“The regime is afraid of the people because it knows that free and fair elections will bring about its end…”
–Viktor Yushchenko, Kiev, 2004
Part 1 of 4
The story of the 2020 election begins with a Franciscan monk in 14th century England whom the atavistic branch of conservatism credits with the decline and fall of Western civilization, William of Ockham. It’s said that as Thomas Aquinas succeeded in weaving together faith and reason, Ockham (or BillyO, as he would be known today) was responsible for tearing them apart again. Contra Aquinas, who believed that the existence of God is the inescapable conclusion of logic, Ockham insisted that the existence of God could only be a matter of faith, never knowledge. Politically, he was an advocate–in the 1300s–for individual rights, the separation of church and state, and freedom of speech, excommunicated for declaring his King George, Pope John XXII, unfit to rule–an American well before his time.
Like a Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin, Ockham made seminal and visionary contributions across a breathtaking range of disciplines, including metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics, but what he’s best remembered for today is a principle of parsimony known as Ockham’s Razor, though he himself never called it his own or anything sharp-edged. The principle is often stated as “the simplest theory is always right,” but if that were true, Ronald Reagan or even the average barkalounger could solve all the world’s problems. Ockham’s actual admonition was to “make no unneccessary hypotheses” in developing an explanation that fits all the facts in question. Meaning that given the choice between a ‘theory of the case’ requiring, like an unfaithful spouse, one explanation for one collection of evidence, a second explanation for another, and a third explanation to cover the rest, VS. one explanation that can ride reality like a wrangler all by its lonesome, the theory requiring no rodeo clowns is probably the truth of the matter.
Since we’ve just gotten through an election about which the only thing voters agreed on was that Western civilization was–and is–at stake, it seems like an appropriate time for Ockham’s Ghost to make an appearance. And in the immediate aftermath of 11/3, after the last polls closed in Adak, St. Paul, and Unalaska, and the 21st century witching hour approached, nothing better simulated the disorientation occasioned by Armageddon’s first trumpets than the complete disconnect between the pre-election polls and the actual votes as they seeped into network electoral maps like the spawn of an old Japanese horror film, especially as narrated by “numbers guys” with the bedside manner of doctors snap-diagnosing carcinomas in new patients from across the room (such physicians, like Steve Kornacki, do exist). And clearly many have been feeling haunted by the spirit of the Venerable Inceptor–as of this writing, his weapon of choice was a most unlikely entrant in the top 10 most searched terms on the Merriam-Webster dictionary site.
The Atlantic declared “the polling crisis” to be a “catastrophe for democracy,” and, at a time when the outcome was still uncertain, prophesied with admirable bluntness that there was “a clear loser in this election: polling.” The New York Times titled its analysis: “A Black Eye: Why Political Polling Missed The Mark. Again,” and ominously suggested organizations like itself that “financially support and promote polls” were “re-evaluating how they portray polls in future coverage,” opining that “the best approach may be to give them less prominent coverage.” In a Times podcast, in-house polling guru Nate Cohn suggested polls may be “so wrong that they’re counterproductive,” and, after expressing little optimism they can be fixed, wondered if it might be time “to abandon the enterprise altogether.” Politico flatly stated “the polling industry is a wreck, and should be blown up.” New York Magazine asked “Should We Stop Paying Attention To Election Polls?” which is as a good a segue as there could be to the rest of this piece, since, as we all know, whenever a mass media headline is framed in the form of a question, the answer is always “no.” And if this was the “liberal” media’s reaction, with its requisite thoughtful consideration, is there really any need to pile on hot takes from the Breitbarts of the world?
Initial theories about why the pollsters (except blind squirrels like Rasmussen and Trafalgar) went so wrong all seemed rooted in magical determinism within the narrow range between Trump’s Chicxulubian qualities and America’s inevitable decline. Or anarchistically, even more firmly rooted in no explanation at all, with the deterministic implication that none will be forthcoming. Many hypothesi reminded us of the single bullet theory as re-enacted by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s paranoiac classic, JFK, particularly when we kicked them in the tires, as we all should, to see if they could explain, without hissing, anything beyond or before November 3, 2020 (there is no Bush v Gore in empiricism).
Which is not to say the theories that were invoked post-Warren, and have been invoked now, are any less baroque or more plausible.
An exception in the present: the unadorned conjecture that the Russians were responsible for the poll mutilation, but underestimated Biden’s support and didn’t change enough votes in the machines. We’re not saying this happened, of course, but as the man from Ockham would tell us, that’s the kind of simple and mundane explanation to be sought, one that has a through line fitting not only the facts of this election, but other recent ones as well, not to mention a dead-on take on human nature, i.e. our universal tendency to screw up, which helps keep life interesting. Very unlike, say, the fever dream that a dead Venezuelan dictator/evil genius reached out from the grave via companies in America owned by Americans and Brits (never by Venezuelans) to electronically spirit millions of Trump votes out of the country (perhaps as far away as Mars, where the deep state has been running a child slavery ring for years), change them to read “Biden,” and send them back.
In the same vein, assuming you’ve been to Dealey Plaza, looked up, and realized Lee Harvey Oswald doesn’t fit the facts (or done the same in Memphis), the most Ockhamian explanation for what really happened in Dallas might well be that the Secret Service partied too hard the night before, one of the guys who was supposed to be riding point in the car behind Kennedy’s was too hung over to do the job, was replaced by someone who had never done that job before (all true) who, when the first shot came from the Depository, accidentally discharged his rifle right into the back of the president’s head. With bonus 🙂 😀 😮 😎 to the story’s teller for actually finding a plausible path for the other single bullet. This theory has its detractors, too, of course, but at least it fits the known facts better than others without requiring a vast left & right-wing conspiracy that has somehow never come to light. Though to be clear, we shouldn’t dismiss such conspiracies because we “know” “the truth” “will out”–for example, if it weren’t for Woodward, Bernstein, and the most ticked off civil service striver since Charlie Guiteau, fueled by far more righteous anger at the personal injustice and its echoes in the broader pattern of conduct involved, the black hole of conspiracy around Richard Nixon might never have seen the light (and Chuck Colson neither).
In any case, other things being as equal as they can be, Ockham’s apparition will haunt us unless we find one simple, airtight explanation for the swing-swong of the polls, and we really think we really have. Trump supporters will be delighted to learn that it definitely involves a vast conspiracy, just not the one they think and, sadly for the bored, much, much less exotic. So let the exorcism begin.
