The Economic Royalists’ Modern War on Voting

Why Racists Don’t Want Everyone to Vote

Before considering the details of how Republicans have, for the past 40-plus years, waged a war against the right to vote for all but wealthy white people (and why Democrats did the same before the GOP picked up the mantle), it’s important to understand why each party historically has worked to manipulate the electorate to its own favor.

The Democratic Party’s antipathy toward voting had roots deep in the 19th century, in the years following the Civil War. That war, and the subsequent 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution pushed through by Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans, gave pretty much all adult men, regardless of race, the right to vote.

Thomas Jefferson had founded the Democratic Party (it was then called the Democratic Republican Party, but the “Republican” part was dropped in the late 1820s and early 1830s), and throughout the 19th century that party (as opposed to the Whigs and the Republicans) was closely associated with support for slavery.

After the Civil War, the Democratic Party was where ex-Confederates and racist Southern whites found a home, because the anti-slavery faction that took over the Republican Party during Lincoln’s presidency—the “Radical Republicans” of the 1860s and 1870s—worked hard to bring about black voting rights, particularly in the South.

Right up until the 1960s, the Democratic Party was home to the most racist of our politicians and political positions. George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama in 1962, calling, in his inaugural address, for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”; he had a strong enough base in the Democratic Party in the South to challenge Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Democratic Party primary.

Then the party went through a sea change. It started in 1964 when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and it was amplified in 1965 when he signed the Voting Rights Act.

When the Civil Rights Act was brought to the floor of the Senate for a full debate on March 30, 1964, Senator Richard Russell, D-Georgia, launched a filibuster to block it. His famous statement was simple and straightforward: “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states.”1

Millions of Southern white voters deserted the Democratic Party over the issue, along with a number of politicians. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and Virginia governor Mills E. Godwin, for example, all became Republicans when the Democratic Party embraced voting and civil rights for African Americans and other people of color.

But it was largely a regional split in the Democratic Party: Northern Democrats supported integration, while Southern Democrats opposed it. Congress reflected the split: 95 percent of Northern Democrats in the House and 98 percent in the Senate voted for the Civil Rights Act; but among Democrats representing former Confederate states, 9 percent voted for it in the House and 5 percent voted for it in the Senate. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come, zero percent of the former-Confederate-state Republicans voted for the legislation.2

Bill Moyers, who was then an aide to President Johnson, wrote in his 2004 book Moyers on America, “When he signed the act he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. ‘I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,’ he said.”3

Indeed, Johnson’s concerns came true: Within a generation, the reliably Democratic South had become solidly Republican, almost entirely over the issue of race.

Richard Nixon exploited this with his 1968 “Southern strategy,” which targeted racist Southern whites with the message that the Republican Party was their only safe harbor, now that the Democrats had abandoned segregation.

Ronald Reagan amplified the message in 1980 when he gave his first official campaign speech, focusing on states’ rights, to an all-white audience near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town portrayed in Mississippi Burning where three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered in 1964.

Donald Trump Jr. echoed the event with his coming-out speech in the same venue in 2016, in front of an all-white crowd sporting Confederate battle flags. “I believe in tradition,” Trump Jr. said. “I don’t see a lot of the nonsense that’s been created about that. I understand how some people feel, but . . . There’s nothing wrong with some tradition.”

He added, with a metaphorical nod to the Southern strategy, “It’s sort of amazing to be on this very stage where Ronald Reagan talked so many years ago.”4

The Racist Backlash to Brown v. Board

The history behind the elaborate techniques that today’s Republican Party uses to suppress black and Latinx votes is rooted in the “Massive Resistance” movement in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education that has also led to systemic resegregation.

Although the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were, in theory, supposed to grant equal status and station between black and white citizens, that is not the case to this day. After the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which determined that “separate but equal” met the “equal protection” demands of the 14th Amendment, virtually every public school system in America that hadn’t already been segregated along racial lines set out to do so.

Thus, in 1953 the case of Linda Brown, a black child who’d been assigned to the all-black Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas, came before the Supreme Court. Linda had to walk past a nearer white school to get to Monroe, and her father, Oliver Brown, knowing from his own experience the impact of racial segregation on education, joined with the NAACP to bring the case to the Court.

On May 17, 1954, a unanimous Court ruled that Linda Brown should have the right to attend the closer all-white school—and, striking down Plessy, ruled for the first time since Reconstruction that separate did not, in fact, mean equal.

The white supremacist political structure, particularly in the former slave states, immediately went into a frothing fury: as the lead plaintiffs’ attorney, Thurgood Marshall for the ACLU, said, “The fight has just begun.”5 Senator James Eastland, D-Mississippi, proclaimed, “The South will not abide by nor obey this legislative decision by a political body,” defying the ruling while taking a swipe at the Court.6

Senator Harry Byrd, D-Virginia, vowed to block the Brown decision legislatively, and within 20 months he had organized what he called a nationwide program of Massive Resistance, including a collection of laws that would pull funding from any public school that was integrated. His 1956 “Southern Manifesto” was signed by 82 US representatives and 19 US senators. It urged former slave states to use “all lawful means” to resist integration of their schools.

In 1957, citing Brown, nine black students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The backlash from local whites was so massive and potentially violent that President Eisenhower called out the National Guard to protect the students. That led to the Court’s reaffirming its stand in Brown in the 1958 Cooper v. Aaron decision.

Across the South, local groups of whites established “private academies” to educate their children. For example, on May 1, 1959—following a court order to integrate its schools—Virginia’s Prince Edward County closed its entire countywide public school system and kept it closed for a full five years.

It wasn’t until President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act that there was a specific legislative remedy for school segregation. That year, most black students still attended all-black schools. But after the Civil Rights Act passed, nearly a third of black students were attending integrated schools within five years; and by 1973, the number had reached 90 percent.7

The past few decades have seen a steady slide back from that 1973 peak, and the foundations of Brown were severely shaken in a 2007 Supreme Court case combining Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1.8 In a 5–4 decision, the Court’s conservative members agreed with Chief Justice John Roberts that “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

In other words, no more mandated busing or other efforts to bring black and white students together.

Justices Stevens and Breyer wrote—and delivered from the bench with unusual ferocity—scathing dissents much like those from a later Court in 2013 when Chief Justice Roberts proclaimed, while gutting the Voting Rights Act, that discrimination in America was essentially over and no longer needed legislative remedies.

In the years since Roberts and his conservative colleagues gutted Brown, America’s schools have been segregating again. Today, black students who go to integrated schools typically attend schools where only 29 percent of their peers are white.9

Conservative Excuses for Preventing Everyone from Voting

In late February 2019, former Maine governor Paul LePage, a Republican, went on a local radio show to talk politics. The topic of abolishing the Electoral College came up, and LePage essentially freaked out. A national popular vote for president, LePage said, would be tantamount to turning America into a “dictatorship,” and the types of people voting would prefer “the constitution of Venezuela” to that of the United States.

Why? Because, LePage said, echoing an old GOP line rarely spoken in public, if the actual vote reflected the actual public, “it’s only going to be the minorities who would elect. It would be California, Texas, Florida.” And those states are filled with Latinx and black people. Speaking of the movement to end the Electoral College, LePage said, “What would happen if they do what they say they’re gonna do, white people will not have anything to say.”10

There are basically three types of people—or three movements—interested in limiting the voting public to white people and, even at that, to discouraging young, old, and working-class white people from voting just as aggressively as they want to prevent people of color from voting.

They can be referred to with the shorthand labels of Calvinists, libertarian oligarchs, and white supremacists. There is, of course, considerable overlap among the three, but generally the arguments made—and legislation and policy advanced—reflect one of these three core belief systems.


The Calvinists have a worldview similar to that of the followers of French theologian John Calvin, who adopted the precepts of a new offshoot of Christianity around 1520 in Geneva.

Central to the idea of Calvinism are the doctrines of “total depravity” and “unconditional election.” Calvinism asserted that because we are each born out of a woman’s womb, we’re all “dead” in sin (totally depraved) and unable to save ourselves. Instead of salvation coming from confession or good works, Calvin taught, only his god could decide (unconditionally elect) who would be saved and who would eventually rot in hell.11

This solved a big problem for many of the royal families of Europe in the 16th and following centuries: how to use Christianity (denial of which was a capital crime across most of Europe) to justify their absolute rule over their subjects.

If Calvin’s god decided who was to be saved and who was to burn even before birth, how then could mankind separate the saved from the sinners and the noble from the wicked?

The answer was simple: the outward sign of Calvin’s god’s election or salvation was wealth. Since his god controlled everything and man was without agency, then through “irresistible grace” (the fourth of five Calvinist doctrines) Calvin’s god’s will would be shown to all by virtue of earthly riches and political power.

People were rich and in charge because they were blessed by God and, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:4–6, chosen by him “before the foundation of the world.”

Modern-day conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will advocate a secular version of Calvinism, but instead of a distant god determining who should rule, DNA would do it: the smart should be in charge, and the dumb should keep their mouths shut and, preferably, not vote or participate in politics at all.

Herbert Spencer, in his 1842 treatise The Proper Sphere of Government, made essentially this same argument, suggesting that while happiness and safety in society were the goals of political activity, they had to be guided by people who had the best DNA (using modern shorthand) and thus should be political leaders.12 (He also argued in the treatise that government should never provide for education or health care—a conservative ahead of his time.)

Spencer’s ideas led directly to Francis Galton’s invention of the word eugenics in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences.13 Eugenics held that sterilizing or even killing of what have often been described as defective or substandard people would weed out our gene pool and improve the overall intelligence and fitness of the human race in both current and future generations.

Eugenics was enthusiastically adopted by Winston Churchill, who tried unsuccessfully to make it law in Great Britain in 1912, and Woodrow Wilson,14 who promoted it heavily in the United States during his presidency, leading every state in the union to put compulsory sterilization laws or policies into effect.15

Adolf Hitler, of course, picked up Churchill’s and Wilson’s slogans almost verbatim and applied them to Jews, Gypsies, the mentally disabled, and homosexuals (in that order of aggression), leading Germany straight to the Holocaust.16

George Will has argued that if voting is easy and widespread, we’ll experience a sort of reverse social Darwinism, causing people of poorer quality and intelligence to vote and thus screw things up. As he wrote in an article for the Washington Post in 2012, “As indifferent or reluctant voters are nagged to the polls—or someday prodded there by a monetary penalty for nonvoting—the caliber of the electorate must decline.”17,18

This perspective has a long history in American politics. Alexander Hamilton and his conservative wing among the founders and framers of the Constitution believed there must be some filter to keep out what conservative John Adams called “the rabble.”

Hamilton wrote, “If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely, and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote. . . . But since that can hardly be expected, in persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others,” they should not be able to exercise the franchise.19

Similarly, Adams stated, “Such is the Frailty of the human heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own.” Therefore, men without property should play no role in governance, including not being able to vote.

Adams added, “[G]enerally Speaking, Women and Children, have as good Judgment, and as independent Minds as those Men who are wholly destitute of Property.”20

Today’s version of this worldview argues that, instead of through divine predestination, poor people are poor because of defective character or intellect from birth and therefore should be discouraged from voting. And because poverty is most heavily concentrated in communities of color, they are ideally selected first for voter suppression efforts.


Libertarian oligarchs make up the second category of people who argue against widespread voting rights (although it’s not limited to the oligarchs). Libertarianism and objectivism are inherently and openly in opposition to democracy, referring to the system as “mob rule.”21

Scottish lawyer and historian Alexander Tytler (1747–1813) is often quoted as expressing a similar sentiment. A meme attributed to him began circulating around the time of Reagan’s first election (which was about 200 years after the establishment of the United States) and exploded across the internet during the 2000 election:

The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.

