Is Republican voter suppression real? Sure. And it’s mostly legal.

This debate has simmered in the comment section of the In Box for the last couple of weeks.  Is Republican voter suppression real?  If so, how big an impact does it have?

First let me acknowledge up front what many conservatives will see as a bias in the framing of this essay.  Some will argue that the real question is Do Democrats really try to skew elections through voter fraud?

So let me treat that question first, very briefly.

There have been many and frequent investigations into this concern over the last decade and they have all concluded that there is no significant or systemic voter fraud being committed by Democrats in major elections.

Accusations sometimes get made and they are promptly investigated, and it turns out that either the allegations were incorrect, or the improper voting was the result of error rather than malice — and in any event, the number of votes in question are trivial.

“It’s part of the mythology now in the Republican Party that there’s widespread voter fraud across the country,” said Steve Schmidt, the Republican political operative, speaking recently on MSNBC.  “In fact, there’s not.”

The reasons that voting fraud by Democrats doesn’t occur are pretty simple:

First, the voting systems in most of the key battleground states are controlled by Republicans.  Second, the system is monitored closely by attorneys and civil servants from all sides.

Finally, and most significantly, Democrats have no motive to cheat in this way.  Democrats have a vast pool of voters available at their disposal.

Their challenge isn’t a shortage of bodies — which would make it necessary to recruit illegal immigrants or repeat voters — it’s a problem of motivation.

So rather than engineers some massive, complex and legally risky scheme to get people to go to the polls fraudulently, Democrats have instead created a massive, complex and legally proper system to get legitimate voters to go to the polls.

It’s cheaper, it’s more effective, and at the end of the day you don’t go to prison for it.

Now let’s pivot to Republicans, where the question of motive is very different.  Republicans do, in fact, have a problem with an actual shortage of voters.

Demographically speaking, if all eligible Americans voted, Republican politicians would have very little chance of winning.  They would be overwhelmed by the minority and young voters who tend to vote Democratic in high percentages.

In a 1980 speech, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, Paul Weyrich, addressed this dilemma, laying out an argument that has shaped much of the political climate since.

“How many of our conservative Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome?” Weyrich asked contemptuously.  “Good government.  They want everybody to vote.”

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

In 1980, when Weyrich threw down this gauntlet, the demographics were actually much  kinder to conservatives.

The population of Democratic-leaning urbanites, blacks, Hispanics, unmarried voting-age women and young people was significantly lower.

In the thirty-two years since that time, the voting calculus — and thus the motivation to tip the scales — has grown steadily and rapidly more painful for conservatives.

Some within the Republican Party have argued that the movement should embrace the new America, finding messages that would appeal to minorities and younger voters.

But so far, the right-wing of the movement has prevailed.  GOP candidates have skewed further and further to the right, winning less and less support from Hispanics, blacks and young people.

This makes it even more important (from the conservative point of view) that whiter, older voters continue to play a disproportionately high role in elections.

How do Republicans accomplish this?  For the most part, perfectly legally.

They push for new laws that require additional hurdles before voting, including the possession of identification which many poor, minority Americans lack.

Republicans have also moved aggressively to limit the number of early voting options, particularly those available in urban communities and neighborhoods that tend to vote against their politicians.

In 2012, this has meant three- to four-hour waits for many low income voters who simply want to cast their ballots.

In minority neighborhoods, conservative groups have also posted threatening billboards — many written in Spanish — that warn of arrests and felony charges for people who commit voter fraud.

These may not sound like big hurdles, but politics is often a game of very small percentages.  If adding one more step to the voting process, or one more nervous qualm about an encounter with authorities, causes a small chunk of black and Hispanic voters to drop away — that’s a victory for the GOP.

Conservatives often couch these tactics in terms that reflect a desire to defend the sanctity of the voting “privilege.”  Here’s how Florida Republican Mike Bennett explained it, speaking on the floor of the state Senate last year:

“Do you read the stories about the people in Africa? The people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it? Do we want to go to their house? Take the polling booth with us?

“This is a hard-fought privilege. This is something people die for. You want to make it convenient? The guy who died to give you that right, it was not convenient. Why would we make it any easier? I want ’em to fight for it. I want ’em to know what it’s like. I want them to go down there, and have to walk across town to go over and vote.”

Unfortunately, this kind of thing falls into a long tradition — one that begins literally at the time of emancipation — of limiting voting rights through the establishment of poll taxes, literacy tests, passage of laws that ban voting by convicted felons, or through outright intimidation.

