but the limits on the number of early voting days assured that early voters ended up in long lines on early voting days as well as on election day. 

My own selection for pin-up boy of the vote-suppressing camp of 2012 is Ohio Attorney General Jon Husted, a baby-faced forty-five-year-old who has ambitions to run for governor in 2014. Husted’s wholesome innocent demeanor makes him all the more menacing.He twisted and turned and came up with all manner of schemes to keep Democratic supporters, mainly blacks and other minorities, from voting. He tried to prevent early voting in urban (for which read black) areas but the idea was hooted down by the citizens of Ohio, hardly a radical state. He eliminated all early voting on weekends but a federal district court forced him to reinstate a final weekend. And then, in a last-gasp attempt to to prevent people from voting, at 7:00 PM on the Friday of the weekend before the election, Husted suddenly issued an order demanding that voters, rather than polling officials, to fill out the forms requesting a provisional ballot—his new form of literacy test. This was immediately seen as yet another attempt at disenfranchisement. As it happened Obama carried Ohio by a large enough margin that Husted’s final trick didn’t come into play.

Florida, for its part, created a mess by drastically restricting early voting. Florida Republican politicians believed that by expanding the days in 2008 for early voting the previous governor, Charlie Crist, had allowed Obama to carry the state. The Republican state legislature cut the number of days for early voting from fourteen to eight and prohibited it altogether on the last Sunday before the election. Sunday had been a special day for blacks, many of whom were transported from church by bus to the polling stations. On the Saturday of the final weekend, even as the lines grew impossibly long—some people waited for as long as eight hours, till past midnight—Republican governor Rick Scott icily rejected entreaties to allow the polls to be open on Sunday. Some local election officials found a way to get around his ruling by handing out absentee ballots on both the Sunday and Monday before election day. Yet on Sunday polling places in populous Miami-Dade County were still unprepared for the onslaught of people demanding to vote, and one closed for a while as would-be voters banged on the doors. On election night some Florida voters were still lined up to vote when President Obama gave his victory speech. The last vote was cast at 1:30 AM. 

The long lines didn’t just happen. The voters who turned out for Obama were powerfully motivated by two things: anger that Republican officials of their state were trying to deny them their opportunity to cast a vote for who should be elected president, and the choice of candidates they were presented with. And the exceptionally sophisticated organization mounted by the Obama campaign was in place to make sure that every registered Democrat was contacted and encouraged or helped to get to the polls. A friend of mine who canvassed in Northern Virginia told me that stay at home mothers with small children were offered baby sitters; those who needed them were offered rides. Might that person prefer to have an absentee ballot? Persuasion wasn’t part of the assignment; the people on the list had already been identified as potential Obama voters. The point was to make sure they turned out. 

At the end of each day of canvassing, my friend turned in the list with notations of whether the person was not home or had special needs. Other canvassers would follow up during the week with those who hadn’t been home on the weekend. It was all very low-key and friendly and helpful—and very thorough. Romney himself is reported to have told staff and supporters the morning after the election that he was taken aback by the degree and effectiveness of the Obama campaign’s organizing effort.

The neighborhoods my canvassing friend was assigned to were middle class, or slightly less well off, and notably diverse: whites, blacks, Hispanics; immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Some were retired military and contrary to generally received opinion they were for Obama. In every single household of whatever combination of people he called on people of voting age were determined to cast their ballots for Obama and aware of the rules that they had to follow. They had heard about it on the news and had talked about it in their neighborhoods or on social occasions. (Virginia has had a voter ID requirement since before 2012.) They were also aware of the Republicans’ efforts to block their votes. My friend, who had canvassed every weekend for five weeks, said, “The suppression efforts were so extreme and visible and outrageous that it made people more determined.” 

He added, “They were also determined to vote because they were clear about who their choices were.” This was the second thing motivating these people to go vote for Obama rather than sit it out: they had come to see Mitt Romney as a threat to whatever they had achieved. It wasn’t just that he didn’t speak to them, didn’t understand their lives, had nothing to offer them; he was actually campaigning on a program that would benefit economically himself and his wealthy circle at their expense. A sophisticated effort to get people to the polls also needs a purpose and he gave them one. 

On election night, after the less populous (and more conservative) southern areas of Virginia had put Romney in an apparently strong lead, the totals of the votes of those who had stood in line an average of three hours in northern Virginia were added up, and Obama had carried the towns of Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax by landslide margins. When the networks called Virginia for Obama at close to 11 PM, Romney was cooked. 

In Boston on the morning after the election some very disgruntled billionaires who had poured money into Super PACs on behalf of Romney sat down to breakfast. They were angry in particular at Karl Rove, at whose direction many of them had made their donations of millions of dollars, some to Rove’s own America’s Crossroads, which spent some $300 million to elect Republicans, with a payoff, according to one estimate, of one percent. Sheldon Adelson, the single largest donor of 2012—and in all the known history of spending on a presidential campaign—had pledged to spend up to $100 million to defeat Obama, and ended up blowing upwards of $60 million, largely in the hope that a new Justice Department would call off an investigation of his casinos in Macao. What no one—including members of the press (I confess)—had foreseen was that these princely sums could only be put to use to make ads, and the ads had limited effect because there were so many of them. 

Relying perhaps on the campaign’s flawed polls, Rove had assured them that Romney would win, that Obama’s election in 2008 had been a fluke. Baser forms of expressions of this attitude had run through Republican ranks and on occasion slipped out, as when John Sununu uttered his not so thinly veiled references to Obama’s race. Romney himself was not above using the word “foreign” from time to time when speaking of Obama’s proposals. It didn’t seem to occur to Romney or his allies that blacks were aware of their racial jibes and were reinforced in their determination to overcome whatever obstacles the Republicans put in their path, so that they could make certain that Romney wasn’t elected.

Inevitably, after a contentious election all sorts of proposals are brought forth to improve the election system—from eliminating the Electoral College to setting out in federal legislation strict criteria for the conduct of elections. Proposals for a federal law that would set uniform national times and days for polls to be open—removing the determination of the opportunity to vote from the caprice of state politics and preventing long lines from being used as a partisan weapon—have often been made and soon will be the subject of congressional hearings. The idea sounds easy but setting national standards isn’t: states have ballots of differing length and use different kinds of machines, and many state governments regard setting election rules as their prerogative. Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that some of the laws passed by the states to suppress votes won’t go into effect until the 2014 mid-term elections, for which some of them were actually intended.

But the biggest hurdle is that the Republicans are likely to wage a ferocious fight to not surrender this weapon. Public outrage can play a part, but outrage tends to dissipate over time and there are several other targets that invite it. The president’s reference, in the early part of his victory speech, to the fact that people were still in line to vote—“by the way, we’ve got to fix that”—seemed offhand. He went on to later cite a number of other priorities and, a realist, he is unlikely to want to expend the considerable time and energy that would be involved in making this particular fight. He is focused on his legacy and fixing election law is unlikely to be a reason for him to go down in history for greatness. Anyway, he won’t be running again.

Almost lost in the multitude of post-election analyses is the most significant point of all: despite the long held truism that a Democrat can win a second term only if he is from the South—an extrapolation from one post-FDR example—the nation’s first black president was elected to a second term. The implications of this are enormous. Consider the difference in the mood of more than half the country as well as the “lessons” that would have been drawn had he been defeated after a single term. He escaped the fate of joining Jimmy Carter on the list of well-meaning but failed one-term presidents. One of the reasons this didn’t occur is that so many people rose up against the maneuvering of Obama’s political opponents to bend, distort, deny the essence of our democratic system that otherwise could result in his election. Which, to a significant extent because they overplayed their hand, it did.

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