Voter Suppression 101

Suppose you’re a politician who represents the interests of the rich and powerful. In any democracy, you have one basic problem: The top 1% is only 1%. How are you going to get enough votes to win?

There are a lot of tried-and-true strategies for convincing at least some of the bottom 99% to vote for you: You can divide the them along fault lines like race or religion. Single-issue groups (guns, abortion) can help you if their issues are harmless to your real constituents. You can run against some minority — gays, immigrants, unions, poor people, teachers, the unemployed — and make your opponent look like the special-interest candidate. You can smear your opponent directly so that you don’t have to say much at all — you’re “the other guy”, the one who isn’t a Marxist child-molesting terrorist.

Sometimes you can convince the peons that your issues are their issues too: Tell them they’re going to pay a “death tax” that only millionaires pay. Tell them they’d have a job if only rich people had the money to hire more flunkies. Make them hate the meddling bureaucrats who want to keep water faucets from burning, or mines from collapsing, or lettuce free from dangerous bacteria.

Fortunately, you’re going to have a lot of money to help you pursue those strategies — even more now that corporations can contribute anonymously to front groups like the Chamber of Commerce or Americans for Prosperity. You’ll have the best consultants money can buy, and all the ad time you want.

Plus, you get to build on all the PR the rich do anyway: They aren’t vampires who suck the blood out of the people who make and do things, they’re “job creators“. They’re the winners who bobbed up to the top of the meritocracy on sheer talent and virtue. They work long hours (in comfortably air-conditioned offices with great views) for their millions of dollars a week. (Or, in some cases, more than $10 million a day, all year long.)

But even so, it’s a long way from 1% to 50%-plus-one. A frustratingly large percentage of the electorate wants to be represented by people who look out for their interests rather than the interests of the people who suck their blood.

What can you do?

The final piece of your puzzle is just math. Paul Weyrich nailed it back in 1979:

I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

So you don’t need a majority of the electorate at all. You just need to make sure that a lot of the people who don’t support you don’t vote.

But how?

The first thing you need to realize is: The poorer and less powerful people are, the harder it is for them to jump hurdles. Any hurdles.

Picture a single mother with a minimum-wage job. If registering means taking time off work, it’s not going to happen — she needs the hours, and minimum-wage employers don’t know the meaning of “personal time”. Going across town means taking the bus; it won’t be an extra half-hour at lunch, it’ll be all afternoon. If it means knowing exactly where to go and who to see and what form to fill out — she’s not going to look that stuff up with her home computer.

You know what really slows the poor down? They’re used to being pushed aside. If you tell college-educated professionals that they can’t vote, they’ll say: “That can’t be right.” They’ll talk to a supervisor, they’ll read the fine print, they’ll yell and start writing down names if they have to. Because deep down they believe that the system is supposed to work for them.

The poor don’t think that way — especially if they’re poor and black, or poor and disabled, or poor and non-English-speaking. They’re used to clerks who just want to get rid of them and supervisors who threaten to call the cops. It happens all the time.

New voters — the young, people who just moved to town, new citizens, folks who just got interested in politics — are the same way. Tell them they’re in the wrong office. Tell them the deadline was yesterday. Lots of them will believe you.

See where I’m going with this? Anything that makes voting harder shifts the electorate in your favor. Any confusion you can add … occasionally it will affect one of your voters, but mostly not. You win the numbers game.


Make it harder to register. Florida is your model here. Gov. Scott just pushed through such a doozy of a law that even the League of Women Voters has stopped registering new voters.

Make it harder to vote. Shut down any early voting, restrict the hours on election day, and make sure the lines are long, especially in poor neighborhoods. Look at Ohio. If enough people give up and go home, you win.

Voter ID laws are a must. They don’t prevent any actual fraud, but people without drivers’ licenses — poor people, the disabled, folks in nursing homes — are exactly who you don’t want voting. The Supreme Court makes you offer them some other way to get an ID, but if you make it enough of  a hassle, most of them won’t.

Hassle voters. It’s easy to come up with excuses to challenge voters at the polls. Vote caging is a good one: You send postcards to the addresses on the voting rolls, and if they come back undelivered you remove the names from the rolls or challenge them at the polls. A lot of names get removed by mistake, but that’s all to the good. (If you do it right, college students can’t vote either at home or at school. Score!)

Another great trick from Ohio: If voters show up in the wrong polling place (say because you moved the boundaries), poll workers don’t have to help them! Figuring out where to go is their problem.

Dirty tricks. The Koch brothers’ front Americans for Prosperity, just pulled such a good one in Wisconsin that Stephen Colbert covered it. They sent out an official-looking mailing about absentee ballots that gave the wrong deadline and the wrong address. Anybody who believes it won’t get their vote counted. And when caught, AFP blamed a “printing error”.

Another great trick is to spread rumors: If there’s a warrant out on you, the police will be waiting at the polls. If your home is foreclosed, you can’t vote. You can vote over the phone. The possibilities are endless.

So don’t despair. Democracy isn’t about representing the people, it’s about having more votes than the other guy. That’s not as hard as you think.

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