In modern times, of course, suppression efforts aren’t so egregious.  Voters aren’t physically threatened.  But again, it’s a game of percentages.

If political operatives can make it just a little more inconvenient for black voters than for white voters, that may be enough to swing the outcome.

I do think that this tactic has a limited future for Republicans.  Last August, Senator Lindsay Graham told the Washington Post that the GOP has to broaden its appeal.

“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” he argued. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Indeed, this general strategy — maximizing white voters and doing everything legally possible to minimize the impact of minority voters — gets harder and harder as the percentage of whites in the overall population dwindles.

By 2016, the growth of legal Hispanic voters in states like Arizona and Colorado may have put those states out of reach for a Republican candidate with the get-tough-on-undocumented-workers message that Mitt Romney carried.

“This is the last time [a GOP presidential candidate] will try to do this,” a Republican operative told the National Journal, speaking of the Republican Party’s white-majority electoral strategy.

Which leaves the question of how all this will affect today’s vote, particularly in close-fought states such as Florida and Ohio where Republican voter-suppression measures have been the source of intense court battles.

The short answer is, Nobody knows.  If the outcome is balanced on the edge of a knife, it could well matter that certain groups of Americans faced a longer, more difficult road to the ballot box.



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59 Comments on “Is Republican voter suppression real? Sure. And it’s mostly legal.”

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  1. Larry says:

    Utter nonsense! If, as you suggest, “the voting systems in most of the key battleground states are controlled by Republicans” why would they need to disenfranchise voters? They could simply “produce” the results they want. Easier, less obvious and more effective. You just can’t seem to help yourself when it comes to “advocacy journalism”, can you?

  2. hermit thrush says:

    i don’t think proponents of voter id laws are entirely unreasonable. it’s not at all like it’s an inherently bad thing to have robust id requirements at the polls.

    the problem is with the cost-benefit analysis. the benefit of the id laws is that there will be fewer cases of voter impersonation. but the kicker is that there are basically zero such cases already. since 2000, there has been about one case of voter impersonation per 15 million votes cast. in other words, it’s a total non-problem.

    on the other hand, the cost of voter id laws is that they discourage or prevent many otherwise legitimate voters from voting. it can be burdensome to meet the id requirements. in some cases, crazy burdensome. not everyone has the time or the money to jump through all the hoops.

    the costs of voter id laws far outweigh their infinitesimal benefits. for that simple reason, we should all oppose them.

  3. Much like with banksterism during the economic meltdown, the real outrages are what’s completely legal.

  4. And if their real concern was fraud, they would instead (or in addition to) go after a target far more prone to fraud: absentee voting.

  5. Larry says:

    I am not a proponent of voter ID laws but I don’t understand why the requirements are more onerous than, say, driving license requirements or registering for unemployment benefits. I doubt many are discouraged from applying for government benefits because there are requirements to fulfill.

  6. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:


    I don’t think Brian is suggesting Republicans in battleground states control the voting systems to the extent that they can rig the actual outcome of the election itself, but that they control the mechanism by which voter ID laws can be written and passed at the state level. In other words, the Republicans control the state legislatures and, in some cases, the Governorship. As a result, the Democrats in these states have relied on the courts to decide the legality of these voter Id laws. Some of which have been tossed out.

  7. Brian Mann says:

    Larry –

    I’ve already answered both of your questions, but let me do so again.

    First, Republicans who control the voting systems in most battlegrounds don’t simply “produce” the results they want because that would be illegal, and would result in powerful people who prize their careers going to jail.

    Instead, by using legal mechanisms to make it more difficult for some people to vote, they can influence outcomes without risking their livelihoods and their reputations.

    Secondly, getting a photo ID is not hugely more “onerous” than getting a drivers license, but getting a drivers license isn’t exactly a one-stop shop. As I explained, this is a game of small percentages.

    If you can add a few hurdles to the voting process, you can shave a percentage or two off the turnout mark of certain communities. In a “tied” election, that might be enough to matter.

    Legal, effective, and unfortunately well documented and common.

    –Brian, NCPR

  8. gromit says:

    Excellent column, though it won’t change the mind of anyone convinced that fraud actually occurs. One of the most absurd rumors about voter fraud insists that undocumented aliens are recruited by Dems and told how to vote (for example, This is logically ridiculous, of course: the last thing an undocumented alien wants to do is risk an encounter with the law. But that doesn’t stop such nonsense from circulating widely.