We should start by acknowledging that a lot of the morning-after angst about the polls has died down, mainly because at least where the national results are concerned, polls and votes converged in the end to a substantial degree. When last updated by the Associated Press, Biden had 51.4% of the votes and Trump had 46.9%, for a margin of 4.5%. According to the “poll of polls” at 538, the pollsters expected him to win by 8.4%. The typical election poll sample size, as you can see from the polls used to generate 538’s projection, is about 1,000 voters, and the typical margin of error in a poll of 1,000 voters is about 3%, meaning the pollster is saying that if he/she conducted the poll 100 times, 95 times, 95% of the time, the result would be within that margin. And even that’s not as big of a claim as it sounds, because a margin of error of 3% is really a margin of +/- 3% on each of the results, something at least some pollsters, like 538’s Nate Silver, tried to make us aware of, in his case by showing us what the general and swing state results would look like if the polls were “off by 3%,” because “on average, in past elections” that’s how much they’ve been off by.
So if the polls projected Biden to have 53% of the vote and Trump to have 45%, an actual result in which Biden gets 50% (53%-3%), and Trump gets 48% (45%+3%), would still be within the margin of error the pollsters provided. That’s only a 2% margin of victory for Biden, Biden won by 4.5%, and therefore, at least where the most fundamental result is concerned, the only thing to be upset about is that we can’t change the laws of mathematics to make the error when sampling 1,000 people less than 3% so we can be more certain who will win the election. We can’t make 2+2 = 5, either–at least 51.4% of us can’t.
Why don’t more pollsters poll more people? That’s a subject for another column, but it’s worth noting that there are rapidly diminishing returns in reducing error by increasing sample sizes–doubling the number polled only reduces the error to +/- 2.2%, not 1.5% as one might expect–you have to sample 5,000 voters to get it down into that range, +/-1.4% specifically. Even sampling 10,000 voters still only gets you down to a margin of error of +/-1%, and we’ve all seen many election results closer than that, especially in recent years.
Another reason why the furor over the polls has died down some, especially given the realities we’ve just described, is how uncannily close the Biden number was to right on the nose–the Election Day polling average said he’d get 51.8% of the vote and he got 51.4%. Where they were “wrong” was in allegedly “underestimating” the level of Trump support in our nation–they predicted he’d get only 43.4% of the vote, not 46.9–and there have been no shortage of explanations for that.
Some believe that contrary to almost all previous experience, the undecideds “broke hard” for the incumbent. In the rare cases where that happens–late breaking undecideds usually swallow hard, close their eyes, and vote ‘challenger’–it’s because they’ve concluded that the incumbent is the “safer” option. So this theory posits that 3% of the population of homo americanus living outside the personality cult bubble of Trumpism, organisms sharing every normative quality with the rest of us–from our basic molecular structure to the finer details of our culture–decided that Donald Trump, whom tens of thousands of mental health professionals risked sanction to declare was mentally unfit for office, a humanoid for whom every day is literally a new day, and not in the way Buddha intended, was a “safer” option than Grandpa Joe Biden.
Maybe they were never really undecided, say others, maybe they were “shy Trump voters,” even though, as Pew has pointed out, there has never been any credible evidence presented that such voters exist, and they’ve been conjured on a biennial basis since the exit polls of 2004, which is a long time for them to maintain self-discipline without fessing or bragging up, even for Republicans. A darker, and sadly more believable possibility: maybe they walked into the polling booth, looked right through the translucence of old enfeebled Joe Biden–the one caricature Trump had the teleprompter self-discipline to maintain from start to finish–saw a black Asian woman behind him, and said “nope.”
Then there’s the alleged “Trump effect,” about which we’ll have more to say downstream.
In any case, whatever the cause, this apparent 3% “Trump bump” is not what had the commentariat wielding pens and keyboards like pitchforks. It’s the disparity between polling and a very specific set of results, which, thanks to a blatantly racist 17th century Constitutional appendicular that should have been functionally erased with the passage of the 14th amendment (backed by the 15th, the 19th, the Snyder Act, the 26th, and the dictionary definition of the word “abridged“), come from The Only States That Matter, the so-called “swing states” that decide who wins the support of the aforementioned-in-all-but-name Electoral College. Margin of error cannot save pollsters here, as this chart from the Times shows:
Although this chart was compiled on November 12th, while votes were still being counted, it ended up being, ahem, highly accurate. Biden only won Nevada by 2.4%, which rounds down to +2, but other than that, yup, this happened, and the fact that a number of these divergences are outside the margin of the error is only one of the reasons alarm bells that won’t be unrung went off all over the polling industry.
First of all, these states are a Whitman’s Sampler of America, albeit perhaps with more of the fillings you like–or don’t–which doesn’t mean they’re not randomly selected, and as those who’ve made a pastime and research career of reimaging the US as a kind of EU are fond of telling us, the voters across them all have very little in common.
Second, that +/- we’ve discussed is supposed to be random–sometimes candidate A does better, sometimes candidate B. What the Times chart shows in black and white is a problem that, as Pew gently describes it, is “systemic.” Put another way, suppose we put Biden on the head of a coin (which we might, someday), and Trump on the tail, and every time a state’s election result is more favorable to Biden than the polls predicted, that’s a head, and every time it’s more favorable to Trump, tails. All thirteen swing states had results more favorable to Trump than predicted (we’re leaving the single districts of ME and NB out of this analysis because there’s a lot less relevant data specific to them available, polling a piece of a state is even more subject to error than polling a full state, and they make our heads hurt). What are the odds of flipping a coin and getting tails thirteen times in a row? 0.01%.
Enter William of Ockham, carrying a couple of charts of his own. The first compiles the total number of votes received by each candidate in those thirteen states, as of about November 20, and what overall percent of the vote each candidate received in those swingers:
And here’s how the candidates did in the other 37 plus the District of Columbia:
Now, what was that number again? How much did the national polls think Biden would win by? 8.4%? Outside the swing states he wins by even more than that–by 10.7%, which is a lot closer to 8.4% than 4.5%, his official margin overall. Meanwhile he actually loses to Trump in the swing states, overall.
Here’s one more chart, a list of the pollsters who produced the last round of polls to hit 538, both national and in the seven states where pollsters most missed the mark:
Every cell in orange represents a pollster that contributed not only to the final set of national polls, but to the last set in the states they’re associated with in the chart. As can be seen, that’s more than half of the polls in every state in question. As for the rest, there are normally two related reasons why state polls are less accurate than national: they involve smaller sample sizes, collected and analyzed by less experienced local pollsters. That wasn’t the case here, at least where expertise is concerned: Monmouth, Marist, Siena, Muhlenberg, and ABC/Washington Post are all A+ rated pollsters, with Emerson and Marquette not far behind. More generally, all pollsters in darker yellow may have done only state-level work, but they were working across multiple states–we’ve included 538’s grades for the few we hadn’t already heard of–and conservative contrarians like Rasmussen and Trafalgar were in the mix in many states to pull down Biden percentages.