In fact, this was delivered as part of a 1943 speech by Henning W. Prentis Jr., former president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a group that, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, more recently has been heavily funded by the libertarian Koch brothers.22,23

This misattributed quote has had a remarkable impact and endurance, spawning a generation of libertarians and conservatives who love to cite the deadly “Tytler Cycle.”24

Libertarianism fundamentally rejects the ability of the citizens of a nation to “vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury” by simply banning the spending of such taxes on anything other than an army and police force. With objectivism, author Ayn Rand tried to wrap a similar sentiment in moral terms, saying that “moochers” and “looters” really have no right to lay their hands on the wealth produced by the “producers.”

If one believes that people will always vote to take away from the “job creators” and give to the indigent voters, then there’s a coherent and somewhat circular logic to the entire hypothesis, which makes it particularly seductive to young people born into the upper classes or with considerable privilege.

For this reason, Republicans made the “they must have skin in the game” argument every few years to object to everything from Medicare in the 1960s, to virtually every social welfare program to come out of the Great Society, to the Affordable Care Act in 2009.

For example, Walter E. Williams wrote in the conservative publication Townhall, “A very disturbing and mostly ignored issue is how absence of skin in the game negatively impacts the political arena. It turns out that 45 percent of American households, nearly 78 million individuals, have no federal income tax obligation.” Calling this “a serious political problem,” Williams concluded that “Americans with no federal income tax obligation become natural constituencies for big-spending politicians.”

Williams—one among thousands of conservative writers who express similar sentiments online—wrapped up his op-ed by musing that “[s]ometimes I wonder whether one should be allowed in the game if he doesn’t have any skin in it.”25


White supremacists make up the final group of people who don’t think everybody should have a right to vote. To justify this, they make several arguments, but all, at their core, boil down to the notion that white people are the superior race and thus should retain the majority of political power in the nation.

Most white people, particularly those older than 30, grew up exposed to racist cowboys-and-Indians shows, minstrels, and a century of movies that portrayed black people as the bad guys and white people as the winners and saviors. As a result, most white people carry a good dose of unacknowledged and often even denied-but-there-nonetheless belief in the superiority of their own race.

For example, Kali Halloway compiled research that demonstrated rather shocking, but provable, realities that have grown out of this.26 College professors, for example, are more likely to respond to identical letters requesting mentorship from people with white male names than from people with names associated with nonwhite groups or women.27

White people experience less empathy when seeing black people in pain,28 and emergency room personnel give lower doses of pain medications to people of color;29 this belief that black people experience pain less acutely than do whites begins, among white people, around the age of seven.30

A UCLA study found that white people across the board, including police officers, were more likely to assume criminality when a person was black;31 and black men, on average, get 20 percent longer prison sentences than white men for identical crimes.32

When, in a Stanford study, white people were told that laws like three strikes were more likely to harm black people than white people, their subsequent support for criminal justice reform dropped measurably.33 And multiple studies have found that light-skinned African Americans are perceived as smarter and more competent than darker-skinned persons.34

The problem of this deep cultural (and, perhaps, human) racism that’s built into all of us comes at the level of voting and governance when cynical and exploitative politicians use race as a weapon to divide people from one another, or to justify making it easier for one race to vote than another. Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” epithet about black-run countries, and comments to his former attorney Michael Cohen that black people are stupid, are well-known examples of this more modern version of the openly racist public and media language of previous generations.

More subtle were Richard Nixon’s “law and order” and “silent majority” campaigns, designed explicitly to mobilize white voters, a policy that has since become a staple of Republican (and some Democratic) politics.

While the idea of white superiority is apparently held by an absolute majority of whites, even if in a less-than-conscious fashion (and often by people of color as well; none of us are immune to our culture), when it’s used as a political weapon, it becomes corrosive to democracy.

The Billionaires’ Trick to Keep Everyone from Voting

Outside of Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan (and a hedge fund guy), just about all American billionaires are white. And while their white privilege helped most of them to become billionaires in the first place, for the politically active billionaires on the right, it’s their money that they care about the most.

Fred Koch, the founding patriarch of the Koch family, was an early supporter of the John Birch Society (JBS), which vigorously opposed any efforts to reduce the powers of the very wealthy or elevate the wealth or political power of poor or working-class people. Their most public positions in the 1950s and 1960s were against racial integration and communism—the ultimate method for leveling the fortunes of the rich. The JBS opposed virtually all “welfare” legislation, from Social Security to Medicare to unemployment insurance, calling it socialism and equating it with a softer version of communism.

Around that same time, a Russian immigrant who’d fled the Soviet Union (her father had lost his pharmacy shop to the Bolshevik Revolution) came to America with dreams of becoming a great author or actress. Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum chose the stage and pen name of Ayn Rand, and in the 1950s she wrote a rather simplistic novel celebrating inherited wealth.

In Atlas Shrugged, a young woman and her hapless brother inherit a railroad from their father and try to grow it over opposition from the unions, which want a safe workplace and reasonable pay. As George Monbiot wrote,

In a notorious passage, she argues that all the passengers in a train filled with poisoned fumes deserved their fate. One, for instance, was a teacher who taught children to be team players; one was a mother married to a civil servant, who cared for her children; one was a housewife “who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing.”35

In a subsequent novel, The Fountainhead, one of the “producers” of her mythology rapes a woman, but it’s all good because the woman decides that she enjoys it mid-rape. Monbiot boils it down simply: “Rand’s is the philosophy of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed.”

While Fred Koch was helping the JBS in its fight against taxes and regulation, his sons were apparently reading Ayn Rand and taking her philosophy of radical selfishness to heart. They were also, by the 1970s, running the Koch oil operation and having constant struggles with regulators, particularly during the Carter administration.

Looking for political juice, David Koch joined and then largely took over the Libertarian Party in the late 1970s.

That political party had been created by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), a lobbying group formed in 1946 that represented the Big Three carmakers, the top three US oil companies, Monsanto, DuPont, GE, Merrill Lynch, Eli Lilly, and both US Steel and Republic Steel. Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, was on its board of directors, as were United Fruit president Herb Cornuelle; National Association of Manufacturers director and DuPont and GM board member Donaldson Brown; and Leonard Read, a longtime US Chamber of Commerce executive.

The mission of the new libertarian movement was straightforward: to lobby for the interests of big business and the uber-wealthy people that such business had created.

The same year that the FEE was created and they began the rollout of libertarianism, Congress busted an obscure University of Chicago economist named Milton Friedman for illegally shilling for the real estate industry.

As Mark Ames wrote,

The purpose of the FEE—and libertarianism, as it was originally created—was to supplement big business lobbying with a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-economics rationale to back up its policy and legislative attacks on labor and government regulations.

This background is important in the Milton Friedman story because Friedman is a founder of libertarianism, and because the corrupt lobbying deal he was busted playing a part in was arranged through the Foundation for Economic Education.36

Friedman was later implicated in the aftermath of the brutal and violent takedown of democracy in Chile, and his acolytes helped privatize the state-owned properties of the Soviet Union, creating the kleptocratic and oligarchic government that now runs Russia and many of the former Soviet states. Libertarianism, it turns out, has had real-world impacts, which include the deaths of thousands.

No country has ever successfully established a libertarian form of economy or governance; it was, after all, a scam set up to front for the very rich and the corporations that made them that way. But that hasn’t stopped libertarian and corporatist ideologues from trying.

While Chile and Russia are well-known examples, few Americans seem to remember how George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld simply stood on the sidelines watching as the treasures of Iraq were looted after the United States took down their government.

It was to be a Grand Experiment: they’d finally prove that without government interference in a nation’s economy or social systems, a utopia would emerge. L. Paul Bremer was their front man, arriving in Iraq on May 2, 2003, to begin the process of “freeing” the country’s economy so that the world’s corporations would flood in and create a paradise.

As Naomi Klein wrote for Harper’s Magazine in an article titled “Baghdad Year Zero,”

The tone of Bremer’s tenure was set with his first major act on the job: he fired 500,000 state workers, most of them soldiers, but also doctors, nurses, teachers, publishers, and printers. Next, he flung open the country’s borders to absolutely unrestricted imports: no tariffs, no duties, no inspections, no taxes. Iraq, Bremer declared two weeks after he arrived, was “open for business.”

One month later, Bremer unveiled the centerpiece of his reforms. Before the invasion, Iraq’s non-oil-related economy had been dominated by 200 state-owned companies, which produced everything from cement to paper to washing machines. In June, Bremer flew to an economic summit in Jordan and announced that these firms would be privatized immediately. “Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands,” he said, “is essential for Iraq’s economic recovery.” It would be the largest state liquidation sale since the collapse of the Soviet Union.37

Once again, Milton Friedman, the FEE’s heirs, and libertarianism made a few more billionaires and destroyed the lives of literally millions of people.

The source of the funds being channeled to Friedman back in 1949 was a man named Herbert Nelson, who was the chief lobbyist and executive vice president of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, which not only was opposed to rent control laws but also had one of the largest lobbying budgets in Washington, DC.

Congressional investigators found a letter he wrote in 1949 saying, “I do not believe in democracy. I think it stinks. I don’t think anybody except direct taxpayers should be allowed to vote. I don’t believe women should be allowed to vote at all. Ever since they started, our public affairs have been in a worse mess than ever.”38

Although the details are still a bit fuzzy, it appears that libertarianism (and the creation of a political party using that name) was Nelson’s idea, or at least one he promoted vigorously. With a budget of over $60 million (in today’s dollars), Nelson hired the FEE to come up with a third party that would argue for the interests of the wealthy developers and landlords he represented. The FEE, in turn, hired Milton Friedman.

Reason magazine, heavily funded by the Kochs, was the main voice of the libertarian movement in the 1970s, and in 1977 it published a fascinating article by Moshe Kroy that described how libertarians should market their free-market fundamentalism to skeptical Americans. Noting that it was important not to lie to people outright, Kroy wrote, “The point is that you can use tricks—and you’d better, if you really want libertarianism to have a fighting chance.”39

The tricks involved repackaging and reframing libertarian dogma and using “salesmanship.”

For example, Kroy asserted that the average person wouldn’t understand an abstraction like individual rights. So don’t even bother explaining how libertarianism would shrink government and empower corporations and the rich. “Instead,” Kroy wrote,

what you can do is to explain to him that libertarianism is just against one thing: CRIME. By crime you mean just what he means: theft, robbery, kidnapping, enslavement. He will of course agree, because he thinks this is obvious. Then you just explain (at great length, and with many examples) that taxation is armed robbery, that inflation through deficit spending and money printing is theft—as well as forgery of money—that draft is basically kidnapping, etc.40

This was something the average person could understand. The government that people thought would protect them from polluting corporations, would provide an efficient court and fiscal system to protect their jobs and bank accounts from corporate grifters, and would defend their lives in war if necessary—that government was, in fact, an evil thing.

If the billionaires could get the average American to look at government the way that oil, chemical, real estate, and banking industry billionaires did, and just elect politicians who were bought and paid for by those industries, then things would get very, very easy.

Buying Politicians, Selling Lies, and Suppressing the Vote

Right-wing billionaires know that if average Americans understood their real agenda, we’d never again elect a Republican. And it’s been that way for a long, long time.

As historian, author, and University of Wisconsin professor Harvey J. Kaye wrote in 2015 for Bill Moyers’s online magazine,

Polls conducted in 1943 showed that 94 percent of Americans endorsed old-age pensions; 84 percent, job insurance; 83 percent, universal national health insurance; and 79 percent, aid for students—leading FDR in his 1944 State of the Union message to propose a Second Bill of Rights that would guarantee those very things to all Americans. All of which would be blocked by a conservative coalition of pro-corporate Republicans and white supremacist southern Democrats.41

It wasn’t always this way.