  9. wj says:

    There’s an important distinction here: There are only a handful of convictions for in-person voter fraud in all the elections across the country over the past 12 years. So why do we need voter ID laws? The need Larry and other Conservatives describe simply does not exist.

    This is why it’s so obvious that voter ID laws are a form of voter suppression.

    This where proponents bring up the fraud that can occur in absentee ballots.

    OK, then allow more early voting. But GOP-controlled state houses have worked hard to limit early voting.

    One more thing: if older, middle-class white voters had to wait several hours in line to cast a vote, we’d hear no end of complaining and allegations of voter suppression.

  10. Newt says:

    This point has been made by someone else in and early post, but it bears repeating.

    Republicans are nominally for minimizing government interference the lives of the people, especially when there is no demonstrated need to do so.

    There (unlike in the old “vote early and often” days) is no demonstated presence of anything but the tiniest amount of voter fraud over the last twenty years or so. The system ain’t broke. There is no needs to make 82-year-old Mary Jones, who has signed the register book in 14 consecutive elections run all over her county to produce a photo id that she has spent her entire life up until now without needing.

    The various procedures Brian mentions are clearly an intrusion of government into the lives of the people in their attempt to excercise their right to vote, and clearly contradicts Republican and conservative ideology, as it applies to business, the environment, and other aspects of life.

    The system ain’t broke, and the Republicans insist on fixing it.
    Gee, I wonder why.

  11. myown says:

    Unlike many other developed countries, the voting system in the US is controlled by political parties, which ought to be seen as a blatant and unacceptable conflict of interest.

    “It is the most error-prone, the most susceptible to fraud, the most vulnerable to unfairness and one of the least technologically sophisticated on earth.”

  12. Unemployment benefits and driving are a privileges. Voting is a right. You don’t need to need to prove anything to the government to stand on a street corner and tell passers by to vote for Romney. You don’t need to do to so go to church. And most conservatives (and many others) insist you shouldn’t have to do so in order to own guns.

  13. Phil says:

    In some cases, the GOP has gone beyond the lawn in their efforts to discourage voter turnout. Haven’t judges overturned (or at least delayed) laws and policies in a number of states this year?

  14. Phil says:


  15. Peter Hahn says:

    Personally I find the voter suppression laws morally offensive. The Republicans would be better served to come up with policies that appeal to a broader group than in trying to find ways to discourage the votes of the opposition.

  16. tootightmike says:

    The conservative fringe has brought all sorts of “non-problems” into the forefront. Discussions of voter fraud, rampant abortion, and those pesky foreigners who want to steal our jobs are the main talking points of a gang of thieves who want to keep the ill-informed, racists, and zenophobes from seeing what’s really going on.
    After this election…starting tomorrow…let’s talk about some of the things that really exist. Things like the enormous problems that climate change will bring now that we’ve decided to ignore it. Things like the super excessive military spending that hobbles everything else our nation might accomplish. Things like world overpopulation, and it’s companion, world food shortages. Maybe we could talk about the super rich who plan on taking not just most of the world’s wealth, but all of it.
    While we’re at it, maybe we could talk about ways to expand participation in THIS democracy, instead of trying to force it onto other nations. Maybe we could address the dis-satisfactions Americans feel with our political process, and maybe we could think, and talk about these things before the next election cycle begins.

  17. Peter Hahn says:

    As Brian said, these laws, and there are lots of them, are mostly legal. They dont say “lets come up with a law or two to discourage voting by demographic groups that dont vote with us”. They come up with some other rationale that is technically legal e.g. voter ID laws. I dont know what their justification is for reducing the early voting on days where African Americans vote in large numbers. Maybe its to “cut costs”. politics as hardball is one thing, but trying to disenfranchise voters is bad for democracy.

  18. Paul says:

    You already have to show some kind of ID when you register to vote right?

    From the NYS voter registration form:

    “Verifying your identity
    We’ll try to check your identity before Election Day, through the DMV number (driver’s license number or non-driver ID number), or the last four digits of your social security number, which you’ll fill in below.
    If you do not have a DMV or social security number, you may use a valid photo ID, a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, government check or some other government document that shows your name and address. You may include a copy of one of those types of ID when you mail this form.
    If we are unable to verify your identity before Election Day, you will be asked for ID when you vote for the first time.”

    I was wrong a few weeks ago when I commented that it was illegal in NYS to ask for ID at the poll. I guess it is legal.

    Are the registration rules also voter suppression? Maybe.