The obvious question: what explanation can there possibly be for the fact that the pollsters were so much more inaccurate in the swing states than the rest of the country, especially when so many of the national and state polls were conducted by the same firms, so many of whom made major methodological shifts in their polling of nearly the same slate of states after a similar, but less severe, polling foofaraw in the last presidential contest? The size of the misses, the size of the differences between swing and non-swing results–these disparities go far beyond what sample sizes can account for, and not all the state samples were small: A+-rated Siena analyzed a sample of 1,451 in Florida and projected Biden +3, pulled/polled 1,253 in Wisconsin and predicted Biden by 11; Quinnipiac fielded 1,862 in PA and had Biden winning by 7, surveyed 1,440 in Ohio and missed by 12, to cite just a few examples.
As usual, Pew has pulled together arguably the most thoughtful post-mortem analysis of the problem, in which they put forward four possible explanations:
- Partisan non-response–Democrats were more willing to participate in polls than Republicans and standard measures didn’t correct enough for this. Or the proportion of Republicans sampled was correct, but the hard-core Trump supporters who were most likely to vote were underrepresented.
- “Shy” Trump voters — Meaning that some Trump supporters may not have wanted to tell pollsters they supported him, which, of course, is completely understandable.
- Enthusiasm for Trump among his supporters was underestimated — If this occurred, the pollsters might not have included enough Trumpsters as “likely voters,” which becomes the predominant metric as elections approach, and therefore made Biden’s leads look bigger than they were.
- The pandemic effect — The once in a century coronavirus plague could have disproportionately, and negatively, impacted Democratic participation, whereas Trump supporters may have evinced the same lack of concern for their lives as he did (for their lives)
We have a different, simpler explanation: voter suppression. And it better fits the facts. For starters, not one of the explanations above can account for the stark difference between the accuracy of the poll results in swing vs. non-swing states, especially not the most compelling one, the pandemic. Specifically:
- Re: non-response: Why would Republicans in swing states be less willing to participate in polls than those in others? One could argue it was because they were getting bombarded by pollsters in the swings, but we know plenty of Democrats who stopped picking up the phone in the campaign’s final weeks for the same reason. Further, given the growing GOP outcry about the poll results as they continued to roll unfavorably in, and the rawness of the partisanship in the swings, why wouldn’t Republicans in those states be particularly likely to give pollsters a piece of their mind and prove them wrong? The Trump spell was to a significant degree built on the second-by-second belief that he’s always a winner, never a loser, which is why his social media feed was so critical, and why the polls so upset him and his supporters; why wouldn’t his fans want to do everything they could to validate him as the winner they believed him to be?
- Re: ‘shyness’: Why would Trump supporters in swing states be more shy about telling pollsters who they were voting for than those in others? Because they thought the pollsters were going to leak their names to their Biden-supporting colleagues? Really? If so, wouldn’t Republicans living in blue states, surrounded by the enemy, be even more unwilling to confess their allegiance? Again, Trumpism is about #winning, always, which is why the more extreme claim floated by Trump media outlets, that there was some mass movement to lie to pollsters to fool Democrats into complacency, is laughable. In fact, the ‘shy’ Trumper hypothesis doesn’t even hold up within swing states.
- Re: enthusiasm: It does seem likely swing state Republicans were more enthusiastic about voting than in other states, because they knew they were more likely to impact the election, but for the same reason, so were swing state Democrats, whether for Biden or against Trump. So how/why would pollsters underestimate enthusiasm in the swing states–and only on the Republican side–but not the others? After all, the pollsters were just as aware as their respondents of the difference in stakes involved.
- Re: the pandemic: The coronavirus doesn’t know anything about the Electoral College, and it didn’t impact the swing states more than the others, so it shouldn’t have disproportionately affected Democratic turnout in those states. If anything, it should have disproportionately depressed Democratic voting in the non-swing states, since every Democrat in those states knew there was less reason to risk their lives by exercising the franchise, especially after the two most fateful elections for them in their lifetimes had made painfully clear that getting the most votes means nothing in this “democracy.”
In contrast to these hard challenges, it’s easy to explain why voter suppression would disproportionately impact the results in the swing states, and trash the polls in the process. Because they’re the swing states, the states that would decide the election, the GOP’s resources were far from infinite, and winning the “popular” vote was, at best, a luxury; in fact, Republicans have spent the last twenty years hardening themselves, with layer after layer of rationalization, to believe it has no value at all, to the point where you’re far more likely, when talking to one of the faithful, to hear them speak of “the tyranny of the majority” than express any belief in democracy at all.
Beyond this, there are serious problems specific to each of these explanations:
- Re: partisan non-response: How is it possible, after the 2016 debacle, and all the adjustments that were made in response, that the “standard measures” in place weren’t sufficient to deal with something as basic as “not enough Republicans are responding?”
- Re: ‘shyness:’ If there were any truth to this, you’d expect online panels to ameliorate it significantly, just as they have in so many other fields requiring survey work. Speaking as someone who has conducted high-profile online surveys for the tech industry for more than two decades, I can attest that you’d be amazed at what a respondent is willing to tell an online screen it’s hard to imagine they’d tell a human interviewer, and virtually everything such respondents have told us that seemed hard to believe has come to pass. But when it comes to the 2020 election, consider the case of Ipsos, one of the leading online panel providers in the world: their final polls had Biden winning Michigan and Wisconsin by 8-10; Pennsylvania by 6, Florida by 4, shyness not included. Were there other online panel providers who fared better? If not…
- Re: enthusiasm: Frankly, after all the pixels spilled on the “enthusiasm gap” between Trump and Biden supporters over the summer and fall, it seems very hard to believe that pollsters underestimated the determination to vote on the part of the former. If anything, it seems more likely that some of the less sophisticated pollsters in the mix underestimated Democratic enthusiasm, since it was not expressed as enthusiasm to vote for Biden so much as enthusiasm to vote against Trump.
- On the pandemic: This kind of “once in a generation” absolution of all involved would be a lot more persuasive if these polling misses were a once in a generation problem. As we’ll discuss in Part 2 of this piece, that’s far from the case. Furthermore, to the extent that partisans made it more difficult to vote, and have those votes be counted in the pandemic–and they did–that’s voter suppression, not the pandemic, at work, part of the larger pattern to be discussed in Part 2 as well.
When Pew raised the possibility that “shy” voters were responsible for pollgate, they were quick to add, to their credit, that “considerable research, including by Pew Research Center, has failed to turn up much evidence for this idea.” And that’s the ultimate problem with all of these explanations, and every other explanation that’s been put forward by the polling industry–they all hypothesize the existence of people and behaviors there’s no proof actually exist–the swing-state Republican who, more than the swing-state Democrat, and more than partisans of either party in other states, refuses to pick up the phone when they see a pollster calling; the swing-state Republican who is not only shy, but shyer than Republicans in other states; the swing-state Republican who’s more enthusiastic than he/she appears to be; swing-state Democrats who are less willing than Democrats in other states to risk their lives to vote against Trump, even though they know their votes will make more of a difference in getting him out of office.