In 1956, when Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower was seeking reelection, he campaigned on a platform that bragged that the Eisenhower administration “has enforced more vigorously and effectively than ever before, the laws which protect the working standards of our people,” that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions,” and that the administration had led the “expansion of social security” and called for “better health protection for all our people.”

The platform pledged that the Eisenhower administration would “continue to fight for dynamic and progressive programs,” including “improved job safety of our workers.” It would “[s]trengthen and improve the Federal-State Employment Service and improve the effectiveness of the unemployment insurance system”; prevent corporations from robbing pension plans by working to “[p]rotect by law, the assets of employee welfare and benefit plans”; “assure equal pay for equal work regardless of Sex”; “[e]xtend the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible”; and—remember that this was before Nixon’s Southern strategy—“[c]ontinue to fight for the elimination of discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or sex.”

It even went so far as to embrace increased immigration into the United States, noting that the administration had “sponsored the Refugee Relief Act to provide asylum for thousands of refugees, expellees and displaced persons” and would “continue and further perfect its programs of assistance to the millions of workers with special employment problems, such as older workers, handicapped workers, members of minority groups, and migratory workers.”42

Eisenhower was the last Republican who was elected without having to resort to treason or election fraud, and the last Republican to talk in such a “liberal” way. Fred Koch’s John Birch Society was fond of informally referring to Ike as a communist.

From the polls in the 1940s to polls today, most Americans are closer to the policy positions of Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, than to those of even moderate Democrats like former president Bill Clinton. And when presented with clear lists of Republican positions, most Americans are repelled.

So, to get people to vote for the largely Republican politicians they own, the billionaires and their front companies realized that first they must lie.

But even that wasn’t enough.

When Reagan, in his first inaugural, said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” most Americans didn’t understand that the president was setting up calls for privatizing Social Security; ending Medicare (which Reagan had campaigned against in the 1960s when it was passed); and dialing back on the pollution controls that the EPA had put into place during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. Just minutes after the Iranians released their hostages, Reagan said, “It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.”43

Most Americans didn’t think he meant that we should stop funding hospitals and public schools, or devastate LBJ’s Great Society programs that had cut the poverty rate in America in half. They didn’t see Betsy DeVos or Scott Pruitt on the horizon.

But there they were.

Ironically, in 1980, the year Reagan was first elected president, David Koch essentially outed the Libertarian Party. He made a massive donation to the party, and they put him on the ticket as vice president. And he figured that Americans were smart enough that he wouldn’t have to use the salesmanship that Moshe Kroy had advocated just a few years earlier.

The Libertarian Party platform on which Koch ran in 1980 was unambiguous. It included the following:

• We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.

• We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services. . . .

• We favor the repeal of the . . . Social Security system. . . .

• We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.

• We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.

• As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.

• We support repeal of all . . . minimum wage laws. . . .

• Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended. . . .

• We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency. . . .

• We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system. . . .

• We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. . . .

• We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and “aid to the poor” programs.44

The list went on from there, including ending government oversight of abusive banking practices by ending all usury laws; privatizing our airports, the FAA, Amtrak, and all of our rivers; and shutting down the Post Office. In a bone they threw to the white supremacist, white evangelical, and Catholic Christian movements, they also called for an end of all tax-supported abortions (although the Hyde Amendment had already banned this in 1976).

Koch thought they’d kicked off a movement, but when the election returns came in, he was disappointed. Commenting that he’d always been talking to friendly crowds, he candidly noted that he was surprised when his candidacy pulled only about a million votes nationwide.

So the billionaires walked away from libertarianism and turned their attention to taking over the Republican Party. That, it turned out, was much easier.

The Rise of Social Issues

In the spirit of the 1971 Powell memo, the Supreme Court, in its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, made it legal for wealthy people to own politicians and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections and policy. Two years later, it extended the logic that such spending was protected by First Amendment “human rights of free speech” to corporations in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti.

Buying politicians was not only legal but astonishingly cheap: for a few hundred thousand dollars, a captive politician could shepherd through Congress legislation that would ensure billions of dollars in profits for his overlord corporate and billionaire donors.

The problem that the billionaires and their corporations had was that Americans were getting wise to the game. People in the United States still wanted—just as they did in the 1950s—the sort of social safety net enjoyed by the citizens of every other developed country in the world.

How could countries from Germany to Canada to Costa Rica provide a free or nearly free college education, free or very-low-cost universal health care, and excellent free public schools when we in America had over a trillion dollars in crippling student loan debt, more than 600,000 medical bankruptcies every year (the total for the other 33 of the 34 OECD “developed countries”: zero), and crumbling 1960s and 1970s infrastructure from schools to roads to airports and railways?

And when David Koch came along and transparently laid out the libertarian agenda, the shock was even deeper. By the end of the Reagan administration, most Americans realized that they had little say in the fate and future of their own nation and its domestic and international policies.

A diversion became necessary. Enter “social issues.”

The Supreme Court had upended the “social” hopes of white racists with Brown v. Board and subsequent decisions, and President John F. Kennedy’s decision to force integration of schools in the South lit that torch.

The Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 helped create a multimillion-dollar-a-year anti-abortion industry, particularly among the more cynical religious hucksters and TV preachers who began to thrive and prosper on viewer donations in a big way in the 1970s.

President Bill Clinton’s 1994 passage of the assault weapons ban kicked the weapons industry and their front group, the National Rifle Association, into the big leagues of fundraising and fearmongering.

Meanwhile, as Reaganism’s economic impacts spread across the country, destroying much of the white (and some of the emerging black) middle class (mostly through gutting unions and legalizing the corporate theft of pension funds), economic insecurity became widespread.

By 2000, a generation was reaching college age and discovering that they’d almost certainly never do better than their parents—a first since the Republican Great Depression of 1929 (yes, that’s what they called it until after World War II).

Republicans, who had historically pointed to “liberals” calling for more unionization (the US peak, just before Reagan, was around a third of the country; most European countries are over 80 percent), an expansion of Medicare/Medicaid, and better schools, changed their sales pitch.

Liberals, they said, were fundamentally un-American. The American Dream, which the Greatest Generation had defined as a good union job with annual vacations, home ownership, and the ability to put their kids through college, was reinvented to be the lives of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Every American, the Republicans told us in op-eds and on TV, wanted to become a billionaire, and every American still had that opportunity—just look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs! If we didn’t take good care of those billionaires, there may not be a money bin in the future of the average (but lucky or brilliant or inventive or lottery-winning) American.

Massive tax cuts for the very wealthy passed by Reagan, Bush Jr., and Trump—which, in total, sucked well over $20 trillion out of the economy and handed it over to the very, very, very rich—were going to stimulate the economy and expand opportunity. Everybody could one day become a job creator.

Promoting New(t)speak

In a pivotal 1996 memo from GOPAC, a Republican nonprofit, to Republican politicians and activists distributed by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, the speaker and his colleagues made it clear that the future of the GOP wasn’t going to be in meeting the needs of average Americans; instead, they suggested, it was in talking in a way that would cause people to think the GOP was.45

Never again would they blunder into clear and blunt language about their true goals, as David Koch had so disastrously done in 1980.

Titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” the memo declared, “We believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created this list of words and phrases.”46

The list, the memo said, was “prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media. The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible.”

There were two parts: “Optimistic Positive Governing words and phrases . . .” and “Contrasting words to help you clearly define the policies and record of your opponent and the Democratic party.”

When discussing tax cuts or deregulation of polluting industries or cutting backdoor deals for big banks, Republican politicians should use words like candid, common sense, crusade, dream, duty, family, freedom, liberty, opportunity, pristine, prosperity, reform, strength, tough, truth, and vision (this is only a partial list).

When describing Democratic plans to extend unemployment insurance or expand unionization or build out America’s infrastructure, and especially for issues like abortion, guns, gays, or God, there was a very different word list. It included “powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party”: abuse, betray, bizarre, bosses, bureaucracy, corrupt, decay, disgrace, greed, hypocrisy, incompetent, liberal, pathetic, permissive, radical, red tape, self-serving, shame, sick, taxes, traitors, waste, and the two worst: unionized and welfare (again, among other words).

Rush Limbaugh and a pack of well-funded competitors were rising fast with a little help from their friends, amplifying Newt’s GOPAC word list.

Ken Vogel and Mackenzie Weinger reported in Politico in 2014 that “conservative groups spent nearly $22 million to broker and pay for involved advertising relationships known as sponsorships with a handful of influential talkers including [Glenn] Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh between the first talk radio deals in 2008 and the end of 2012. Since then, the sponsorship deals have grown more lucrative.”47 Most of the money was laundered (my word, not theirs) through groups like the Heritage Foundation.

“Heritage began sponsoring Hannity in 2008 and paid $1.3 million in 2011 to a broker to arrange and fund the deal, according to the group’s IRS filings,” Vogel and Weinger wrote. “The Koch brothers–backed Americans for Prosperity paid at least $757,000” primarily to sponsor Mark Levin’s radio show, and Rush Limbaugh was “paid more than $2 million in some years and more than $9.5 million overall.”

The billionaires know how to take good care of the people broadcasting their worldview virtually 24/7 in every city in America of any consequence. Nothing even close—nothing at all, frankly—existed or exists on the left side of the radio dial.

Meanwhile, billionaire Rupert Murdoch brought to the United States the same libertarian worldview he’d first inflicted on Australia and then Great Britain. Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, wrote about Murdoch’s awesome influence over that country in a blunt article for the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2018 titled “Cancer Eating the Heart of Australian Democracy.”48 Murdoch himself, Rudd wrote, was “the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy. Murdoch is not just a news organisation. Murdoch operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view.” He pointed out that “Murdoch owns two-thirds of the country’s print media.”

“In Britain,” Rudd wrote, “Murdoch made Brexit possible because of the position taken by his papers. In the United States, Murdoch’s Fox News is the political echo chamber of the far right, which enabled the Tea Party and then the Trump party to stage a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.”

Murdoch’s positions weren’t at all ambiguous, Rudd suggested. They were simply pro–white rich people. “In Australia, as in America,” he wrote, “Murdoch has campaigned for decades in support of tax cuts for the wealthy, killing action on climate change and destroying anything approximating multiculturalism.”

In fact, while liberals were scrambling to raise and then exhaust around $17 million over half a decade to put Air America on 54 radio stations nationwide (conservative talk is on more than 1,000), Murdoch apparently didn’t think twice about losing nearly $100 million a year in the first few years of Fox News, according to Brit Hume. In a 1999 interview with PBS, Hume said that the channel, launched in 1996, was still in a position where it “loses money. It doesn’t lose nearly as much as it did at first, and it’s—well, it’s hit all its projections in terms of, you know, turning a profit, but it’s—it will lose money now, and we expect for a couple more years. I think it’s losing about $80 million to $90 million a year.”49

But if Murdoch could help get Republican politicians elected so that he could have billions of dollars in tax cuts and deregulation that would let him expand his empire in ways previously illegal in the United States, then spending a few hundred million to launch a nationwide propaganda operation was chump change. Eventually, it even turned into a cash cow, as had so many of his other media purchases in the US, UK, and Australia.

And if Gingrich’s word list sounds familiar, it’s because it lives on, in daily rants across America from Fox News to hundreds of right-wing talk hosts on radio stations owned by multibillion-dollar corporations.

The Day the Music Died

For years it worked like a charm, at least from the 1980s until around 2016. Even when Democrats did win elections, they had to eschew labels like “liberal” and take positions like Bill Clinton’s infamous “the era of big government is over,” as was “welfare as we know it.” President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, added billions to the coffers of big insurance and drug companies and continued to legally prevent Americans who were under 65 (and not disabled) from accessing Medicare.