  19. Mervel says:

    I just think it is a long long stretch to say wanting a official form of government ID is voter suppression. The US is the ONLY western democracy that does not require a form of official documentation to vote. It goes to a deeper issue that we don’t know who is a citizen of this country and have no single official identification document to prove one is a citizen, once again something that most of our partner western democracies already have. They also know how to count votes in a consistent manner, we are falling behind in the very area that we once championed, Democracy.

    Paul is correct, registration would be considered voter suppression also, any requirement of anything of any responsibility put on the citizen seems to be now qualified as “voter suppression” it is probably tied into the “war on women”,. The whining about “voter suppression” is just another Democratic talking point and over the top phrase put forth by MoveOn and others.

  20. TomL says:

    Far more insidious for our system of government, yet perfectly legal, is this . Here is another appalling example . Not even a pretense of an impartial judicial when elections and campaign funding become a part of the process.

  21. Vote Romney NO to Muslims


  23. Newt says:

    From the above two comments, there may be a need to institute photo ID on the In-Box comment section.

  24. Walker says:

    Paul, in my opinion, being asked for identification when you register is not voter suppression, especially when you can use almost anything as ID.

    Where it turns into voter suppression is when a specific form of identification is required every time you vote, especially if its something like a drivers license, that virtually all people of means have, but that many poorer people do not.

  25. Walker says:

    An Election Day troll? How quaint!

  26. myown says:

    More Republican hypocrisy.

    Why does the party that supposedly wants to get the government out of our lives become so anal about requiring specific IDs in order to vote, yet are against background checks, ID databases or other verification when it comes to buying a gun??

    Yeah, I’d say voter suppression, and hypocrisy.

  27. Peter Hahn says:

    could be a fake troll

  28. Mervel says:

    Ok try showing up with a random utility bill and voting in London or Paris or Ottawa, see how far you get.

  29. Mervel says:

    It is not voter suppression to ask for an actual form of valid official ID. I would certainly be in favor of helping all people get a form of official ID regardless of their ability to pay for it. It is just illogical and very suspect to argue that you should be able to vote without proving who you are.

  30. dave says:

    “It is just illogical and very suspect to argue that you should be able to vote without proving who you are.”

    Mervel, I tend to agree with this, actually. It does seem to make sense that you should prove who you are. But I have to keep asking myself, to what end? What problem is this solving? If it is clear, as has been proven time and time again, that true voter fraud is rare and trivial and does not impact elections… then why bother with this at all. Just because?

    It is my experience that people who so vehemently try to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist usually have ulterior motives for what they are doing.

  31. wj says:

    Um, yeah. What dave ^ says.

    As for proving your identity, that happens when you give your name to the poll worker. You also have to sign your name.

    The current system — at least the one I went through today — depends on people being who they say they are. If two people show up and try to vote under the same name, elections officials consider both votes provisional and investigate.

    This vote will be certified and the imposter will be charged and likely convicted of fraud.

  32. JDM says:

    Sooo, you got the fax to set the stage for voter fraud when Obama loses later today.

    Howard Dean got the fax. He’s making a big to do over it.

    The papers are all filed in Ohio. The Dems are ready to claim fraud.

    Fortunately, Romney will win with more than enough votes in every state to silence this foolishness, and NPR will be on its way to the fund raising pool.

  33. Brian Mann says:

    JDM –

    First, baloney. You’re a regular reader of this blog. You know better. I write about the things that interest me, or the things that are of current discussion here. The notion that anyone in the world would have any interest in suggesting to me what I should (or shouldn’t) write about is…baloney. And you know better.

    Secondly, my entire article is about legal voter suppression. As I say, I don’t know what impact it will have. But even if it is by some metric (I can’t imagine what it would be) shown to be THE defining factor in the contest, I don’t know what the courts would (or could or should) do about it.

    –Brian, NCPR

  34. Mervel says:


    I have no doubt that both sides would like to have the other side not show up to vote. If one side can make it more difficult I think they would try to do that, so I don’t think the Republicans motivation is pure in this area, that is not my point.

    I don’t think we know the impact because we can’t really count our votes that well anyway, so I am not totally buying that voter fraud is not a problem, we do know that it has impacted some elections although we don’t know if an id law would have made a difference.

    I just think on principle we should know who people are who are voting in our elections, I don’t find that some sort of crazy idea. Now I would differ with many conservatives in that I think we need a national registry of citizens and we need one official document provided free of charge, much like we all got our social security cards that all true citizens would have and that would be your proof of identity for voting. In the absence of that I think we would want some form official identification, passport, drivers liscence, state ID, social security card, etc.