All of this is not meant to be a critique of the polling industry; up to a point, at least, it’s noble, and all too rare in the Trump era, to seek out where you went wrong, to find ways to do better next time, even if both the problem and solution lie beyond your grasp. Up to a point. Beyond that it becomes, to decant Nate Kohn’s word into a new bottle, “counterproductive,” because it distracts from, obfuscates, and kicks the truth down the road, a road we may never get to travel far enough along on to find it. When an industry comes up with explanation after explanation that’s so easy to puncture–the fantastical explanations our distant ancestors created to account for the destruction natural disasters wreaked on their communities come to mind–it’s a sure sign that Kohn is right, the problem’s “not fixable,” and not “possibly,” but definitely–not by the polling industry anyway.
By contrast, again, we don’t have to hypothesize voter suppression. It’s been with us for decades, and we know that Trump and his party pulled out all the stops on it in this election, even, diabolically–there’s really no other word for it–exploiting and leveraging the death and permanent disability of hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans to achieve it. As Politico observed, “Never before in modern presidential politics has a candidate been so reliant on wide-scale efforts to depress the vote,” going on to quote Trevor Potter, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission who served as general counsel to Republican John McCain’s two presidential campaigns: “What we have seen this year which is completely unprecedented…a concerted national Republican effort across the country in every one of the states that has had a legal battle to make it harder for citizens to vote.” While the effort was certainly significantly greater in the swing states, it was ubiquitous, as we’ll show; were it not, Biden would almost certainly have won the non-swings (where he enjoyed a 212-127 EV advantage, which, btw, doesn’t come close to explaining the disparity) by a much greater margin. Whether to assuage the Big Man’s ego (a 24/7/365 concern of all leading Republicans for the past four years) and prevent him from making wild accusations about the popular vote (again) that could threaten to bring the house (and House) down on them, or to tamp down the size of a potentially delegitimizing popular vote loss widely predicted to be much greater than 2016 (as it, in fact, turned out to be), the party, lacking the resources to achieve these goals by legitimate means, chose another route.
In a brief fraudian slip, Trump 2020 senior lawyer Justin Clark acknowledged that “traditionally, it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places,” before quickly clarifying that what he meant was that this is what Democrats always accuse Republicans of. Before, that is, telling his Madison, Wisconsin, audience that in order to ensure the president’s election, the Trump campaign and RNC were stepping up their efforts to root out the supposed scourge of “voter fraud.” “It’s going to be a much bigger program, much more aggressive program, a better funded program,” said Clark. The president, he assured the group, “believes in it, and he will do whatever it takes to make sure it’s successful.” We mention the location of the schemefest–Madison–not only because it’s one of the most liberal communities in America, key to any Democratic candidate’s chances of carrying the state, but because Wisconsin was widely expected to the be the election’s tipping point, and was also the pollsters’ biggest miss. We don’t believe that’s a coincidence.
At this point, we feel we must yield the floor to the doubly metaphorical elephant in the room, who demands to be heard, who points out that this election featured the highest turnout (66.6%) since the 1900 election–how can voter suppression be the cause of the polling malfunction? It’s a fair point, and one that compels a counter-review of just a few of the reasons why the turnout among donkeys–and platypuses like me–should have been a lot closer to 100% than to 70, at least in this particular election, as Panglossian as that may sound.
If you don’t need such convincing, feel free to skip the litany that follows–we know it’s both nightmarish and infuriating. Consider this your trigger warning. There will be no links to support what we’re about to say, except when we are drawing assertions from polls. It doesn’t matter whether a Trump supporter would accept a word of it as true or legitimate. These are simply statements of belief, articles of faith that few, if any, Americans opposed to Donald Trump would disagree with, and the feelings of 81 million voters matter too, at least when it comes to gauging their motivation to vote. Most, we think you’ll agree, do not require a prospective no-trump voter to have had any more than minimal exposure to 44.46 to believe, right down to the central veins and arteries of the marrow of their bones.
- For starters, he is unquestionably an autocrat in all possible ways & means–this was conspicuously obvious long before his post-election putsch–a would-be dictator with nothing but active contempt for the free press, independent judiciary, and every democratic norm and value, all of which he attempted to or did undermine, while heaping praise and support for authoritarians around the world and attacking our democratic allies (this alone should have been enough to motivate everyone who opposed him to show up at polls. If you agree, and want to skip the rest…).
- His administration was the most corrupt and incompetent in our history, marked by revolving staff doors and anything-goes chaos, and he himself was the most corrupt and incompetent president ever, literally in violation of the Constitution every day he was in office.
- In both word and deed, he was the most racist president since at least Woodrow Wilson. He was also far and away the most divisive president in our history, deliberately so, banking on maintaining the frothing loyalty of a minority of Americans, the “tough” people, to see him through.
- He has been credibly accused of assaulting at least 28 women, one of them a 13 year old whom he raped repeatedly in front of a witness; in word and deed, he’s the most misogynistic president in our history. (properly persuaded now that every fiber of every American who opposed him was sufficiently motivated to vote him out? ready to skip ahead?)
- He colluded with a hostile foreign power–our most implacable foe for more than a century, no less–to steal the election he “won,” then attempted to extort an ally engaged in an existential fight with that same hostile power into helping him steal another by manufacturing evidence against his leading opponent, and then openly called on our adversaries to do the same.
- His presidency was about Making Russia and China, our two major adversaries, Great Again, not America, and not coincidentally, he has strong business ties to both countries, owing them (or their oligarchs) hundreds of millions of dollars each, much of it coming due in the next four years. His few reactions in response to their provocations were transparently and cynically kabuki–you could see his pro wrestling background shining though. Bottom line: he was the ultimate Kung Pirozhki Candidate.
- He was unpresidentedly dishonest, lying more than
20,00030,000 times in the course of his four years. He destroyed the belief of millions in facts, evidence, logic, science, and truth, presiding over what was increasingly clearly nothing but a cult of personality, complete with lietmus tests.
