Democrats came close to upsets in two special House elections in Republican districts, and now Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., has announced she is retiring. Political scientist Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball instantly changed the 2018 rating for her district, which Hillary Clinton won last year by 20 points, from “likely R” to “leans D.”
The good news means that for the first time in more than a decade, Democrats are looking forward to a midterm election. But they would make a terrible mistake to forget the lessons of 2016, and I don’t just mean, “Don’t trust precedents, polls, or James Comey.”
The most important takeaway of the presidential election for the minority party is that our democracy has been hacked, and it wasn’t a foreign power that hacked it. Well, it wasn’t just a foreign power. Since 2010, when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling erased limits on anonymous corporate donations, 22 states have passed new restrictions on voting. Even a big “enthusiasm edge” among Democrats likely isn’t enough to reboot this system.
Making it harder to vote than it is to buy an election feeds into the Republican Party’s natural midterm advantages, which include the older, whiter composition of the electorate multiplied by Democrats’ tendency to cluster in urban areas. Along with the presidency and Congress, Republicans control an all-time high of 69 of 99 state legislative chambers and more governorships than at any time in the past 94 years, thanks in no small part to a decision by right-wing donors to invest in elections in all 50 states.
Democrats thought their Electoral College advantage and diversifying demographics were an answer to the right’s comprehensive approach to defining the electorate. They were wrong. If they keep being wrong, the progress reversed in President Trump’s first 100 days will be just a preview for the disaster film of the century.
Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, argues that voter suppression is a far bigger problem than the fantasy of widespread voter fraud that conservatives have used for centuries to justify voting restrictions. The presidential election was the first in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, and the first to feature new voting restrictions passed by 14 states.
One of them was Wisconsin. Molly McGrath worked with VoteRiders to help some of the 300,000 registered Wisconsinites who lacked the necessary identification to vote. Two paid staffers and a team of volunteers helped thousands, many who had been voting for decades, secure proper documents.
It wasn’t nearly enough.
“The worst was hearing from voters who had no idea they did not have the ID to cast a regular ballot until they showed up at the polls on Election Day,” McGrath told me.
Trump won Wisconsin by 22,000 votes, with the lowest turnout in decades.
To begin to reverse Republicans’ natural and manufactured advantages, Democrats must wage a two-pronged war that mirrors GOP efforts to restrict voting where they have power and to depress the vote where they don’t.
In redder states, efforts such as VoteRiders must be expanded exponentially to overcome not only ID laws but also suppressive tactics that include eliminating early voting and the closing of polling places that serve minorities, students and poor seniors. Non-white voters are already six times as likely to wait more than an hour to vote. In states where laws can’t be changed, enormous outreach is necessary.
In bluer states, Democrats must make it easier to register and vote. Oregon has already set a new standard. The state has mail-in voting and recently was the first state to pass automatic registration. The result: Turnout increased 20 percentage points among voters ages 18-29, and registration of voters of color rose 26 points to 79 percent. “Automatic registration is more effective than any registration drive,” Berman told me.
This is where Democrats can get aspirational. For instance, Texas has draconian voter registration laws that resemble the Jim Crow era in their requirements and their results. “A policy like automatic registration could transform that state,” Berman said. And a competitive Texas would reshape American politics.
The Texas Organizing Project estimates that 1.1 million new voters might break conservatives’ hold on the state. But registration has to be just the beginning. In 2010, another midterm election, 2 million African-American and Latino voters in Texas went unregistered, but 3 million registered ones sat home.
The combination of voter suppression and Democrats’ inability to turn out voters last year helped Republicans extend a conservative Supreme Court majority that could enable escalating voting restrictions for decades. Only a massive effort to fight for every vote can begin to restore our system’s settings to resemble what they were before Citizens United and the rollback of the Voting Rights Act.
Jason Sattler, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a columnist for The National Memo. Follow him on Twitter @LOLGOP.
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