And then, in 2015, a real estate mogul and reality TV star burst onto the scene, blowing up the carefully crafted Potemkin village that his fellow billionaires had built over two generations.

The Republican Party was corrupt, Trump said, lying to get Americans into phony wars for political gain, cutting taxes on rich people like himself at the expense of the average guy, and fawning over phony war heroes like John McCain and low-energy hustlers like Jeb Bush and Rick Perry. The Democratic Party was rigged, too, Trump pointed out, sympathizing with Bernie Sanders, who had been almost entirely ignored by corporate media for nearly a year even as he was drawing crowds of 5,000 to 30,000 at nearly every stop.

Trump talked about giving people the universal health care they’d been yearning for since the 1940s (when the GOP first shot down Harry Truman’s single-payer plan) and said he’d do so at a “lower cost” and with “better benefits” than either Obamacare or Medicare. Union jobs were going to flood back into the country. Billionaires were going to be crippled by higher Trump taxes—“I’ll take a huge hit,” he solemnly proclaimed.

Most of the conservative billionaire class was horrified, and the Koch network (which holds a semiannual get-together for billionaires to raise hundreds of millions to spend on politics) declined to support Trump in 2016. But a few, among them Sheldon Adelson and Robert Mercer, threw in with Trump, and with a little help from oligarchs in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, Trump ended up in the White House.

Within a year of Trump’s taking over the Oval Office, and the GOP taking over both the House and the Senate, Americans began to realize that the entire thing was just another Reaganesque scam. Trump was able to hold together his base mostly by using race-based fear tactics about invading brown hordes from south of the border. He kept Republicans generally on his side by threatening to support Republican primary challengers if they didn’t swear fealty.

But it wasn’t enough, and the professionals in the Republican Party knew it. They could see the wipeout of 2018 coming, and it scared them to their core. Demonizing unions and universal health care didn’t work anymore, because candidate Trump had called them both out as benefits. The 2017 tax cut was widely seen as a $1.5 trillion gift to the billionaire class, put on the credit card of the nation’s children and grandchildren.

Even their fear tactics about black crime and invading Mexicans were backfiring, and the Supreme Court had had the gall to end the debate over gay marriage by simply legalizing it nationwide.

There was only one serious path left: figure out a way to prevent the wrong people from voting or, if they voted, to make sure their votes weren’t counted.

Voter suppression and election fraud became the principal method of ensuring electoral success, buttressed by hundreds of millions of dollars in TV advertising and sophisticated online influence operations.

It was a new day for the Republican Party—one that meant going all in, nationally, at every level, to block young people, elderly people, poor and working poor people, and people of color from having a say in who represented them in government.

A New War on the Vote

While preventing people from voting has a long and sordid history in the United States (and, frankly, around the world), the modern-day Republican Party’s reliance on voter suppression as a primary tool to win elections kicked off in a big way in 1993. That was the year when 27 Democrats and one Republican cosponsored HR2, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), sometimes called the Motor Voter Act.50

In the House, it got 238 Democratic votes and 20 from Republicans;51 in the Senate, every Republican but two voted against it, while every present Democrat voted for it (Jay Rockefeller missed the vote).52

Several parts of the legislation freaked out the GOP, the most prominent being that it required every state to let people register to vote when they presented themselves at DMVs to apply for a new or renewed driver’s license (this part is called Article 5 of the Act).

Other objectionable language in the Act included its preamble, which numerous Republicans thought might cause no end of problems if the Supreme Court were ever to try to enforce it. The preamble to the bill, now Title 42, Section 1973gg, is a long, three-part run-on sentence that says, in clear and straightforward language,

The Congress finds that—

(1) the right of citizens of the United States to vote is a fundamental right;

(2) it is the duty of the Federal, State, and local governments to promote the exercise of that right; and

(3) discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures can have a direct and damaging effect on voter participation in elections for Federal office and disproportionately harm voter participation by various groups, including racial minorities.53

Republicans probably could have relaxed. The only significant ruling by the US Supreme Court citing the NVRA was in 2018, in Husted v. Randolph, in which Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion allowing John Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state, to continue with an aggressive purge of voters from that state’s rolls heading toward the 2018 election.54

In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that around 4 percent of Americans move out of their county every year. Yet “[t]he record shows that in 2012 Ohio identified about 1.5 million registered voters—nearly 20% of its 8 million registered voters—as likely ineligible to remain on the federal voter roll because they changed their residences.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent was even more scathing. “Congress enacted the NVRA against the backdrop of substantial efforts by States to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters,” she wrote, “including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote in prior elections. The Court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that not only is contrary to the plain language of the NVRA but also contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against.” She quoted the NVRA’s preamble and, essentially, accused the conservative majority (it was a 5–4 decision) of helping states engage in racial discrimination in the voting process.

Today’s Supreme Court notwithstanding, in 1993, Republicans couldn’t be so sure that the Court would uphold “the right of citizens of the United States to vote” and the “duty” of states to “promote the exercise of that right.” So they came up with a story that they started selling through op-eds, in speeches, and on Fox News and right-wing talk radio.

This story was simple. There’s massive voter fraud going on, where people are voting more than once in different polling places and doing so under different names. In addition, the Republican story goes, there are millions of “illegal aliens” living in the United States, and they’re voting by the millions (Donald Trump asserted that it was between three million and five million in the 2016 election),55 and they are able to vote because they’re not required to show positive ID proof that they’re eligible-to-vote citizens.

This was a huge step up from the old Republican strategy of simply discouraging or intimidating voters of color.

William Rehnquist, for example, was a 40-year-old Arizona lawyer and Republican activist in 1964, when his idol, Barry Goldwater, was running against Lyndon Johnson for president. Rehnquist helped organize a program titled Operation Eagle Eye in his state to aggressively challenge the vote of every Hispanic and black voter and to dramatically slow down the voting lines in communities of color to discourage people who had to get back to work from waiting hours to vote.

As Democratic poll watcher Lito Pena observed at the time, Rehnquist showed up at a southern Phoenix polling place to do his part in Operation Eagle Eye.56

“He knew the law and applied it with the precision of a swordsman,” Pena told a reporter. “He sat at the table at the Bethune School, a polling place brimming with black citizens, and quizzed voters ad nauseam about where they were from, how long they’d lived there—every question in the book. A passage of the Constitution was read and people who spoke broken English were ordered to interpret it to prove they had the language skills to vote.”57

Rehnquist was richly rewarded for his activism; he quickly rose through the GOP ranks to being appointed by President Nixon, in 1972, to the Supreme Court and then elevated in 1986 by President Reagan to chief justice, a position he used to help stop the vote recount in 2000 and hand the election that year to George W. Bush in the case of Bush v. Gore.

(Interestingly, two lawyers who worked with the Bush legal team to argue the case before Rehnquist included then-little-known lawyers John Roberts58 and Brett Kavanaugh.59 Bush rewarded Roberts by appointing him not just to the Court but directly to the chief justice position when Rehnquist died. Roberts was also a tie-breaking vote to allow Ohio to continue its voter purges in 2017, and he wrote the 5–4 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.)

Operation Eagle Eye was one of thousands of such formal and informal operations across the United States. Even though the Republican Party was restrained by a consent decree in 1981 from such practices (and from caging), it largely ignored the consent decree and continued these sorts of practices right up until the decree was essentially overturned in the Shelby County v. Holder case and their efforts were legalized.60

Now what was once called caging—challenging voters’ registration status by, for example, sending out postcards to voters and then purging them from the rolls if they fail to return the cards—has been granted the seal of approval by the Supreme Court and, in the years since Shelby County, has spread to nearly 20 Republican-controlled states.

All of which again raises the fundamental question: Do Americans legally have a right to vote?

Is Voting a Right? Should It Be?

The framers of the Constitution were pretty skittery about the issue. The roughly half of the Constitutional Convention that represented slaveholding states didn’t want anything that might one day force their states to allow slaves to vote, and many of the Northern representatives were wary of too much democracy breaking out and leading to what John Adams referred to as “the rabble” voting. And there was an absolute consensus that women should never be allowed to vote.

Thus, voting is only really addressed in the amendments to the Constitution, and in each case very, very carefully.

The 13th Amendment says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Similarly, the 19th Amendment says, simply, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

And the 26th Amendment lowers the voting age to 18: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”

But while each of these prohibits the prevention of people from voting because of their race, color, sex, or age, nowhere is there to be found in the Constitution an affirmative “right to vote” for all citizens.

To the contrary, in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote” for the president, because it’s actually a vote by proxy in which a citizen is voting for a member of the Electoral College, who will then cast the vote that counts for president.

That, among other arguments that were hotly contested in multiple dissents by the four Democratic-appointed justices, led the logic that shut down the vote count in Florida, which would later find, when the votes were recounted by a group of news organizations a year later, that Al Gore had actually won the state and thus the 2000 election.61

In a similar case just a few weeks before Bush v. Gore, the Republican majority on the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment didn’t mean that we all have an equal right to vote. “The Equal Protection Clause does not protect the right of all citizens to vote,” the justices affirmed in upholding a lower court’s ruling that people in Washington, DC, are not entitled to representation in Congress.

As congressman and constitutional scholar Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, wrote, while at least 135 countries have written an affirmative right to vote into their constitutions, “[by] my count, only Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Singapore, and, of course, the United Kingdom (whose phony doctrine of ‘virtual representation’ the colonists rebelled against centuries ago) still leave voting rights out of their constitutions and therefore to the whims of state officials.”62

This led Representative Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin (and cosponsors), to propose a simple amendment to the Constitution. In 2013, they introduced into Congress amending legislation that said, “Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.”63

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, refused to allow it to come to the floor for a vote, and it died in that congressional session; a similar fate has befallen efforts by Democratic senators over the years.

Such an amendment would completely flip upside down virtually all of the Republican Party’s many efforts to prevent people from voting. Instead of voters having to prove that they were eligible to vote, the government (from federal to state to local) would have to affirmatively prove, through due process, that they’d lost that right or weren’t eligible for it (presumably by conviction for treason or loss of citizenship).

With an affirmative right to vote in place, Rehnquist’s Operation Eagle Eye would have been illegal, as would the many state efforts to make it harder to register or to vote. It would criminalize efforts by state and local officials to close polling places, require strict IDs while closing DMVs, or arbitrarily engineer elections in ways that would make it more difficult to vote.

It would also require election officials to make sure that their operations were state-of-the-art and not vulnerable to hacking or malfeasance (particularly if the citizens’ right to have their vote counted was included in the amendment). Ending the Electoral College in the same amendment would be an added benefit.

Everything could change.

Numbers, Not Voters

Aside from outright attacks and procedural hurdles that suppress the vote and give Republicans an edge (more on those in the following chapters), there is another two-pronged attack in the Republicans’ war to preserve minority rule in America.

The first prong is that a faction of Republicans wants to find a new answer to the broad question “Who deserves representation in the United States?”

This question is as old as the country, and it was even re-answered with the ratification of the 14th Amendment. As Senator Jacob Howard, R-Michigan, explained when he introduced the 14th Amendment, “The basis of representation should depend upon numbers. . . . Numbers, not voters; numbers, not property; this is the theory of the Constitution.”

But this theory of the Constitution is being increasingly challenged by America’s right wing.