- He had and has strong ties to notorious organized crime syndicates around the world, talks and thinks like a mobster, has spawned well over a dozen ongoing independent investigations at the federal, state, and local levels, and is almost certainly guilty of massive tax fraud, wire fraud, insurance fraud, real estate fraud, consumer fraud, obstruction of justice and more. For all but the most credulous, the myth that he was ever a successful businessman, let alone a legendary one, as opposed to the record-breaking business failure he actually is, was steadily eroded away throughout his term. (wish you could go out and vote against him a thousand times more? ready to believe the rest of us feel the same? this is the last exit from the trail of fears we’re paving)
- He’s a pathological narcissist; his rallies, press conferences, and Twitter feed have been nothing but a vile brew of hatred, bullying, punching down, incitement, and self-pity. Even his supporters found it disconcerting, embarrassing, and unpresidential. For families with children, he became the first president they could not hold up as a role model for the next generation.
- He takes credit for everything, blame for nothing, doesn’t have the guts to fire people to their faces, never apologizes, and he’s literally done this all his life. Everyone has someone in their lives like this–generally their bosses–and generally we despise them. He is a Marxist caricature of a businessman. No one would want to work with or for someone who behaves like him, or even have them as a neighbor.
- Far from reviving the economy, he took it on a glide path from Obama (ditto on energy independence), gave the massive tax cut he promised the middle class to the one group, the wealthy, whom supermajorities believed should be paying more, saddling our children and grandchildren with trillion dollar a year deficits as far as the eye can see, all for a sugar high that lasted no more than a year. By 2019, growth had slowed to 2.3%, was projected to fall more, manufacturing was in recession, business investment was down, and corporate debt was exploding. He never came close to creating as many jobs as Obama, either.
- More generally, he was so mercurial, mentally unstable, and incoherent that most Americans woke up every morning wondering what new outrage he had committed or uttered–he inserted himself in all aspects of American life, making himself inescapable, enervating, and exhausting. On top of this, he was demonstrably incapable of taking in and contemptuous of new information, requiring it to be short, mainly pictorial, and filled with mentions of his name. As a human being, there appears to be literally no negative adjective in the English language that doesn’t fit him, including those that are antonyms of each other.
- With a zeal reminiscent of the Nazis in the 1930s, he and his administration vilified and took action after action after action against immigrants, going so far as to separate children from parents, lock them in cages, even lose the chain of custody so they can no longer be reunited. Oddly enough, this resulted in the strongest support for immigration since Gallup began polling the topic (which also makes our point).
- With similar ruthlessness, he and his administration relentlessly demolished every environmental protection they could get their hands around and opened every natural resource they could to exploitation. He took what a majority of Americans–and a huge supermajority of younger voters–increasingly consider(ed) an existential threat to the planet and not only declared it a hoax, but actively did everything he could to make it worse, especially after finding that it was going to be even worse than anyone expected, resulting in the strongest support for the environment vs. economic growth since the 1960s (making our point again). For the first time these younger Americans (Millennials and Gen Z) matched Baby Boomers and older in the pool of eligible voters (after they, plus GenX, outvoted their elders for the first time in the midterms).
- He repeatedly showed disrespect for and undermined our veterans and men/women in service, as he had throughout his life–don’t take our word for it; even before the infamous Atlantic article came out in August, nearly 60% of the officer corps disapproved of Trump (more than half strongly) and a plurality of all troops said they were going to vote for Biden. His support among veterans, while stronger, was cratering as well.
And those are only only a few of the high-level reasons–oh, I almost forgot:
- His actions and inactions unambiguously (at least to those who oppose him) caused the death of 200,000+ Americans before the election, including many of his own supporters–that’s nearly seventy times worse than 9/11 (and what percent of Americans would have turned out to vote against Osama after that?), more dead than all of our wars combined except the Civil and WWIl. Despite his best efforts to pass the buck, or worse, deny the existence of the disease, culminating in a blood libel against the health workers who have been risking their lives for us for months, by Election Day nearly six in ten Americans–including nearly two thirds of independents and 90% of Democrats–believed he was responsible for the disastrous nature of our response, a much higher culpability than any of the other culprits he tried to point the finger at, which is not surprising, given the litany of related mistakes he made, starting with his first day in office, and continued to make right up until Election Day–none of them in hindsight–and the appallingly unflattering comparisons with virtually every other country in the world that resulted, except a handful America should never be comparing itself with. All this against a backdrop of replacing Obamacare, not with the “big beautiful” plan promised, but with systematic and relentless sabotage instead.
- And this, according to virtually all Americans, including his supporters, led directly to the biggest economic decline since the Great Depression.
These are just a sampling of the existential reasons, each with much broader and longer bills of particulars than we can get into here, that led many otherwise cheery and mild-mannered folk like my primary care physician to say tersely and darkly “we have to beat him, and beat him by a LOT,” and many more to say–and mean–“we have to vote as if our lives depend on it, because they do.”
And assuming we haven’t all descended en masse into a state of postmodern limbo, isn’t this what happened? Isn’t that how we voted, like our lives were at stake?
Not really. Below is a chart showing our turnout in the 2020 election, along with all other countries whose turnout was better in their most recent election:
A few notes on this chart. Some countries hold presidential elections, some hold parliamentary contests; some, like us, hold both at the same time. If a country’s most recent election, i.e. the one we’re displaying here for comparison, was parliamentary, it’s in red, if it was presidential, it’s in blue, if it was both, purple.
Some may look at a chart like this and say, well, but other countries force people to vote, and that’s true: as many as seventeen countries do that, and those with better turnouts than ours that do so are marked with an asterisk. But especially when you scroll down to the bottom, it becomes clear that making voting mandatory is a little like naming your newborn Noble, Patience, or Scholastica; it doesn’t make it so, and in fact, very rarely are such mandates enforced the way we enforce election laws here.
All but one line of data on this chart comes from a terrific organization called the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). IDEA measures turnout a bit differently than the organization our media and others here use, the United States Elections Project. In particular, IDEA considers only registered voters to be part of the voter-eligible population, whereas US Elections considers everyone voter-eligible except people who are ineligible to vote (e.g. felons in some states), a larger pool that makes our turnout, as measured by USEP, lower than IDEA’s. IDEA has not come out with their turnout percentage for the US for 2020 yet (they use Census data that hasn’t been made available to date), so we’ve used the differences between IDEA and USEP turnout measurements in past elections to project how much higher IDEA’s turnout percentage for the US 2020 election is going to be. But because we want to be sensitive to the exceptionalism that’s resulted in our measuring this number differently than every other nation in the world, we’ve provided USDE’s number as well.
All caveats aside, the literal bottom line is that by IDEA’s projected measurement, nearly 70 countries had better turnout in their last election than our “historic” 2020 march to the polls. Further, more than 110 nations had better turnout than the ominously revelatory, yet glorious 66.6% we’ve been giving ourselves much more than a participation trophy for achieving. And that’s the good news. Because while this was an existential election for us (do we need to review again all the reasons Trump opponents had to turn out or, conversely, show more pictures like these?–>), it wasn’t necessarily so for other nations. Their most recent elections may have been entirely boring and low-stakes or, unlike us (as of this writing), they might well have been in the midst of a shooting rather than shouting civil war, like my brothers and sisters in Cameroon, or cleaning up/rebuilding after a climate event, like increasingly many around the world.
