The Long-Term Solution to Voter Suppression

Efforts to expand the franchise could ultimately counteract efforts to shrink it.

A young woman votes.
Lucy Nicholson

News stories on voting this campaign season have focused on suppression tactics that make casting a ballot more difficult for citizens. Less appreciated is the fact that next week’s midterm elections could result in a vast expansion of voting rights. All told, the expansion measures could broaden the franchise more than current suppression measures shrink it.

These opportunities come via voter initiatives in three areas: redistricting reform, automatic voter registration, and restoration of voting rights to felons who have served their time.

Redistricting reform

Left unchecked, legislators may try to gerrymander away the competition, manipulating the natural partisanship of neighborhoods and communities to draw themselves unnaturally safe districts. A clever mapmaker can cause ethnic groups and even whole political parties to lose their fair representation.

Partisan distortions have become rampant in the past decade. One way to quantify partisan unfairness is to examine the difference between the statewide vote and that of the median district; if voters statewide favor the Democratic Party 51–49, but the median district favors the Republican Party by the same margin, that’s an “average-median difference” of two points.

In Michigan, from 2010 through the post-redistricting elections of 2012 and 2016, the average-median difference jumped by four points in favor of Republicans. It was as if starting in 2012, 4 percent of Michigan Democratic voters suddenly started voting for Republicans. Except they didn’t; the map did it for them. This difference means that whatever seats Democrats could win in 2010 with a 50–50 split would, two years later, have required 54–46 support, an eight-point split.

The Michigan gerrymander led to a gain of two additional congressional seats for Republicans that would not have occurred under a more neutral plan.

But voters in three states—Michigan, Colorado, and Utah—have the opportunity to implement redistricting commissions that take away this power. Voters in a fourth state, Missouri, can choose to assign the initial drafting process to a nonpartisan demographer who must follow principles of partisan fairness and competitiveness.

In each case, the redistricting commissions will be instructed to respect city and county boundaries, take into account ethnic and community interests, and avoid partisan bias. When these priorities are met, districts often become more competitive. After California adopted such a commission in 2010, five out of 46 incumbents from the state’s congressional delegation lost their reelection bids.

Automatic and election-day voter registration

Nationwide, approximately 76 percent of the voting-eligible population is registered to vote. Automatic or same-day registration could help bring in the remaining 24 percent—57 million people. (Automatic means that when eligible citizens interact with certain government agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, voter registration is opt-out instead of opt-in; those agencies transfer registration information electronically to election officials.)

In 2016, when only a fraction of the voting-age population cast a ballot, nine out of the top 10 voter-turnout states used either automatic voter registration or same-day registration. This pattern suggests that simply removing the need to plan ahead can boost turnout considerably.

Automatic or election-day registration is on the ballot in Maryland, Michigan, and Nevada.  Automatic registration is particularly important in Nevada, which in 2016 ranked a dismal 44th out of 50 states for voting-age-population turnout. Raising Nevada’s participation level to the average in automatic and same-day states would translate to a nine-percentage-point bump. By comparison, behavioral interventions such as face-to-face canvassing lead at best to a bump of a few percentage points.

Restoration of voting rights

Felons in many states permanently lose the right to vote—more than 6 million people nationwide. In Florida, people convicted of a felony (which could be failing to remit sales tax, possessing a fake identification card, or purchasing marijuana) can only regain the right by appealing to the Executive Clemency Board. Republican Governor Rick Scott has made that process difficult by imposing a minimum waiting period of five years and requiring a lengthy application process.

Amendment 4, on the ballot in Florida next week, would restore voting rights automatically to most ex-felons, with the exception of murderers and sexual offenders. Almost 1.7 million Floridians, or more than 10 percent of the voting-age population, are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

Polls indicate that support for Amendment 4 is as high as 70 percent, well over the 60 percent needed for passage. It has been endorsed by the conservative, Koch-funded Freedom Partners as well as two left-leaning groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and Floridians for a Fair Democracy. Freedom Partners has described the amendment as consistent with its mission of “protecting freedom and expanding opportunity.”

Amendment 4 could make a big difference in Florida politics. Florida is the land of close elections, well beyond the infamous presidential election of 2000. In the last two gubernatorial races, in 2010 and 2014, the margins of victory were 1.2 percent and 1.0 percent, respectively. In 2016, Donald Trump won Florida by 1.2 percent, and in 2012 Barack Obama won the state by 0.9 percent. In these four races the average margin of victory was less than 80,000. More than 20 times this number of citizens could join or re-join the Florida electorate if Amendment 4 passes.

Amendment 4 may also serve as an example for other states to follow. Possible targets for similar measures include Mississippi and Virginia, where 9.6 percent and 7.8 percent of adults are disenfranchised, respectively—more than 500,000 people put together.

When news reports discuss voter suppression and voter turnout techniques, they rarely put the relative effects into context.

The effects of gerrymandering are so large that they can be addressed only by undoing the offense through redistricting commissions or court action on a state-by-state basis. But other disenfranchisement techniques are easier to offset.

For example, Georgia Secretary of State (and gubernatorial candidate) Brian Kemp has tried to suppress turnout by challenging new registrations and purging the rolls of “inactive” voters. The total number affected, currently estimated at nearly 400,000 voters, comprises about 5 percent of Georgia’s voting-eligible population. Restrictive voter-ID laws, increasingly common in Republican-controlled states, have been estimated to deter or prevent up to 2 percent of eligible citizens from voting. This year, in North Dakota, an estimated 18,000 citizens lack the primary and secondary IDs necessary for voting, or about 3 percent of the eligible population.

Compare those figures to the effects of automatic registration (9 percent of Nevada adults), and restoration of rights (10 percent of Florida adults).

Aggressive redistricting reform, plus automatic registration and rights restoration, could overwhelm the effects of modern disenfranchisement campaigns.

A couple of caveats:

First, expanding the number of people registered to vote, or who have the right to register to vote, is not quite the inverse of turning away people who want to vote, numbers-wise. A 10-percentage-point expansion of the eligible population, in other words, does not necessarily translate to a 10-point jump in turnout; but if 2 percent are deterred or prevented from voting because of restrictive ID laws, that results in a two-point decline in participation.

Second, opportunities for expansion and reduction are different in different states. Restoration of voting rights to Floridians will not comfort disenfranchised citizens in neighboring Georgia, and redistricting reform in Michigan does not help the people of North Dakota.

Still, the implication of these comparisons is that as federal protections for voting rights weaken, advocates should work not only to prevent losses—but also to counteract those losses with large gains.