Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In rural Randolph County, Georgia, the local board of elections (all two members – a third recently stepped down, according to the Washington Post) has proposed closing seven of the county’s nine polling places ahead of the midterm elections. Critics have condemned the move, citing the vast size of the county – 431 square miles – and the fact there is no public transportation system.
Civil rights organizations call the move a naked attempt to disenfranchise the county’s population, which is 61% black, according to census data, and mostly low income. One of the areas set to lose a polling place is 96% black, according to the Georgia ACLU.
As we near the all-important midterm elections, Republicans all over the country are mounting multiple efforts to block the anticipated “blue wave” of high Democratic turnout by creating legal impediments to voting that will disproportionately affect black, Latino and young voters.
It’s not pretty. In some cases, it may not even be legal. But it’s a key part of how the elections will play out in November.
Democrats will be fighting on two fronts. Candidates will be trying to flip Republican districts from red to blue – a tough enough challenge in any year – but will also need to keep a close eye on the people running the elections to make sure the final count is fair.
In many states, Republican legislators and elections officials have steadily created barriers to voting that specifically target core Democratic constituencies. These GOP partisans know full well that pushing down Democratic turnout by even a few percentage points can make the difference between victory and defeat.
Which brings us back to Randolph County, Georgia.
“These polling place closures are part of a stark pattern that we are seeing across Georgia whereby officials are working to make it harder for African-Americans and other minorities to vote,” is how Kristen Clarke, president and executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, put it to the Washington Post. “The more communities mobilize to turn out the vote, the harsher the voter suppression efforts undertaken by officials.”
Critics say the new restrictions are a direct response to the energizing candidacy of Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate who is hoping to make history by being elected the state’s first black governor. “The timing is very suspicious,” said the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in a letter of complaint.
But Georgia is not unique. In North Carolina, a federal court in 2016 struck down a series of laws passed by the Republican-dominated state legislature that limited early voting and imposed new voter identification requirements.
“We cannot ignore the record evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history,” the court ruled, noting that “the new provisions target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” and that “we can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent.”
But North Carolina Republicans haven’t given up. This year, a new law will require counties that offer early voting to keep the polls open 12 hours on weekdays in addition to weekends – a measure that will dramatically increase the cost to counties, which will then be forced to cut back on early voting.
“This bill came out of nowhere. County officials weren’t told about it,” complained Tomas Lopez, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a civil rights organization. Lopez told Slate: “It’s making it much more expensive to actually conduct an early voting program that reaches as many voters as possible.”
In Arizona, the Republican secretary of state, Michele Reagan, who oversees elections, refused last week a request by the ACLU, made last year, to coordinate with the state Department of Transportation to automatically update her records when the driver’s license of a voter gets changed.
The result is that an estimated 500,000 voters – over 20% of whom are Hispanic – could end up with a mismatch between their license and their voting records, making it harder to cast a ballot in a state that requires voter ID.
In New Hampshire, Republican leaders recently passed a controversial law that requires college and university students to prove they are permanent residents of the state in order to vote, a change from prior laws allowing students to vote freely while living in the state.
Florida tried a different version of the same voter-suppression stunt when the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott – currently running for US Senate – banned early voting on college campuses. A federal judge recently struck down the plan in stinging language: “Simply put, (the state) opinion reveals a stark pattern of discrimination,” Judge Mark Walker wrote. “It is unexplainable on grounds other than age because it bears so heavily on younger voters than on all other voters.”
The pattern is clear. Republicans from the Northeast to the Southwest – and, of course, the Deep South – are trying to game the upcoming elections by targeting black, Latino, young and low-income voters, who traditionally lean Democratic.
Opinion polls suggest Democrats are poised to win a majority of seats in Congress in less than 90 days. But it might not happen unless party strategists set aside a great deal of time and money to ensure that civil rights activists and election attorneys are staffed up and prepared to fight the ballot bullies in court.