In 2016, the Supreme Court heard Evenwel v. Abbott, wherein two Texas voters had sued the state of Texas in an attempt to overturn the constitutional principle that “every person deserves representation.” As the New York Times reported in June 2019,

[the plaintiffs’] preferred method, shared by a number of conservative politicians, would erase from state political maps not only noncitizens, but also children—two groups that aren’t evenly distributed across states. The resulting maps would tend to shift power from the places where children and noncitizens are more plentiful to places where there are more older and white residents. At the state level, such maps would also strip from these groups a principle as old as the Constitution: that even someone who cannot vote still deserves representation.64

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state could draw districts based on overall population—but the Court also left the door open as to whether states could choose to draw district maps based only on the voting-age population. In the words of the late Republican “redistricter par excellence” Thomas B. Hofeller, such maps in Texas “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”

Hofeller drew thousands of maps in his life—thousands of permutations of state maps drawn and redrawn to find all the ways that Republicans could gain electoral advantages without violating the letter of the Voting Rights Act. When he died, Republicans had no idea that he had saved those maps on hard drives. They also had no idea that Hofeller’s daughter would discover those hard drives—and then turn them over to Common Cause, a government accountability group. When Common Cause went through his files, they found a trove of prepared maps for redistricting Republican-controlled states such as Texas and North Carolina.

The files, along with Hofeller’s notes, serve as a smoking gun of the Republicans’ concerted effort to draw new districts that nominally meet the criteria of the Voting Rights Act but functionally give “Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” an electoral advantage as a nationwide minority.

A key aspect of his plan was that Republican-controlled states would be allowed to count their population based on voting-age population instead of total population, because blacks and, particularly, Hispanics tend to have more children than whites at this time.

Stacey Abrams Was Robbed

The white men who run most of the elections in Georgia were never going to let a black woman become governor. Or, like their colleagues in Florida, any African American. But especially Stacey Abrams, a smart (Yale Law School) young woman of color who had been a highly effective legislator in the Georgia General Assembly.

There’s history here. In 1867, a total of 33 black men were sent to the Georgia Constitutional Convention (to help write a new, post–Civil War, non-slave-state constitution for the state), where they promptly introduced provisions calling for free public school for black children, the right of black men to serve on juries overseeing cases involving white defendants, and doing away with debtors’ prisons in the state. None made it into the constitution.

The following year, 32 black men were elected to that state’s General Assembly, where they introduced legislation banning racial discrimination on public transportation, protecting black laborers from abuse, and ensuring “the protection of [black] citizens’ rights.”

Within a few months, the white men of Georgia’s legislature had unseated their black colleagues, an event that reverberated all the way to Washington, DC, where unionist Republicans charged that this was proof that Georgia was still not politically reconstructed after the war.

In 1870, the US Congress allowed Georgia back into the Union, in part because Georgia’s General Assembly passed two of the black members’ bills, providing for nondiscrimination on public carriers and the creation of a public education system. Twenty-six black men were elected that year and allowed to serve.

But the black members of the Georgia legislature suffered terrible harassment, both from their colleagues and from members of the newly re-formed Ku Klux Klan, the nation’s preeminent domestic terrorist group, which had begun an aggressive program of lynching, robbery, rape, and terror—particularly around election time—throughout the South. Only nine black men were elected in 1872, and within a decade the legislature was again entirely white.

Fast-forward to 2013. For three generations, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had constrained Georgia’s white politicians in their efforts to keep the state’s power structures in white hands by preventing black people from voting. Every time they wanted to close a voting precinct in a black neighborhood or shorten black polling place hours, they’d had to submit the proposal to the US Justice Department for approval, which almost never was granted.

Every time they wanted to purge large numbers of black people from the voting rolls, they had to look over their shoulders at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and worry.

They couldn’t introduce bizarre anti-voting laws like the “exact match” law that required a voter’s registration card to exactly match his or her main form of ID, allowing polling station workers to disqualify voters—as they saw fit after checking out the color of the voter’s skin—based on a period after their middle initial appearing on their ID but not their registration form, for example.

Republican Senator Brian Kemp of Georgia had introduced an exact match bill in 2008; it was shot down the next year by the DOJ as being discriminatory. But that was before 2013, when, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court eliminated the requirement that laws or rules like exact match had to be precleared by the DOJ before Georgia could put them in place.

Thus, when Kemp became secretary of state and was in charge of all voting in the state of Georgia, and the state no longer had to attend to the Voting Rights Act because of the Shelby County case, he reinstated exact match just in time for the 2018 election and used it to disqualify the registrations of more than 50,000 mostly black voters.

It was a decision that not only benefited pretty much every Republican in the state running for election or reelection in 2018, but also hugely benefited Kemp, who was Stacey Abrams’s opponent in the gubernatorial race that year.

Race-based voter suppression has a long history in America. But the Republican response to the election of America’s first black president was probably the most dramatic increase in these efforts in the lifetime of anybody alive today.

During the eight years that Barack Obama was president, seven of the 11 states with the largest black populations passed aggressive voter suppression laws. Nine of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic populations did the same. And nine of the 15 states that required preclearance under the Voting Rights Act passed, after the Supreme Court gutted that law, draconian voter suppression laws that principally affected people of color, college students, and people old enough to be on Social Security.65

States that had large black populations—like Georgia—even shut the polls the Sunday before Election Day on Tuesday, because black churches had been organizing very successful “souls to the polls” voting drives after church services. Georgia State Senator Fran Millar said that he and other Georgia Republicans were “investigating if there is any way to stop this [voting] action [by black people]” and that they “will try to eliminate this election law loophole [early voting on Sundays] in January.”66

Election loophole? one might ask. As Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, wrote for the American Prospect, “An Ohio official, explaining his 2012 vote to limit early voting hours, said: ‘I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban [read: African American] voter-turnout machine.’”67

Republican-controlled states across America passed hundreds of laws to make it harder for racial minorities, as well as young people and the elderly of all races, to vote, with the most severe passed in 2015 and 2016. The Brennan Center for Justice documented those states in which Republican legislative majorities made such changes just in 2016:

• In Montana, civil rights groups were banned by law from helping people cast absentee ballots.

• North Dakota passed a strict voter ID law.

• South Dakota made it much harder for ex-felons to get back their right to vote.

• Nebraska cut back days for early voting.

• Kansas required both proof of citizenship and government-issued photo ID.

• Alabama passed severe ID restrictions.

• Iowa restricted voter registration drives, passed a strict ID law, made early and absentee voting harder, and cut the voting rights of ex-felons.

• Wisconsin passed a strict ID law and limited early voting.

• Illinois curbed voter registration drives.

• Missouri passed a voter ID law.

• Indiana passed a law to institutionalize voter purges and restricted the kinds of ID that can be used.

• Ohio cut early voting and made it harder to cast an absentee or provisional ballot.

• West Virginia cut early voting from 17 days to 10 days.

• Virginia made it harder for groups to register people to vote and passed a draconian voter ID law.

• North and South Carolina both put voter ID restrictions in place.

• Georgia passed Brian Kemp’s exact match voter registration law, as well as voter ID.

• Florida cut early voting, passed laws threatening to imprison people improperly running voter registration drives (causing the League of Women Voters to stop registering people in that state), and made it harder for ex-felons to recover their voting rights.

• Mississippi passed a voter ID law, as did Tennessee and Arkansas.

• Texas curbed voter registration drives and passed an ID law.

• Arizona limited mail-in ballots.

• Rhode Island passed an ID law, as did New Hampshire, that specifically made it much harder for college students to vote.68

• In 2019, in response to 2018 Democratic gains in Arizona, Kentucky, and Texas, as of this writing all three states have Republican-sponsored legislation in the pipeline for the 2020 election to make voting or registering voters harder. Techniques include making it a go-to-prison crime for making any mistakes on your voter registration form in Texas; Tennessee is similarly threatening people doing voter registration drives with prison if there are errors on the forms they turn in; and Arizona is making the entire voting process more complex.69

Meanwhile, Republicans were vigorously taking people’s names off the voting rolls through a variety of purge methods.

The Brennan Center found that just between 2014 and 2016, in the two years leading up to the presidential election, over 14 million people were purged from voter rolls, largely in Republican-controlled states. Brian Kemp purged over a million in Georgia alone.

Calling the findings “disturbing,” the Brennan Center noted, “Almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 than between 2006 and 2008. This growth in the number of removed voters represented an increase of 33 percent—far outstripping growth in both total registered voters (18 percent) and total population (6 percent).”70

In the minority voting precincts that had been overseen by the DOJ back when the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision stopped the feds from looking over the shoulders of state officials in those places with a long history of race-based voter suppression, Republicans totally closed 868 polling places between the 2013 Shelby County decision and the 2016 election.71 The result is that between the 2012 and 2016 elections, black voting participation fell nearly 7 percent.72

The story told by Republicans was that the drop came about because Hillary Clinton wasn’t as popular as Obama and she wasn’t black. But even in states and counties where black people were on the ballot, there was still a large drop in black voter participation. Although the Hispanic population in America is among the fastest-growing ethnicities, Latinx voters fell by .4 percent in 2016.

The only reasonable explanation is that the GOP’s voter suppression efforts were successful.

In Georgia, they worked particularly well. Kemp had used several different voter suppression methods, from voter ID to massive voter purges to closing or time-limiting DMV offices that could issue IDs in black areas while extending their hours in white neighborhoods. He closed more than 200 polling places, mostly in poor and minority neighborhoods.73

Out of over 3.9 million votes cast in Georgia, Kemp won by a mere 55,000, about the same as the number of people he’d forbidden from voting because there wasn’t an exact match of the middle names or initials or commas on mostly black voters’ registration forms submitted in the months running up to the election.74

Not to mention over 1.5 million voters he’d removed from the rolls—such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s cousin, 92-year-old Christine Jordan, who was one of thousands turned away at the polls or given a provisional ballot that was never counted.75 Jordan had been voting every two years at the same precinct for a full 50 years until Kemp’s radical administration removed her name from the rolls.

Stacey Abrams ran a great race, and as Hillary Clinton later pointed out, she lost the election only because of voter suppression efforts by Brian Kemp and the GOP.76

Stacey Abrams’s story isn’t just a story about Georgia. It’s the story of a political party that has lost touch with average American voters and has made the deliberate choice to hold power by a variety of forms of election manipulation and, in some cases, outright fraud.

The stakes are high: control of state and federal government. Meanwhile, the risks are low. Several people of color have been sent to prison for voting when they shouldn’t (because they were ex-felons and didn’t know about the law disenfranchising ex-felons), but the white Republicans who put into place and administer these modern-day Jim Crow systems are almost never prosecuted. Worse, they usually are well paid and rapidly climb the political ladder.

It all became necessary because the previous con job that the GOP had been running on the American electorate since the Nixon presidency stopped working toward the end of the Obama presidency. The following chapters examine some of the tactics that Republicans are still using to suppress, dilute, and otherwise steal Americans’ votes.

Exit Polling around the World

Most Americans, when they hear the name Viktor Yushchenko, vaguely remember a Ukrainian politician lying in a hospital bed with a severely disfigured face, the result of poisoning with a deadly form of dioxin, the toxic ingredient in Agent Orange. But it was exit polls that got him there.

Exit polls are polls taken outside of voting stations or polling places, where people who have already voted are questioned as they’re leaving. They’re considered far more accurate than other types of pre- or post-election polling because they don’t rely on people answering their phones, returning a mailed inquiry, or asserting that they intend to vote when they may well not.

In a clean election environment, it’s safe to assume that nearly 100 percent of the people polled actually voted, and history shows that such polls are typically (outside the United States) accurate to within a fraction of a point, or a point or two at most, depending on how many people are polled.

Exit polls are held in such regard that when, in the 2007 Kenyan election, Mwai Kibaki (the government’s choice) was declared the election winner over Raila Odinga—who the exit polls reported had easily won—riots broke out, and, to quote the Carter Center, “more than 1,000 died and some 600,000 fled their homes.”77 In response, the Carter Center went to Kenya to monitor the re-vote (which was also severely marred by fraud).