So to really compare our “most important election in our lifetime [really, truly, this time]” turnout to the rest of the world fairly, we should really compare our 2020 against other nations’ average result. As we do here:
Nope, you haven’t missed anything–keep scrolling…
Since our election was so extraordinarily motivating, we’re so proud of our level of participation, and other countries may not have ever had a similarly charged vote, even in the many years IDEA has been collecting data, for each country we’ve chosen to show either their most recent result or their average result, whichever is higher, and marked out those that are averages. That’s not as gamey as it sounds–in virtually all cases, whichever was lower was still higher too, and if you’ve managed to scroll all the way down here from the previous paragraph, you already know by these lights, our “record-breaking turnout” is an even less plausible wave of the hand against the realities of voter suppression when the long shadow of history is brought to bear. Nearly a hundred nations have better average or recent turnouts than we’ve projected IDEA’s 2020 data will show, and more than 150 have better turnout than our vaunted 66.6% (including us, according to IDEA).
Frankly, it defies everything we know about human beings, as proven by the participation rates of so many other countries (all of them, contra Trump, populated with voters of the same species as our own), that a mere 66.6‰ of the majority of Americans who have opposed Trump in every single poll from 2015 to the present day would show up to vote if they held even a fraction of the beliefs about him we’ve scrolled above (feel free to read them again, or for the first time, if you’ve got a case of the doubts).
It further defies common sense or simple explanation to believe, given the case against Trump described above, that whatever surge our national electorate experienced would ever be twice as high in GOP strongholds than in Democrats,’ anywhere–as it apparently was, for example, in my home state of Wisconsin–especially when much of what Democrats and independents found repellent in the scat of the last four years was coprageous to a non-trivial number of GOP voters as well. In fact, an unprecedented wave upon wave upon wave upon wave upon wave upon wave of prominent Republicans, scores of them highly skilled in the political arts, came out strongly against Trump, echoed by many in the rank and file.
With this concerted effort from within pressing down against the so-called “Trump effect” and all the reasons for anti-Trumpers to turn out, the way should have been clear for the Democrats to not only meet, but blow past expectations, instead of falling far short of them, even after all the votes were counted.
While it’s shocking and dismaying that 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, that should be only because, given the record we’ve just described, it’s shocking and dismaying that anyone did so other than himself. It’s a case where one vote really is a tragedy, 74 million a statistic, especially when those who celebrate, rather than bemoan all those votes, have proven themselves incapable of understanding that 200,000, 300,000, 400,000, and 500,000 are > 0, despite the large number of zeroes involved. Rather than view the 74 million as the sign of impending apocalypse, it would be more useful to realize that this number represents only 22‰ of the US population–Nixon’s approval rating on the day he left office was 24–and it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t represent close to 100‰ of all the Americans who wanted to vote for the man, other than his very small number of acolytes among the under 18 and 20 to life sets. Try to picture a Trump supporter saying, “nah, I think I’ll sit this one out.” When viewed in this light, it becomes clear the real question is not “how could 74 million Americans vote for this guy?” It’s how and why more of the other 78% of America didn’t show up to turn him out (and yes, we’re including those who can’t vote at all–we’ll have more to say about that in the last part of this series).
Some will dismiss the international comparisons we’ve made on the grounds that unlike those countries, we don’t really have “a culture of voting,” we’re too busy shopping, bingeing Netflix (among other substances), etc. Really. The oldest democracy in the modern world on either side of Switzerland doesn’t have a “culture of voting?” The country considered by the rest of the planet as the leader, the standard-bearer, the role model, the heartbeat of democracy, essential to its preservation, as evidenced by international reaction to the recent attack on Congress? That United States of America doesn’t have the same or stronger voting culture than Ecuador, Peru, Angola, Bangladesh, Cameroon, or Guinea? We don’t have a stronger “culture of voting” than Vietnam, Laos, Togo, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Barbados, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Burundi, Tunisia? To quote our new president: “Give me a break.”
And if we really don’t, why the [insert choice word here] not? Given our history, how is that a valid explanation? That question’s so rhetorical, you didn’t see or hear us ask it. The cynical IDED-thrower might reply it’s precisely because of our long democratic history that we don’t show up like other nations–look at Switzerland, a direct democracy since the 13th century, where voting is mandatory and only 45% turned out for their most recent election–but is there anything less American than cynicism? The truth is that we have a unique and exceptional voting culture that Americans of all ages and ethnicities, unlike the denizens of many other nations, have been willing to fight and die for, even to support and protect democracies other than our own. As Pope Francis, the holy seer, observed in the wake of the storming: “I was astonished, truly, because [Americans] are people so disciplined in democracy.” Nobody has ever called us disciplined in anything before; it sounds like even a man who takes regular meetings with God on behalf of 1.2 billion people, and doesn’t need Zoom to do it, thinks we actually care about something, and that something is democracy, voting by another name. In fact, if we put together a word cloud, feeding in a wide range of quoted reactions around the world to the events of 1/6, a big word in the middle would probably be something like “shock.” Et voila –>
But all that said, we have an even more unique culture of voter suppression, and again, some international comparisons really bring this home. Below, on the left, the average voting turnout of Black voters in the United States since 1986, as compared to the average turnouts of all countries in the world with majority or substantial (30%+) Black populations. On the right, the average turnout of Latinx/Hispanic voters in the U.S. compared to all nations in Latin America and the Caribbean where Spanish is the dominant language:
In our society, there’s no voter classification that’s easier to surgically attack, zip by zip, with the full array of voter suppression tactics than race or ethnicity, and no classification those who are motivated to engage in such tactics–‘elected’ officials who, by definition, do not believe their own voting population is sufficient to prevail–are more strongly motivated to attack, as proven by a long and sordid history of same. Leaving us to ask: what explanation can there possibly be for the outrageous disparities above, other than massive, systemic voter suppression? Is it possible Blacks in the U.S. just aren’t motivated to vote because they’re too “alienated,” as white liberals might put it (white conservatives would likely use a different world, especially now that Trump has liberated them to “say what everyone is thinking”)? To play on an old joke: that’s so easy to rebut, even a skinny kid with big ears and a funny name can do it:
“Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.
Need we say more? We will. Could it be that Latinx/Hispanic turnout is so low because immigrants “don’t speak good English,” even those who are naturalized citizens, the folks that voter turnout percentages are actually based on? Not the undocumented indentured, that is, but the newbies who’ve passed citizenship tests most of us can’t? No computa, says the conservative Cato Institute, having found more than 97% of all immigrants who’ve naturalized now speak the lingua franca. And even if it’s Cato’s numbers that no computa, they’re backstopped by the Voting Rights Act where voting is concerned, which has required bilingual election materials since 1975.
