Barack Obama
Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Despite their considerable efforts, the Republicans were not able to buy or steal the election after all. Their defeat was of an almost biblical nature. The people—large swaths of the public who have traditionally supported the Democrats—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 long 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’ extraordinary effort to block enough votes of Obama supporters to affect the outcome—in order to prevent the president’s reelection—failed. None of Obama’s margins of victory, though not particularly wide in some states, was sufficiently narrow to warrant a challenge. 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’ effort to manipulate the election’s outcome 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 democratic process itself. Small-minded men, placing their partisan interests over those of the citizenry, 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 that they didn’t possess and couldn’t obtain easily, in many cases not at all. 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 constitutionally guaranteed 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 the 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 were under the impression that voters were required to have them. In some parts of the country, confusion was sown deliberately: intimidating billboards suggesting that photo IDs would be required appeared in predominantly black and Hispanic areas.

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; in some states public service announcements on the radio told people how to meet newly imposed requirements—for example, what type of form they needed. On election day, a nationwide coalition of lawyers manned five thousand call centers around the country. Its phone line, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, having been widely advertised, was flooded with about 100,000 calls, mainly from distressed voters saying that they had been told at the polling places that they weren’t eligible to vote, even though they had registered. 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 that American citizens attach to the right to vote. But the lines were deliberately caused by limits imposed by Republican officials on the amount of time allowed for voting before election day. In 2008, blacks and Hispanics voted at higher rates than others on weekends in Ohio and Florida, and Obama carried both states. In theory, early voting is supposed to provide voters opportunities to avoid long election-day 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.

My own selection for pin-up boy of the vote-suppressing camp of 2012 is Ohio Secretary of State 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. The Ohio legislature reduced the number of weekends for early voting from five to one, and would allow only members of the military to vote on the final weekend. But Husted took further steps to limit the black vote, which was what this was all about. He tried to prevent early voting in urban (for which read black) areas—while expanding the opportunities in areas dominated by whites—but this proposition was hooted down by the citizens of Ohio, hardly a radical state.


After his plan was shot down, Husted simply banned early voting on all three days before the election. While this breathtaking plan would affect all would-be early voters, it was generally understood that working-class blacks would be disproportionately affected. Early voters tend to be lower-income, less-educated voters who on election day might not be allowed to take off enough time to vote during the day and could not endure the long lines in the evening. In fact, possessing the sheer physical ability to last out long lines for hours became a new requirement for exercising the right to vote. Husted simply ignored a court order that got in the way of his mission to make sure that mainly blacks couldn’t cast a vote for president.

A federal court then ordered Husted to restore early voting on those critical three days—but he appealed this decision all the way to the Supreme Court. After the Court refused to hear his case, Husted sharply reduced the hours during which votes could be cast on the three days before the election to sixteen hours altogether, down from twenty-four in 2008. Defiance of a federal court was of little concern to the attorney general of Ohio: he had other priorities. Husted openly described the court’s interference in his efforts “an un-American approach to voting.”

In a last-gasp effort to hold down votes for Obama, at 7:00 PM on the Friday before the election Husted ordered that applications for provisional ballots be filled out by the would-be voter instead of the usual polling officials. If the early voters made a mistake in filling out the rather complicated request form, their ballots would be rejected. Husted had invented his own literacy test.

But on Tuesday, election day, the same federal judge, expressing some exasperation with Husted’s various gambits and what he called the “surreptitious manner” in which this latest one had been sprung upon the state, rejected it—saying that it violated a standing court order, existing Ohio state law, and the United States Constitution. The judge also said this:

For an executive of the state to [flout] state law in arbitrarily reassigning a poll worker’s statutory duty to a voter, with the result being disenfranchisement of the voter, is “fundamentally unfair and constitutionally impermissible.”

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. So 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. But 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 wanting to vote. One place unprepared for such a crowd shut down for two hours and then reopened as would-be voters banged on the doors demanding that they be allowed to vote. The Miami Herald documented the difficulties numerous voters encountered until they simply gave up, and said that there was no question that voter suppression had taken place. On election night some Florida voters were still standing in line to vote when President Obama gave his victory speech. The last vote was cast at 1:08 AM.

Florida managed to complicate itself into irrelevance in 2012. Though on election night it appeared that Obama would win there, he didn’t need the state’s electoral votes. The vote counting stretched into the week and the result wasn’t announced until the following Saturday; Obama won the state narrowly, giving him an electoral college victory of 332–206, a resounding number that didn’t reflect the struggles to protect his votes in each of the hard-fought states.

The long lines didn’t just happen. Many of the voters who turned out for Obama were angry that their Republican state officials were trying to deny them their opportunity to cast a vote for the candidate they preferred to be president. And particularly in the “battleground states” on which the election turned, 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 to the polling place. Might someone 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 he called on, people of voting age were determined to cast their ballots for Obama and aware of the kind of document required to be taken to the polling place if they wanted to vote. (Virginia had adopted a voter ID law that didn’t require photos and was far more flexible than other states.) In order to avoid a challenge from the Justice Department, the state mailed out a card to every eligible resident. The voters had heard about the new requirement on the news and had talked about it in their neighborhoods or on social occasions. 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.”


