We Cannot Out-Organize Voter Suppression

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Everywhere you turn these days, free and fair elections are under attack. In a single day, the new Republican majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of partisan gerrymandering and voter ID, and against enfranchising 56,000 individuals on felony supervised release.

Republican-controlled states continue to advance new, bolder voter suppression laws. Ohio enacted one in January. Arkansas and South Dakota made voting more difficult in February. Idaho targeted students in March. In early May, Florida passed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) fake-fraud suppression bill. 

We are awaiting further anti-voting laws in Georgia, Texas, Montana and elsewhere. The names of the states change, but the results are the same: voting for minorities and young voters becomes harder and elections become less free and fair.

The terrible truth is that these new voter suppression laws are working. Despite the positive political outcome, turnout among minority and young voters in 2022 was down from previous years. 

The New York Times reports that “the share of Black voters in the electorate dropped by 1 percent nationally from 2018 to 2022, the biggest drop of any racial group measured.” Tufts University, which tracks youth voting, calculated national youth turnout at 23%, a drop of five points since 2018 and less than half the turnout rate in 2020.

Compared to the last midterm election, Milwaukee saw an 18 percent drop in votes for Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Black Democrat who ran for Senate in 2022. You may recall that at Christmas, a Republican official boasted that because of his “well thought out multi-facetted plan” they saw a “major reduction [of voter turnout] happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas” of Milwaukee. In a separate email he quantified the GOP’s success: “We can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas.”

In Georgia — where both gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) were on the ballot and invested heavily in mobilizing minority and young voters — Black participation rates dropped from 47.8% to 43.2% compared to 2018. Hispanic participation in that election fell from 27.6% in 2018 to 25.1% in 2022. The youth vote dropped from 33% in 2018 to 26% in 2022.

The myth that citizens can out-organize voter suppression is not just wrong, it is dangerous.

Wisconsin and Georgia are in line with a broader trend. According to election guru Michael Podhorzer, since the election of former President Barack Obama in 2008, Black turnout in blue states has increased by 1.8 points. In contrast, in Republican controlled states Black turnout decreased by four points. “The gap between Black and white voting in the MAGA states increased from being 0.8 points in favor of Black turnout to 7.5 points in favor of White turnout.”

Political pundits have offered lots of reasons for the turnout numbers. Some fault Democrats for failing to invest time and money in connecting with minority and young voters. Others point to the candidates and their messaging.

The most obvious reason for these changes, is the one that few want to discuss — years of Republican voter suppression efforts are succeeding. As Podhorzer recently put it: “Before elections, we can discuss endlessly how different election law changes would advantage one or another party, but it’s taboo to talk about those rule changes after the election unless it’s to disprove that those changes affected the outcome at all.” 

It is time to break the taboo.

Persuading voters to support a candidate is vital, but it won’t make hourslong voting lines shorter. Registering voters is foundational, but it alone cannot overcome voter purges and voter challenges that kick hundreds of thousands off the rolls or burdensome strict registration requirements that hinder voters from getting started in the first place. Voter education is critical, but it won’t stop mail in ballots from being rejected based on manufactured technicalities or human error. In short, on-the-ground organizing and campaigning are essential, but we cannot expect to simply out-organize systematic voter suppression.

The myth that citizens can out-organize voter suppression is not just wrong, it is dangerous. It minimizes the real world effects of repeated, targeted suppression laws. It shifts the burden from the suppressors to the voters. It suggests that victims of voter suppression simply need to be better “organized.” 

Sadly, suggesting that citizens can use organizing to defeat voter suppression also fuels a false narrative too many are inclined to adopt. It turns voter suppression and the fight against it into a question of campaign tactics rather than the illegal and immoral deprivation of constitutional rights.

Intentional voter suppression is happening, and it is weakening our democracy. Our elections are becoming steadily less free and fair. Addressing systematic voter suppression by simply “organizing” is like giving a shot of cortisone to fix a damaged joint. It may temporarily relieve the pain, but the joint will weaken in the long run.

A citizen who has their voter registration challenged by partisan operatives may ultimately be permitted to vote, but they are unlikely to feel as secure in their rights. A voter may be coaxed to wait online for hours to vote in a presidential election year. But how will that voter feel about voting in the next election, when there is no well-funded campaign effort to organize them? A voter who votes, but later finds out their ballot has been rejected due to no fault of their own may be convinced to submit paperwork to “cure” the defect, but their confidence that their vote will count in the future will be undermined.

This is not to say that organizing is not important or that Democrats should not engage communities to get out the vote. I am a huge believer in the power and importance of organizing as a tool to build enthusiasm and turnout. At its best, organizing empowers voters to feel a connection with a candidate or cause. However, reducing it to a remedy to the indignity of voter suppression cheapens it.

The way to defeat voter suppression is by defeating it head on, not by celebrating working around it. The first step to fighting it is to call voter suppression what it is: the deprivation of constitutional rights, often based on race, ethnicity or age. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have spoken forcefully and in blunt terms about it. We need to all follow their example.

Second, we need to label those who support voter suppression as vote suppressors. We need to accept that a vote suppressor who opposes an unconstitutional insurrection is still a vote suppressor. It is not heroic to reject an invitation to commit treason. It is villainous to make laws that prevent your fellow citizens from voting.

Finally, we must call out and challenge voter suppression everywhere it is found — in red states and blue states, in safe states and in swing states. All tactics must be on the table. This means legislating where we can, civic action and protests where we must, and litigation where there is no other alternative. If we organize ourselves to fight voter suppression, we won’t have to try to organize voters to overcome it.