But to read a ballot in Spanish, you have to be in a polling place or have an absentee ballot in hand. And if the powers-that-be at all levels in our country really regarded all of its citizens as citizens, meaning people with the same rights as all others, which, after all, is the sole basis upon which a nation forged on the promise of equal opportunity–a promise that brought the wave upon wave of immigrants who have made us leaders of the free world–can legitimately demand sacrifice or contribution of any kind, the America guaranteed by the Constitution and the blood of our ancestors, you’d think said powers would be making it as easy to walk into said polling place and be counted as it is to walk into a church and be heard.
In the physics of politics, echoes only get louder; the claim that minorities are “alienated” and “don’t really want to vote” becomes the belief that these fellow citizens are “vaccine–hesitant” and “don’t really want” to get life–saving protection from a deadly disease that disproportionately affects them, when the truth, just as in our electoral system, is they haven’t been given remotely the same access to the vaccines as their white counterparts, a disparity that continues to the present day. And while those who say “they don’t want to vote” are not entirely or technically wrong in some cases, this too is an echo of suppression at its most insidious, self-propagating & fulfilling, as we’ll discuss.
At the end of every day, no right in this country is more fundamental, more sacred, more defining than the right to vote, referenced more times than any other in the law of the land above all others, usually with “shall not be abridged” close behind it like a bodyguard, for those English–speakers who can’t seem to read English. It’s not as if said officials of the most powerful nation of the earth can plead ignorance or a lack of capacity, and shouldn’t be in office anyway if they can’t add 2+2; so many of the steps required to live out the true meaning of our creed are so obvious, so basic, and literally all around them. 90%+ of the countries in our hemisphere, Europe, Asia, and Oceania that hold elections either do so on weekends and/or have made election day a national holiday, for example. 120+ countries have compulsory voter registration; typically taken care of for its citizens by the state; among those that don’t, some don’t require registration at all.
All of these countries have technical and financial resources inferior to ours, yet they’re using population records, police records of residence, applications for government services, they’re conducting publicly–financed door to door registration campaigns, letting their people register via mail or online, deploying mobile registrars. Meanwhile, our United States is one of the few democracies that puts the entire burden of registration on its prospective voters, keeping company with the likes of the Bahamas, Belize, and Burundi. Is it necessary to observe that this burden falls unequally on first-time voters (the young), those with dual residences (the young again–college and home), the poor, and voters of color? Or ask, rhetorically, surely, what these groups have in common?
What It Is
At this point, we should probably step back and define what we mean and don’t by “voter suppression.” From our perspective, it takes two fundamental forms:
- Anything that ultimately prevents a citizen from exercising their right to vote or makes it less likely that vote will be counted.
- Anything that violates the fundamental democratic principle of “one person, one vote” by making one person’s vote more or less valuable than another.
The second category includes gerrymandering, the Electoral College and, to the extent its disparities exceed what was intended by the Founders, the U.S. Senate (an extent that’s yawning, in part because it’s so wide, in part because it’s endured so long it seems to have bored us beyond action). But none of these can account for the polling disconnects we’re concerned with, at least not directly, so they’re excluded from our definition for present purposes.
Within the first category, any one individual’s difficulty voting, or even the difficulties faced by millions, if randomly or evenly distributed among supporters of both candidates, are not relevant, either. Only those tactics that systematically affect the voters of one party more than the other, and in this case, only those that could have disproportionately negatively affected the ability of Democratic constituencies to cast and be counted are in our purview, whether deliberate or not.
Unfortunately, after decades of exploration and competency-building, this still leaves a rich targeting environment to consider, so much so that in comparing the Republicans of today with those of yesteryear, we can easily find ourselves pondering a version of the same question arising with the rise and fall of various media forms: has the GOP transferred all the creativity and imagination it used to apply to policy-making to preventing people from voting instead? All we know for sure is that it’s next to impossible to keep up with them, so what we’re about to describe can only be considered rough outlines with examples, what might be appropriately be called guardrails for all the respect those have been given, and not just in the last four years. What’s included below, under our definition, may seem overly expansive, but that’s a requirement when you’re the beacon and standard-bearer of democracy in the world, yet have turnout ranking in the triple digits.
All forms of misinformation and disinformation. For example (only): Official-looking misinformation about when, where, and how to vote, e.g. materials that appear to come from the government, telling recipients (often for a plausible reason) that Election Day has been changed or extended to what would be the day after the election. Or telling them the wrong place to vote (e.g. using the pretense that their precinct has changed), in expectation that by the time they get to the front of the voting line, they’ll no longer have the time or patience to do it all over again at their real polling place.
All forms of impersonation, whether it’s people representing themselves as fellow Americans when they may not even be people, people representing themselves as a candidate or speaking on their behalf (calling by phone at 2 AM, for example, or sending out false/misleading literature on what appears to be candidate letterhead), or purveying the real “fake news,” as it was defined by Vladimir Putin–phony stories that appear to come from legitimate or legitimate-sounding news organizations, or/and so much more–like advertising itself, this is an endlessly creative form of suppression.
Speaking of advertising, false and/or misleading advertising via any medium even by the campaigns themselves is a particularly insidious and corrosive form of suppression and should be banned. This isn’t a free speech issue–there are enough clear differences between the parties that it shouldn’t be any harder for campaigns to make completely honest ads than it is for campaign media consultants to make Madison Avenue-level ads for the money they get paid. OK, that may have been more of a no-look pass than an analogy. But seriously, we legally and rigorously require truth in advertising of drug manufacturers and others whose products will never be capable of the level of death and destruction a politician who achieves power through dishonesty can achieve, a level of death and destruction that far exceeds the cost of anything that can be shouted in a crowded theater.
Sending threatening communications to voters. The most common tactic of this type is sending them material that looks like it’s from the government, claiming that police or immigration officials will be monitoring polling places looking for people with outstanding warrants, fees, fines, tickets, expired or missing documentation (or just telling recipients they’ll be there at all). Another example: sending out official-looking materials that tell voters in gory detail about all the laws against and penalties for voting illegally, while often being vague, opaque, confusing and/or contradictory about what constitutes legal vs. illegal voting, but making very clear that the bright line definitely isn’t just whether you’re a citizen or not.