Olivier Douliery/AbacaUSA/Polaris

Early voters in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, Ohio, October 26, 2012

And then he mentioned, “They were also determined to vote because they were clear about who their choices were.” This was the second thing motivating people to go vote for Obama rather than sit it out: millions of voters 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 other wealthy people at their expense. A sophisticated effort to get people to the polls also needs a purpose and Romney 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. Obama had carried the towns of Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax by landslide margins. When the networks called Virginia for Obama at close to 11:00 PM, Romney was in trouble.

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 American 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 dealings about his casinos in Macau.

What no one—including members of the press—had foreseen (I confess) was what turned out to be the limited utility of these princely sums. They could only be used for ads by “independent” Super PACs that supported one candidate or another, according to the myopic Supreme Court decision Citizens United. Even if a Super PAC was founded and run by the candidate’s former chief of staff or brother-in-law, under the Court’s ruling it was independent of the campaign. Therefore its funds couldn’t be used in direct support of the campaign’s activities. That left ads.

But there were so many of them that for the most part they canceled each other out and ended up an annoying blur in the voters’ minds. Though one would have thought that these contributors had had enough and that the Super PACs had been formed just for the 2012 election, Rove plans to keep his American Crossroads Super PAC going and at this point seems in search of a mission. Rove’s thinking is that it will involve other aspects of Republican politics, and donors are told that they will have influence in congressional debates on economic and tax matters in which they have a great interest.

Rove had assured the plutocrats that Romney would win and therefore they were making a smart investment. Few were donating millions out of the goodness of their heart; most stood to gain from a Romney administration’s lower personal and corporate taxes, lighter regulation, and maybe even the repeal of Obama’s (based on Romney’s) health care law. The problem was that, like the Romney campaign, Rove was relying on faulty polling (which was fed to conservative commentators, whose reputations were not improved by their parroting what the campaign had told them). The vaunted Gallup tracking poll made the same mistake. They all assumed that the turnout for Obama in 2008 was a fluke, and so they based their models more closely on 2004, or a combination of 2004 and 2008. Moreover they also bought all the talk that Obama supporters were much less enthusiastic this time. Not believing that 2008 was a real reflection of the electorate turned out to be a big mistake—and stunned Romney on election night. Because of the polls, Romney expected to win.

Baser expressions of this attitude had run through Republican ranks and on occasion slipped out, as when John Sununu, Romney’s national co-chairman, uttered his not so thinly veiled references to Obama’s being black. He went so far as to call him “lazy,” and suggested that Colin Powell had endorsed Obama because they are both black. I can think of no candidate in modern times who would have tolerated such talk; Richard Nixon saved his racist and anti-Semitic statements for his office (and taping system). As chief of staff to George H.W. Bush, Sununu gave offense to so many that he was run out of his job by George W. Bush, his father’s enforcer.

Romney himself was not above using the word “foreign” about Obama’s proposals. He sought the endorsement of Donald Trump, pied piper of the “birthers.” 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 to voting, 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, including the hoary and perpetually futile argument over eliminating the electoral college—which would lead to a campaign focused on New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston and a probable Democratic advantage; less populous states that benefit from the current system are most unlikely to agree to its being changed. Because of the unprecedented efforts in the last election to suppress the vote, produce long lines, and frustrate so many voters, proposals to set national criteria for the conduct of federal elections are receiving increased attention. The idea is to wrest control over the right to vote from the caprice of state politics and prevent long lines from being used as a partisan weapon.

This idea sounds easy to carry out, 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. Sure enough, there’s a National Association of Election Officials, which strongly resists the imposition of standards by the federal government and has some sway over the politicians whose elections they supervise. A more flexible idea is to give states monetary incentives to draw up rules that would provide adequate days and time for people to cast their vote.

But the biggest hurdle for such proposals is that the Republicans are likely to wage a ferocious fight to not be stripped of a powerful weapon. Public outrage can play a part, but outrage tends to dissipate over time. 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 have to fix that”—seemed offhand. He went on to later cite a number of other priorities that were clearly thought important to his legacy, and, as a realist, he is unlikely to want to expend the considerable time and energy that would be involved in carrying on this particular fight.

Almost lost in the multitude of post-election analyses is the most significant point of all: despite the long-held truisms—there had been only one Democratic president to serve two whole terms since FDR; no Democrat could be elected unless he was from the South; nor, said the wise commentators, could anyone get reelected with unemployment around 8 percent—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. His 2008 election would have been written off as the fluke that the Republicans and their pollsters had lulled themselves into thinking it was. 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, and deny the essence of our democratic system. Because they overplayed their hand, they got the very result that they had gone to unprecedented unconstitutional lengths to prevent.