Similarly, back in 2004 in Ukraine, Yushchenko—the reformer outsider candidate—was well ahead in the regular polling against Viktor Yanukovych. When the election returns came in, however, the government election commission reported that Yanukovych had won the election by 49.5 percent to 46.6 percent for Yushchenko. When it became widely known, however, that exit polling done by three different organizations concluded that voters had actually turned out for Yushchenko 54 percent to 43 percent for the guy the government said had won, people took to the streets in what was called the Orange Revolution.78

The Washington Post said in an editorial, “Despite the government’s brazenly unfair campaign, a majority of Ukrainians voted for . . . Yushchenko [and] authorities then tried to steal the election.”79

The US government, along with many European allies, declared outrage at the election fraud, proven by (among other events) the exit polls. They suggested that the election-result tampering was orchestrated by pro-Russian supporters of Yanukovych. To quell the riots, a new election was called, and as Yushchenko began to fall ill from the dioxin poisoning, he was elected the new president of Ukraine.

In Germany, exit polls have been used for years to functionally call elections as soon as the polls close, even though hand counting of paper ballots can take days. They’re rarely off by more than a fraction of a single point. They’re considered so reliable and so important that the German government criminalized releasing even preliminary results before the polls close; when two Twitter users leaked exit polls 90 minutes before the polls closed in 2009, it provoked a national scandal.80

Similarly, exit polls are routinely used to call elections all over the world, where paper ballots are almost universally used and thus can take days to count. A quick summary of AP headlines shows the reporting trend in the United States: “Exit polling indicates Peruvians vote to fight corruption,”81 “Poland: Exit poll gives centrists edge in key mayoral races,”82 “Exit polls suggest Irish voters have repealed abortion ban,”83 “Exit polls: Dutch vote on spying law too close to call.”84 And that’s just the Associated Press.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, a network sponsored by the government of Great Britain, where exit polls are also used to report election results before the paper ballots are counted, routinely uses exit polls all over the world to call elections.

A quick search finds elections being called by the BBC, in just the past three years, in Italy, the UK, Israel, Japan, India, the Netherlands, Haiti, Tunisia, France, Ireland, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Australia, Indonesia, Crimea, Portugal, Macedonia, Ecuador, the nation of Georgia, Kosovo, Latvia, Greece, Argentina, and even the Moscow mayor’s race in Russia.85

Every single one turned out to accurately call the election it headlined.

Exit Polls in the US and Red Shift Explained

We used to use exit polls that way in the United States too. Techniques were tried and refined on a variety of local bases around the country for decades through the mid-20th century, but Warren Mitofsky fine-tuned it from an art into a science and conducted the first real acid test of the technique in 1967, accurately calling the Kentucky governor’s race that year. Throughout the 1970s, virtually every election was called by the networks based on exit polls, and the technique was considered noncontroversial.

In the 1980 presidential election of Carter versus Reagan, the East Coast exit polling results were reported by NBC News hours before the West Coast polls had closed (the exit polls showed Reagan had won), producing bipartisan outrage; the networks promised to tighten up their handling of exit poll data, which was virtual news gold.86

Everything was going well until the 2000 election, when the exit polls clearly showed Al Gore winning the presidency (including in Florida, which, it turns out, he did win when all the ballots were counted by the news organizations a year after the election), and the networks called the election for Gore before all the states had reported their counts.

While election exit polls are still the gold standard worldwide, since that 2000 election they seem to have gone to hell in the United States.

In the 2004 presidential election, exit polls called John Kerry the clear winner with a margin of more than two million votes, even winning handily in Ohio, but this time the networks held back.

As ABC News reported in a postmortem of their reporting on the exit polling of the 2004 election,

The exit poll estimates in the 2004 general election overstated John Kerry’s share of the vote nationally and in many states. There were 26 states in which the estimates produced by the exit poll data overstated the vote for John Kerry by more than one standard error, and there were four states in which the exit poll estimates overstated the vote for George W. Bush by more than one standard error. The inaccuracies in the exit poll estimates were not due to the sample selection of the polling locations at which the exit polls were conducted. We have not discovered any systematic problem in how the exit poll data were collected and processed.87

The exit polling companies, in the four years since 2000, had developed a new strategy to report their polls—unique to the United States in its widespread use—in which they’d “adjust” their results to reflect what the individual states reported as the actual vote.

ABC News’ postmortem noted, “[T]he final exit poll data used for analysis in 2004 was adjusted to match the actual vote returns by geographic region within each state.”88 That “final” and “adjusted” data purported to show that John Kerry had won by only about a half-million votes, and he’d lost the decisive state of Ohio, which became the reporting the networks went with.89

In 2004, fully 22 states experienced what has now come to be called “red shift”—where the polls are “wrong” but almost always in a way that benefits Republicans.

For example, in the 2016 election, the exit polls showed Hillary Clinton carrying Florida by 47.7 percent to Trump’s 46.4 percent, although the “actual” counted vote had Trump winning by 49.0 percent to 47.8 percent. Trump gained 2.5 percentage points . . . somehow.90

In North Carolina, exit polls showed Clinton winning 48.6 percent to 46.5 percent, but the votes that were counted turned out with Trump’s 49.9 to Clinton’s 46.1, a red shift of 5.9 percentage points for the GOP.91

Pennsylvania’s exit polls showed that Clinton won 50.5 percent to Trump’s 46.1 percent, but when “eligible” votes were counted, Trump carried the state 48.8 percent to Clinton’s 47.6 percent—a red shift of 5.6 percentage points.

In Wisconsin, it was Clinton beating Trump in the exit polls 48.2 percent to 44.3 percent, but the “real” count put Trump over the top at 48.8 percent to 47.6 percent, a red shift of 5.1 percentage points.

Perhaps even more interesting, in states without a Republican secretary of state, there is virtually no shift at all, either red or blue, and hasn’t been ever. The election results typically comport with the exit polls in those states.

Given that red shift began to explode across the American electoral landscape in a big way with the 2000 election, and it continues to favor the candidates of one party in a way not seen in any other developed nation that does exit polling, a number of theories have evolved to explain it.

Warren Mitofsky, who’d been doing exit polling since the 1960s and invented the modern technique in the 1970s, found himself and his firm terribly embarrassed with the results of the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections when the red shift numbers were enough to throw critical elections to Republicans. He came up with the theory of the “shy Republican voter,” which postulated that, for some reason, Republican voters were just simply embarrassed to tell exit pollsters that they’d voted for a Republican.

That theory was widely reported in the media and became the go-to excuse for adjusting exit poll numbers by changing them to conform to state-reported results after the 2004 election.

Few people buy it, however, particularly since there are no similar examples in any other nation in the world, even where a winning leader may otherwise be seen as a war criminal or buffoon. Exit polls—except when there’s clear fraud—are the single most accurate way to measure an election outside of counting actual ballots.

Voting Machines, Hacking, and Red Shift

Given that much of the red shift that America has seen in the past three decades exploded after the passage in 2002 of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which allocated billions of dollars to the states to buy electronic voting machines from private corporate vendors, many people alarmed by widespread red shift were quick to blame the machines.

And, indeed, they are easy targets.

The 2002 senatorial election in Georgia, done entirely on electronic voting machines that produced no paper or receipts, was severely marred by accounts of lost memory cards containing votes from largely urban areas and produced a result that flipped the polls upside down.

War hero Max Cleland, who’d left three limbs in Vietnam and was nationally famous and popular (and ahead in the Georgia polls by five points a week before the election), was defeated by eight points by Saxby Chambliss, a Vietnam War–era draft dodger who’d run a bizarre campaign questioning Cleland’s patriotism.92

The Georgia governor’s race that year saw a similar reversal of poll versus outcome results favoring the Republican challenger, Sonny Perdue, who was seven points down in the polls but beat incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes with a 16 percent swing on Election Day, something unheard of in modern politics absent a last-minute scandal (and there was none).93

Similarly, in the 2018 Georgia election, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, Geoff Duncan, beat Democrat Sarah Riggs by 123,172 votes. Inexplicably, the Georgia electronic voting machines—which still don’t have any audit ability or paper trail—registered slightly over 160,000 voters who simply chose not to vote for either of the lieutenant governor candidates. When Politico investigated, “the Georgia Secretary of State’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.”94

And when a lawsuit was filed against Secretary of State Brian Kemp (who both ran the election and ran successfully against Stacey Abrams for governor) to access the actual votes, a server was mysteriously wiped clean in a way that prevented even the NSA from recovering its data.95

Frank Bajak reported for the AP, “A computer server crucial to a lawsuit against Georgia election officials was quietly wiped clean by its custodians just after the suit was filed, the Associated Press has learned.” Bajak said, “It’s not clear who ordered the server’s data irretrievably erased.” The lack of data effectively killed the lawsuit, and when the AP repeatedly inquired of the agency that wiped the server, “It did not respond to the AP’s question on who ordered the action.”96

Howard Dean rather famously hacked into a Diebold election computer tabulator and changed the results of an election in 90 seconds on CNBC while filling in for Tina Brown on her Topic A show on August 8, 2004. When he was made chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the video was pretty much scrubbed off the internet, although recuts of it pop up from time to time.97,98

There was also, to add flames to the conspiracy fire, the simple reality that the two biggest voting machine vendors in the 2000s were banking giant Diebold, whose CEO, Wally O’Dell, famously wrote a leaked 2004 letter promising to “deliver Ohio for George W. Bush,” and Election Systems & Software, which was started by two Christian end-times-rapture-believer brothers and then passed through other GOP-connected hands over the years.99

Hacker conventions, year after year, have featured demonstrations of how easy it is to hack a wide variety of voting machines used in the United States—in 2018, the hack of a clone of the Florida election system was accomplished in less than 10 minutes by an 11-year-old.100

It’s an example of why Ireland, after experimenting with American voting machines for one election, sold its $80 million worth of machines for scrap metal (for a mere $79,000); it refused to resell them as voting machines, taking a huge loss on the deal, so that there was no chance any other country would buy them and make the mistake of using them in an election.101

As the New York Times has documented, among others, our intelligence services are worried about how easily foreign governments (particularly Russia, China, and North Korea) can get into most states’ election systems.102 The states themselves, however (at least those controlled by Republicans; California famously decertified all of its machines in 2004), continue to stonewall or refuse to change to more secure systems.103

And while it’s not hard to believe that in a state with a centuries-old tradition of election fraud (mostly by white people against black people) like Georgia, “losing” memory cards with votes on them104 or even “patching” machines in the weeks before the election without notifying anybody (both things that are well documented)105 could have thrown an election, it’s harder to conceive of it as a multi-decade national conspiracy.

On the other hand, voter suppression very much has been at the core of a multi-decade effort by the GOP and may well explain red shift as much as hacked or rigged machines. We’ll circle back to that in a moment.

Privatizing the Vote with Voting Machines

While the security of our elections has apparently been put at considerable risk by bringing private, for-profit vendors into the voting business, there’s a larger issue that virtually nobody is discussing.

The Bush administration’s practice of hiring Dick Cheney’s nearly bankrupt company, Halliburton, with multibillion-dollar no-bid noncompetitive contracts to replace functions carried out by GIs for over 200 years (at a fraction of the cost) might have saved Halliburton and made millions for Cheney and his family but was only a “small” crime against our commons, which include our military. Such privatization of our military functions has led to nearly half of the defense budget now going to for-profit corporations.

Similarly, privatizing Chicago’s parking meters by leasing them to a European company and leasing Indiana’s highways to an Australian corporation are crimes against the commons and our democracy, but small crimes.106,107 Ditto for privatizing our schools, water systems, and electrical grids—activities that, since the 1980s, have gobbled up around half of all the electric and water utilities and, in Betsy DeVos’s Michigan, about half of the schools.

