The enemy is us

The enemy is us

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Steven Roberts


Special counsel Robert Mueller warned last July that the Russians had conducted a "sweeping and systematic" campaign to undermine the last presidential election, and that a new attack was already underway. "They're doing it as we sit here," he told a Congressional committee.

But a more serious threat to the integrity of American democracy comes from within, not from abroad. It comes from state and local Republican officials, who are mounting their homegrown version of a "sweeping and systematic" assault on any voters likely to support Democrats.

Journalist Ari Berman, who wrote a book on voter suppression entitled "Give Us the Ballot," told NPR: "You're seeing a national effort by the Republican Party to try to restrict voting rights, and it's playing out in states all across the country."

Added the Washington Post editorial page: "Republicans throughout the country have embraced voter suppression as a strategy for party survival."

That suppression campaign takes many forms, but they all have one larger goal: "party survival" in the face of what Sen. Lindsey Graham, a staunch ally of President Trump, once called a "demographic death spiral."

A core Republican constituency, older white men without college degrees, comprise a rapidly shrinking part of the electorate. They are being replaced by younger, darker-skinned voters, many of them women, who are more likely to back Democrats.

Instead of trying to win over those new voters, the GOP is actively driving them away with hostile policies on issues like immigration -- along with sticking with the overall party strategy of discouraging them from voting at all. Here are some of the main battlefronts:

-- Voter ID laws. Three political scientists from the University of California at San Diego wrote in the Washington Post that voter ID laws "have spread rapidly in the past 10 years," and are now in force in 33 states. "These laws have a disproportionate effect on minorities, which is exactly what you would expect, given that members of racial and ethnic minorities are less apt to have valid photo ID," they concluded.

-- Purges of voter rolls. A recent study by the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections reports that between 2016 and 2018, 17 million people were thrown off the voting rolls. Some, of course, had died or moved. But many others, the study found, were still eligible to vote and had been purged unfairly.

-- High tests for registration. Georgia has a particularly devious rule, stopping people from registering if they make a single error on their application -- a hyphen out of place, a name spelled differently. The Associated Press reports that 53,000 applications were denied in 2018, almost three-quarters of them from people of color.

-- Fewer polling places, shorter hours. This is a widespread tactic -- limiting voting access in heavily Democratic areas. Political scientist Carol Anderson of Emory University calculates that for every extra mile a polling place is moved away from a black community, voter participation drops 5%. "Long lines cause people, whose paychecks are getting nibbled away waiting in the queue, to leave and not vote," she told the Post.

-- Intimidation of voters. A study by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute turned up a consistent pattern of discrimination. They found that 9% of nonwhites said their voting credentials were challenged, as opposed to 3% of whites. And nonwhites were three times more likely than whites to have trouble finding their polling place on Election Day. "Roughly 1 in 10 Hispanics said the last time they or someone in their household tried to vote, they were bothered at the polls," says Dan Cox, the institute's research director.

-- Intimidation of election workers. Tennessee is the latest state to pass a "draconian new law" aimed at inhibiting workers who sign up new voters, reports the Brookings Institution. "If the Tennessee law is allowed to stand, it will undermine voter registration efforts and keep eligible voters off the rolls," warned Brookings.

There are a few remedies here. The Senate should follow the House and pass a bill putting teeth back in the Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 -- but that's a faint hope while Republicans control the chamber. Activists must keep suing states to block their suppression efforts, and hire extra field workers to facilitate registration efforts.

The voting public has to understand what's happening and raise their voices in defense of democracy.

The main threat to the American system is not orchestrated by Moscow. To quote the cartoon character Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at


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