    I don’t believe it is voter suppression to have that requirement, as all other western democracies have.

  35. Mervel says:

    I think if that is true JDM (the court cases are ready and dems are already making noises about fraud and so froth) than it is a very very good sign for Romney tonight.

  36. JDM says:


    Ok. I apologize for my comment.

    Here is what is happening in Philly. Any thoughts on this?

    Jerry Jackson, who was charged in the 2008 case along with Minister King Samir Shabazz, but later saw charges dropped by the Department of Justice, was seen early Tuesday outside a North Philadelphia voting site wearing the group’s trademark black beret, combat-style uniform and heavy boots.

    Read more:

  37. hermit thrush says:

    i think all you need to know about mr. jackson is this:

    Fox News confirmed he is a designated poll watcher.

    and in this shocking video he even appears to open the door for someone. i know, the horror.

  38. Gary says:

    “I write about the things that interest me, ” I know, I know…..politics, politics…will it ever end?

  39. Walker says:

    “…we need one official document provided free of charge, much like we all got our social security cards that all true citizens would have and that would be your proof of identity for voting. In the absence of that I think we would want some form official identification, passport, drivers liscence, state ID, social security card, etc.

    I don’t believe it is voter suppression to have that requirement, as all other western democracies have.

    Mervel, unsurprisingly, the world is way more complicated than that. (Wikipedia: Voter registration) In particular, the UK looks like it works a good deal like it does in the US.

  40. JDM says:

    Careful, hermit. You don’t know what that means to those who are the object of the intimidation, but I don’t think it’s taken as lighthearted as we make it out to be from our vantage point.

  41. myown says:

    Mervel, the countries that require a specific form of identification to vote also readily supply that ID in the form of a national ID that is given to all citizens, like a SS card . Republican states that have passed new laws to require very specific forms of photo ID make people jump through hoops to get it. The courts have ruled against some of these obvious voter suppression efforts because there was little chance the average person could get the required ID before this election.

    In some of those states the law says a gun permit is an acceptable ID for voting but a student ID is not. And forget about a SS card. Those are not valid. That is voter suppression plain and simple.

  42. Walker says:

    What has gone unmentioned here are the variety of tricks that have been played on voters to keep them from voting, such as mail or robocalls telling voters the wrong date for voting. A new one this year attempted to convince voters that they could vote by phone. All of these schemes that I’ve heard of have been directed at poor and minority neighborhoods that could be expected to vote Democratic.

    Has anyone heard of anything similar being directed at Republican neighborhoods?

  43. Peter Hahn says:

    Walker – Dems dont do that stuff. Mainly because there are so many potential dem voters out there that energy is better spent registering and convincing people to brave the elements and vote. The republicans cant really do that because all their people are already voting and no one wants to register as republican (exaggeration). The only thing they can do is try to suppress the vote of demographic groups known to favor democrats.

  44. tootightmike says:

    Mervel, I don’t know which third world village you live in, but here in Potsdam, the polling places are saffed by folks who not only know their business, but they know their neighborhoods and their voters too. It would take a very, very slick individual to game that system, and what would they get?…perhaps a single extra vote, and only that if they’d managed to put together a really good disguise before coming back.
    I’m much more worried about the inner workings of the machines that went into use in many parts of the country a few years back. Hackers have proved a thousand times over that systems can be violated, identifications stolen, and money manipulated…so why think our vote is safe?

  45. Walker says:

    “Dems don’t do that stuff.”

    That was my point, of course, a response to Mevel’s “If one side can make it more difficult I think they would try to do that,” setting up the false equivalency that has become standard in this kind of discussion.

  46. Larry says:

    You know what? After reading all this tripe about voter suppression, you’ve turned me into a proponent of Voter ID laws. It’s no harder than getting a drivers license and probably easier than getting a pistol permit so let’s all sign up and be done with it. The Democrats want to turn voting (and a number of other things as well) into a free-for-all. A national Voter ID obtained when registering to vote will end all nonsense about suppression and fraud.

  47. Walker says:

    Tripe, eh? You need to get out more, Larry.

  48. JDM says:

    Ohio won’t be close. Record lines in GOP counties. Larger turn out than 1960.

  49. JDM says:

    Turnout in Cincinnati, (which favors Dems), “normal”. 40%.

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