Privatizing our prisons and immigration detention facilities leads to the perverse result of for-profit corporations lobbying for longer sentences for drug and other crimes, but that’s a matter of public policy that can and should be debated in the open.

Privatizing our airwaves, as Bill Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act largely did, has turned out to be a public policy disaster and led to, as Forbes explained in a recent headline, the “15 Billionaires [Who] Own America’s News Media Companies,”108 but it’s reversible with enough public outrage.

But the vote is the single mechanism by which we, the people, can register our approval or disapproval of such policies and even effect their reversal. It’s the ultimate expression of the commons of our government, because it’s how we determine the course and future of our government.

To have allowed privatization of the vote—as happened on a nationwide scale with HAVA in 2002—is a crime against democracy and our commons unlike any in the history of our nation.

Now our votes are counted in secret by private corporations with specific agendas that are met, in part, by spending millions on lobbying members of Congress. They refuse to show us their software, citing trade secrets, and generally lease, rather than sell, their generally Windows-based and deeply insecure systems to states.

At the very least, states should own any voting machinery and infrastructure used in their territory, and the software should be open-source. At best, we should follow Ireland’s example.

Suppressing the Vote with Provisional Ballots

The Help America Vote Act may provide another answer to the puzzling mystery of American red shift.

That legislation, written in large part by Representative Bob Ney, R-Ohio, contains a provision requiring people who show up to vote—even if they’ve been purged from the voting lists—to be given something called a “provisional ballot.”

“The main reason we did that,” the former congressman told me, “was because, particularly across the Deep South, people were simply being turned away at the polls. In most cases it was because they were black, but in many cases it was also being done in districts where the opposition party controlled most of the election apparatus, typically Republicans turning away people in Democratic districts.

“We wanted to make sure,” he added, “that every eligible voter had both a chance to vote and some level of certainty that his or her vote would be counted after they went to all the trouble of voting.”

The parable about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is worthy of citing here. The HAVA law was passed on a bipartisan basis, after the hanging-chad disaster in Florida in the 2000 election was the main excuse given the media for that state’s substantial red shift. But the giant loophole it created for GOP vote suppressors was that provisional ballots are almost never counted.

Rules vary from state to state, but usually if voters are given a provisional ballot, they must then, within a few days of the election, present themselves in person at a state or county office to prove that they are who they say they are and that they were legally registered to vote and were purged incorrectly. The HAVA law requires that voters getting provisional ballots be told this, but in actual practice in Republican-controlled states this is almost never the case. (Although, even when it is, the percentage of people who’d be willing or able to take time off work to jump through all these hoops is tiny.)

Independent investigative reporter Greg Palast, whose work is published by the BBC, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Salon, found this to be very much the case (and worse) when he accompanied Martin Luther King Jr.’s 92-year-old cousin, Christine Jordan, to the polls in Georgia, and poll workers repeatedly refused to give her even a provisional ballot until Palast intervened.109

After voting for half a century in the same place, she’d been purged from the rolls by Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp’s policies and people. Eventually, after multiple tries with Palast threatening lawsuits and making a scene on camera at the polling place, Jordan got a provisional ballot, although it almost certainly was never counted.

In the years immediately preceding the election, Kemp had purged well over a million voters from Georgia’s rolls and prevented the registration of around 50,000 mostly African American voters from being processed. In all probability, large numbers of these people turned out and voted anyway, with provisional ballots. And, not realizing that their provisional ballot vote would never actually be counted, if they encountered an exit-poll taker outside the polling place, they probably would have registered their vote with the pollster.

Thus, one simple explanation for all that red shift in Republican-controlled swing states is that the voters reporting their Democratic votes to exit pollsters simply didn’t know that their vote would never be counted, and neither did the pollsters.

None of these issues are part of the mainstream of public debate in America, although they’ve been hot topics in other countries, from Australia to Ireland to Canada. Perhaps if enough of us speak out, one day soon our election exit polls will again agree with our vote tabulations.

Diluting the Vote with Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering and money in politics are the two main ways in which the impact of our votes—after they’re cast and counted—is diminished, often to the point of irrelevance. American voters are aware of these, and their persistence and power may well account for why so many people don’t bother to register to vote, and only a fraction of those registered show up on any given election day.

Gerrymandering entails using the process of redrawing congressional districts to provide a substantial political advantage to one party at the expense of others. A gerrymander of state legislative districts in Wisconsin in 2012, for example, produced a map where Republicans lost the statewide vote for the members of the State Assembly by 47 percent to 53 percent, but the GOP nonetheless ended up with 60 seats in the 99-seat legislative body.

In 2017, Emily Bazelon of the New York Times reported the results of a Brennan Center study:

In the 17 states where Republicans drew the maps this decade—for 40 percent of the total House seats in the country—their candidates won about 53 percent of the vote and 72 percent of the seats. In the six states where Democrats drew the lines, for only about 10 percent of the House, their candidates won about 56 percent of the vote and 71 percent of the seats.110

Gerrymandering has been part of American politics since one of the founders, Elbridge Gerry, supervised, as governor, the redrawing of Massachusetts’s congressional maps to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party in the election of 1812. Both parties have done it since that era, although the Supreme Court, in a 1964 ruling, decreed that districts must at least have roughly equivalent population numbers.

On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that while “racial” gerrymandering is still unconstitutional, it’s just fine for political parties to do “partisan gerrymandering.”111

Six Democratic-controlled states use nonpartisan commissions to draw congressional lines, a practice that has made elections more competitive and interesting in New Jersey and California. Thirteen states do the same for state legislative districts.

In every case, experience shows that nonpartisan districts produce results that more accurately reflect the makeup of the voter base, but now that the Supreme Court has told the GOP that they can gerrymander to their hearts’ content, it’s a safe bet that they’ll simply use political rather than racial considerations as their justification, and their billionaire friends will be dropping hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2020 and 2030 state elections to ensure GOP control of the state legislatures that redraw district lines.

By going for nonpartisan commissions, the Democrats, assuming that the Supreme Court would limit partisan gerrymandering, essentially unilaterally disarmed. Time will tell whether they adopt Republican policies or if we’ll continue to see more and more states severely gerrymandered by the GOP as they did in North Carolina, for example: in 2018, a state that votes pretty much 50/50 Democratic/Republican sent three Democrats and 10 Republicans to the US House of Representatives.112

Depressing the Vote with Money in Politics

Money in politics has a long and ignominious history.

Corruption by money of individual politicians, and of the legislative process as a whole, hit three peaks in the history of our nation: during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, the Roaring Twenties in the last century, and the years since 2010 when the Supreme Court struck down numerous campaign finance and good-government laws, throwing the doors open to corporate and billionaire cash with its Citizens United decision.

The Gilded Age excesses led to the Tillman Act of 1907, which made it a federal felony for a corporation to donate money or anything of value to a campaign for federal office. It was gutted by Citizens United.

The political corruption of the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations led directly to the great crash of 1929, causing most corporations to pull back from the political arena until the 1970s, when Lewis Powell revived it with his infamous memo to billionaires and corporate CEOs.

After the Watergate investigations revealed Nixon’s bribery and other scandals, Congress passed numerous reforms of money in politics, although the Supreme Court struck down the most consequential of them; and as long as there’s a conservative majority of at least five votes on the Court, that’s unlikely to change.

Therefore, this is the situation today:

• A billionaire oligarch, Rupert Murdoch, programs his very own television news network to promote the interests of the billionaire class with such effectiveness that average working people are repeating billionaire-helpful memes like “cut regulations,” “shrink government,” and “cut taxes”—policies that will cause more working people and their children to get sick and/or die; will transfer more money and power from we, the people, to a few oligarchs; and will lower working-class wages over time.113

• A small group of billionaires have funneled so much money into our political sphere that “normal” Republicans like former US senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker point out that they couldn’t get elected in today’s environment because they’d face primary challengers funded by right-wing billionaires.

• The corporate media (including online media), heavily influenced by the roughly $1 billion that the Koch network, Sheldon Adelson, the Mercers, etc., poured through their advertising coffers and into their profits in the last presidential election, won’t even mention in their “news” reporting that billionaire oligarchs are mainly calling the tunes in American politics, particularly in the GOP.

• Former president Jimmy Carter pointed out on my radio show that the United States “is now an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery,” in part as a result of the right-wing Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.114

• Nobody in corporate media—even on the “corporate left”—is willing to explicitly point out how billionaires and the companies that made them rich control and define the boundaries of “acceptable” political debate in our country.

• Thus, there’s no honest discussion in American media of why the GOP denies climate change (to profit petro-billionaires), no discussion of the daily damage being done to our consumer and workplace protections, and no discussion of the horrors being inflicted on our public lands and environment by GOP appointees.

• There’s not even a discussion of the major issue animating American politics just one century ago: corporate mergers and how they damage small business and small towns.

Although it’s been this way before in American history, it wasn’t within our lifetimes. The last time the morbidly rich had this much power in American politics was in the 1920s, when an orgy of tax cutting and deregulation of banking led to the Republican Great Depression.

Our nation now faces a massive crisis provoked by the loss of democratic representation for the majority of the American electorate. Neither party today does much of anything for the bottom 90 percent of Americans,115 as so clearly demonstrated by a 2014 study out of Princeton showing that the likelihood of legislation passing that represented the interests of that bottom 90 percent was equivalent, statistically, to white noise.116

The predictable—and tragic for our republic—result is massive voter apathy and a loss of voter engagement.

The Beginnings of a Myth: Voting Fraud

For over a century, most states used biometrics to verify voter identity. Signatures done in front of a witness are nearly impossible to fake (unlike IDs, which can be easily faked). Polling place workers would compare the original registration signature with the signature of the person signing in to vote, and if they didn’t match, the worker would disqualify the voter.

When the Motor Voter Act was passed in 1993, not a single state required proof of citizenship to vote, and there was no national problem of voter fraud. The threat of a few years in jail is more than enough to discourage even the most ardent partisan from trying to double-vote or fraudulently vote.

If somebody wanted to travel internationally, he or she got a passport; the purpose of a driver’s license prior to 2006 was merely to make sure that incompetent people weren’t moving 3,000 pounds of steel at 60 miles per hour across the nation’s roads, and to be able to track down and hold to account people who abused the privilege.

With passage of Motor Voter in 1993, though, the “Illegals will now be registered to vote!” screech immediately came bubbling up from the throats of Republican consultants and politicians.

The Washington Post reflected the newspaper’s position in a 1995 editorial:

A group of Republican governors that includes California’s Pete Wilson, who has already sued to have the law overturned, objects . . . that it [the Motor Voter law] is also a ploy by Democrats to strengthen the party’s electoral chances, since many of those whom easier registration might add to the voter pool are groups inclined to vote against the GOP; and . . . that the law could facilitate voter fraud.

The editors of the Post added dryly, “As for fraud, registration at motor vehicle offices and by mail already works fine in many parts of the country, including in the District [of Columbia]. . . . The governors ought to reconsider.”117

But the torch had been lit, and a quiet movement began within the GOP to sound the alarm, fueled by Motor Voter, that there could be millions upon millions of noncitizens who were or soon would be registered voters. And if those millions of “illegal aliens”—a perennial Republican boogeyman—were to turn out at the polls, particularly those brown people from south of the border, they’d flip the nation into the hands of the Democrats.

Voting Fraud: From Myth to Dogma

Bush and Cheney came into the White House shaken and widely viewed by the American electorate as having marginal legitimacy; they certainly couldn’t even claim a mandate to govern, after having lost the popular vote.

Karl Rove helped organize publicity about the “crisis” of “illegal voting” as a possible explanation for Bush’s losing the popular vote by a half-million, and Attorney General John Ashcroft launched the 2002 Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative in the Justice Department, requiring all 100 US federal prosecutors to “coordinate with local officials” to combat the scourge of illegal voting and bring to justice the millions of presumed malefactors who made the election so close.118

Over the next three years, at a cost of millions of dollars, and after examining tens of millions of voters and more than a billion votes, Ashcroft was able to document and successfully prosecute only 24 people nationwide for voting illegally—and none of them had committed in-person voter fraud of the kind that would be stopped by voter ID. (Most were people double voting, and the majority of those were wealthy white Republicans who had homes in two states and voted in person in one and mailed in a ballot to the other state; such folks got a fine, typically around $2,500. There were also a few felons who voted and didn’t know it was illegal.)

Karl Rove put on the pressure; they had to find a few people (ideally black or brown people with fake IDs) who could be made into national examples of the evils of in-person voter fraud, if they were ever to convince Americans that stronger ID laws were necessary to stop noncitizens from voting.

So the Bush White House demanded that all 100 of the nation’s federal prosecutors—all Bush appointees—move investigating voter fraud to the front of their agendas, sidelining other federal crimes. Eight of the prosecutors objected and were summarily fired.

In Washington state, prosecutor John McKay was fired because he refused to intervene in the 2004 election with fraud charges when Republican Dino Rossi lost that state’s governor’s race by a mere 129 votes. McKay told the Seattle Times that after a thorough investigation by his office, “there was no evidence, and I am not going to drag innocent people in front of a grand jury.”119 That was a career ender.

In New Mexico, prosecutor David Iglesias resisted GOP pressure to create a show trial around two teenage boys who somehow got onto the voting rolls even though they were both under 18 and neither had voted. In a 2007 op-ed in the New York Times titled “Why I Was Fired,” he wrote, “What the critics, who don’t have any experience as prosecutors, have asserted is reprehensible—namely that I should have proceeded without having proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The public has a right to believe that prosecution decisions are made on legal, not political, grounds.”120

The firings were a major scandal in the Bush administration, although time has faded the public recollection of them.

But the GOP was just getting started. By the end of 2004, 12 states had passed laws requiring ID to vote.

Coincidentally, a comprehensive study by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University found that, overall, requiring ID to register to vote reduced the registered voting population in the states that did so by around 10 percent. In the 2004 election, “Hispanic voters were 10 percent less likely to vote in non-photo-identification states compared to states where voters only had to give their name.” Among African Americans, they found that the “probability of voting was 5.7 percent lower for Black respondents in states that required non-photo identification.”121 Requiring photo ID raised it into the 10 percent region.

Even the vote of Asian Americans, another group more inclined to vote Democratic than Republican, was suppressed by around 8.5 percent by the ID requirement.122

Again, none of these nonvoters were ever found to be non-citizens; it’s just that among these populations there were larger numbers of people who lived in cities where they didn’t need a driver’s license because they didn’t own a car, or were too poor to own a car, and thus lacked the picture ID required by the new state laws. Among white people, the effect was to suppress the vote of college students, the working poor, and retired people.

The story of how voter ID laws suppress minority and poor people’s votes hadn’t yet hit the news in a big way, but it was electrifying Republican politicians and consultants. And their billionaire donors.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a nationwide nonprofit that brings together Republican state legislators and lobbyists to consider mostly lobbyist-written legislation for the Republican state senators and representatives to take back home and introduce. (Democrat Mark Pocan, when he was a Wisconsin state representative, registered for an ALEC meeting in that state and attended it. He called in to my radio show as they were throwing him out of the place, once they’d figured out he wasn’t a Republican. “It was pretty bizarre,” he told me.) Via the largely Koch-funded ALEC, the GOP distributed what ALEC refers to as “model legislation” (in fact, they’re prewritten laws that are often submitted by legislators verbatim) that would make it harder for minorities to vote, including requiring ID—and proof of citizenship—to register to vote, along with repeated requirements to show ID at the time of voting. Willing Republican state legislators added their own twists to the model legislation offered by ALEC by, for example, increasing penalties for voter fraud.

As reporter Ari Berman wrote for Rolling Stone in 2011,

In Texas, under emergency legislation passed by the GOP-dominated legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry, a concealed-weapon permit is considered an acceptable ID but a student ID is not. Republicans in Wisconsin, meanwhile, mandated that students can only vote if their IDs include a current address, birth date, signature and two-year expiration date—requirements that no college or university ID in the state currently meets. As a result, 242,000 students in Wisconsin may lack the documentation required to vote next year.123

State by state, Republicans were making it harder for young people, poor people, low-income working people, minorities, and retired people to vote. But the issue still hadn’t caught on nationally.

Then came Kris Kobach.

Kris Kobach: The Voting Fraud Myth Becomes a Mission

Kris Kobach’s national debut was as a speaker on the first day of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. I attended that convention and broadcast my show from there, sitting next to Sean Hannity, interviewing and meeting many of the GOP luminaries. And most of what they wanted to talk about was the same as Kobach’s speech: the danger of Mexicans sneaking into the United States and voting (along with robbing, raping, and drug running).

Ironically, they didn’t seem so concerned with Mexicans taking American jobs. When I repeatedly brought up with Republicans how Ronald Reagan had pretty much stopped prosecuting employers after his 1986 amnesty for five million “illegals,” and how entire industries that used to have an all-American labor force and were heavily unionized, like construction and meat packing, were now mostly just employing people who were in the country illegally, they’d just shrug their shoulders. One said, “Well, it did help break the unions” or words to that effect.

Kobach, though, was soon to turn his warnings about brown-skinned people from south of the border into a lucrative legal and consulting business, helping cities and townships draft anti-illegal-immigrant laws. In most cases, the laws were quickly overturned in the courts, and the cities ended up with huge legal bills, both for Kobach’s services and for defending themselves after they promulgated his laws.

ProPublica did an investigation into it all, published in 2018 with the title “Kris Kobach’s Lucrative Trail of Courtroom Defeats.” It reads, in part,

The towns—some with budgets in the single-digit-millions—ran up hefty legal costs after hiring him to defend similar ordinances [to one he helped pass in Missouri]. Farmers Branch, Texas, wound up owing $7 million in legal bills. Hazleton, Penn., took on debt to pay $1.4 million and eventually had to file for a state bailout. In Fremont, Neb., the city raised property taxes to pay for Kobach’s services. None of the towns are currently enforcing the laws he helped craft.124

University of Missouri law professor Larry Dessem told ProPublica that Kobach reminded him of the character Harold Hill in The Music Man. “Got a problem here in River City,” he said, “and we can solve it if you buy the band instruments from me. He is selling something that goes well beyond legal services.”125

Kobach has turned stopping Mexicans from voting (a nonexistent problem in the United States) into a mini-industry, at times arguing that there were more than 18,000 “illegals” registered to vote and/or voting in Kansas (when he became secretary of state, he was unable to find even one of them), and at other times echoing Donald Trump’s assertion that the number nationwide was about the same as the margin of Trump’s popular-vote loss to Clinton—in the neighborhood of three million.

In fact, more people are struck by lightning in any given month than try to vote without being a citizen in any given year; numbers nationwide from credible sources place it between a few dozen and perhaps a hundred nationwide in any given national election. A study published in the journal Election Studies in 2014 suggests that the number may have been far fewer than even 100 people—nationwide—and almost all voted in error or by mistake, or didn’t understand voting law.126

And double voting is just as rare.

There is no credible evidence of the “busloads” of Hispanic or black people going from polling place to polling place to repeatedly vote, cited by Donald Trump, by former Maine governor Paul LePage, and repeatedly on Fox News and other sources, even existing anywhere in the United States at any time in our lifetimes.

When the ACLU took Kobach to court for trying to enforce a punishing strict-photo-ID law in Kansas that he’d helped get passed, the judge essentially ridiculed his claims of noncitizen voters after Kobach’s best witnesses (including Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation) not only were unable to document their own claims but repeatedly had their previous claims called out accurately as lies. Kobach lost the case.

But Kobach still pushes for large voter purges.

Interstate Crosscheck and the Election Integrity Scam

The Republicans have successfully pushed their monstrous lie of double voting and noncitizen voting because of the ways that states handle voter registration rolls. Ideally, a state’s voter registration rolls should carry only the names of people who are both currently legal residents of the state and qualified to vote. The reality is much different.

For example, I grew up in Michigan and voted in that state until I was 27 years old, in 1978. That year, we moved to New Hampshire, where I registered to vote—and never told Michigan that I’d left. Five years later, we moved to Georgia, where I registered to vote and did so for more than a decade—again, not telling either Michigan or New Hampshire that I’d moved out of state. In 1997, we moved to Vermont, where I again registered to vote. In 2005, we moved to Oregon, and the same story. In 2010, we moved to Washington, DC, then back to Oregon in late 2017.

Most states remove a person from the rolls only if the person doesn’t vote for at least a few presidential elections in a row or if the person has notified the state that he or she has moved (a rarity), and therefore only occasionally update their voter rolls. Thus, odds are that my name would have been found on the rolls of two or maybe even three or four states over the years, registered to vote in every one of them.

I never voted in two states at once. And outside of the dozen or so people a year who do so nationwide, mostly in error, neither does anybody else.

But it’s easy enough for a partisan like Kobach to point to duplicate voter registrations in multiple states as “proof!!” of double voting. He and Trump (and most of the right-wing media) constantly cite figures of people registered in multiple states—something that is not a crime in any state—as if those people were in fact double voting, which is a crime.

Kobach helped put together and promote an elaborate scheme called Interstate Crosscheck to catch these “double voters.” By comparing names of registered voters in one state against rolls in multiple other states, he was able to identify millions of people who, like me, were still registered to vote in more than one state. Again, no crime and no double voting—but a heck of a sound bite for Fox News.

Kobach compiled huge lists of “duplicate” voters for one red state after another, with hundreds of thousands of names on each list. Republican secretaries of state enthusiastically purged the “duplicate” names from their rolls. As Republican strategist Paul Weyrich admitted in 1980, “Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”127

But there was an added benefit for Kobach and the GOP: many (and perhaps most) of the people “caught” by Crosscheck weren’t people like me who move a lot. They were, instead, people who had identical or similar names.

White people came to America from wildly diverse places speaking dozens of different languages, from northern Russia to southern Italy, from the British Isles to Serbia to deep within India. They brought with them a huge diversity of names.

On the other hand, Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans tend to have much smaller name pools. African American slaves were often named after their owners, and because most of the slave states were settled by a relatively nondiverse population of white people, their name pool is smaller than that of whites. Ditto for Hispanics, who acquired their names from the Spanish conquerors, representing a single-country name pool. And Asians draw from a relatively small pool of names to begin with.

Thus, when running Crosscheck, the “duplicate” names—particularly within a state—tend to disproportionately belong to people of color, which accounts for why voting purges in places like Georgia leading up to 2018 bit so hard into the pool of registered African American and Hispanic voters.

Because of these problems, select states have stopped using Kobach’s program, but others are still purging away and will continue to as long as there is no actual right to vote codified in either our law or our Constitution.

Kobach took his system with him to the White House, where Donald Trump appointed him in May 2017 with much fanfare to his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity—charged with proving that double voting and in-person voter fraud were rampant nationwide.

Unable to find any proof of these charges anywhere in the United States, though, just as had happened a bit more than a decade earlier when George W. Bush was firing federal prosecutors for not being able to locate these malefactors, the commission dissolved, by executive order, on January 3, 2018, with almost no mention in the media and nary a tweet from Trump, who continues to maintain that three million people voted illegally in 2016.128

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