Thanks to technology, these have been joined by the creative use of telephony, for example, this year’s Election Eve robocall sent to 10 million+ households (I wonder who was targeted), advising them to “stay home and stay safe” (great namecheck/homage by the robos, btw, though we’re not sure whether they were alluding to the pandemic, Trump militias, both, or just leveraging the generalized anxiety the previous four years has produced). And because the Net allows us to scale to both unimaginable heights and unfathomable depths, the gutless goons behind these kinds of tactics are informing voters over social media that they have their targets’ personal information, and sometimes demonstrating they do–a little scrape‘ll do ya–then warning what will happen if they choose to exercise their most sacred right as Americans. Frankly, anyone caught doing this should be locked up for a mandatory minimum of a decade or more, not in a Club Fed. In the meantime, we’re creating a Wall of Shame to draw more attention to this practice, which was nearly unreported on in 2020.
Not providing equal access to required documentation. A common example: accepting drivers’ and gun licenses, but not student IDs or EBT cards, as valid forms of voter ID, even though the latter actually often require more stringent proofs of residence or citizenship. Privileging people who can afford to own cars or guns in this way is frankly and brazenly unconstitutional, as it requires all others to spend time and money to acquire the necessary documentation (e.g. for a state ID), which is a clear violation of the 24th amendment against poll taxes, whether the current partisan Supreme Court believes it or not.
And speaking of documentation, the National Voter Registration Act limits what states and localities can request in this regard to “the least possible amount of information necessary to enable State election officials to assess whether the applicant is a United States Citizen.” Think that’s what’s happening? If your state asked you to do anything more than attest, under penalty of perjury, that you’re a citizen on a registration form, the answer is “no,” and you’re in good company. But we digress.
Uneven distribution of offices where voter IDs can be obtained is another form of suppression of this type, unless the bias is to place more such offices in locations where those most likely to need these IDs and the most difficulty getting to said offices are living (e.g. the poorer parts of the state). We could go on.
Not providing equal access to polling places or other parts of the electoral process. Where to begin? Requiring some polling places to serve much larger populations of eligible voters than others, resulting in artificially longer lines that people may not have available time to wait in, is a form of voter suppression. Providing some precincts with better, more reliable voting machinery than others is voter suppression, as we learned, painfully, in Florida in the 2000 election. Using different ballots in different locations for voters who are all voting in the same election–e.g. the infamous “butterfly ballot” in that same election, is a form of suppression (regardless of who created it).
There has yet to be a voter purge (in which people are removed from the registration rolls) that hasn’t been a form of suppression because of its unacceptable level of inaccuracy and, in our case, because these inaccuracies typically affect some groups (minorities, the young, the poor) more than others. Those purged often don’t realize they’ve been wiped off the rolls until they show up to vote, which is often too late. At that point, they do have a right to cast a provisional ballot, if election officials “remember” to offer one, or they know to ask for one, but unless they’re able to remedy the problem within a week–which is not possible in many cases–their vote is tossed, and it may be tossed anyway because to date there’s no real accountability for provisional ballots.
By this we mean a public accounting, before elections are certified, of how many such votes were cast, who these votes were for, what the reasons were for disqualification, how many were disqualified for each reason, in total and for each candidate. It also means that every individual who casts a provisional ballot should be entitled to a subsequent communication from their state telling them whether their ballot was counted or not, and if not, why not.
Not providing no-fault/universal absentee voting, and/or not doing so in such a way that it’s no more likely such ballots will be disqualified than votes in person (both in general and for all demographics), is a form of suppression, at least in this election–in which one party disproportionately voted by mail–it was. Not making best efforts to contact individuals who need to cure their ballots and making it possible for them to do so without having to engage in person with election officials (which is exactly what they wanted to avoid when they voted absentee to begin with) and/or without giving them a reasonable time interval to do so is suppression. Not providing a reasonable number of in-person drop-off points for these ballots, e.g. some reasonable proportion of the area’s number of polling places, is suppression. Providing only one drop-off point for Harris County, Texas, for example, a county with 4.7 million+ residents sprawled over 1,777 square miles is suppression. Not counting all mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, which means the postal service decides who gets to vote, not the Constitution, is suppression.
The lack of a federal holiday with guaranteed paid leave to vote–or at least making it a weekend rather than a work day is an ongoing form of suppression. There’s no valid reason for making it easier for the leisure class than the working class to vote.
And not allowing ex-felons to vote, as eleven states still don’t today, is suppression that’s particularly harmful to our society, particularly in cases, like Florida, where politicians have chosen to overrule the will of 2/3 of their own constituents, the kind of cynical maneuvering that cranks up whirlwinds. Another twenty–that’s 31 in total–don’t let them vote until they’ve finished probation and/or parole; all told, more than 5 million Americans–more than 2% of our population–were barred in this way from voting in 2020. Only Maine and Vermont seem to have realized that you can’t declare someone no longer a citizen of our country without an extradition treaty with wherever you think they come from. Don’t we make it difficult enough already for these fellow citizens to find a place to live, get a job, and become productive members of our society anyway, without telling them , in the most fundamental way, that they aren’t really part of our society anyway anymore? And then we ‘told you so’ when they turn back to a life of crime?
Maybe Frankenstein, written, perhaps not coincidentally, when Mary Shelley was about the same age as Amanda Gorman, should be required reading for all Republican legislators, read aloud. The radical right can turn the clock back and back and they’ll keep running into the likes of Lincoln, Shelley, Benjamin Lay, Ockham, Cyrus the Great (the real Cyrus–whose and reign likely influenced the creation of our Constitution, as opposed to lighting it on fire)–and, of course, Jesus Christ–standing in their way, giving no quarter to their mythology. If we really feel the need to get electorally tough on crime, we can always start deporting domestic terrorists who seek to overthrow the government when they don’t like election results (the use of violence is a dead giveaway); this seems like a case where disenfranchisement is much better fit for the offense than how many grams of cocaine someone was holding and what kind.
Intimidating voters at the polls–or elsewhere. Shows of force by police, especially in polling places that serve primarily minority voters, given their experiences with the po-po, are a form of suppression. In fact, because a core element of voting is that it is anonymous, the presence of clear partisans anywhere remotely near a polling place is a form of suppression–how are voters to know they aren’t being identified for later retaliation? Anyone flashing a gun or other weapon (or a camera, for that matter) anywhere near a polling place is engaged in suppression. Anyone who questions the right of a voter to vote at a polling place, other than the poll worker who looks up their name on the registration rolls when they present their name or ID, is engaged in un-American and unconstitutional suppression.
Speculating on what the next suppression frontier will be is probably a waste of page space (we’ll have an up-to- date accounting in the final part of this series), but it’s looking like it could be even more cynical than the Florida legislature (though they’ll likely be involved)–Republican legislators leveraging the citizenry’s righteous distaste for the Electoral College to pass laws awarding their state’s electoral votes proportionally, as Maine and Nebraska already do. It’s an admirable goal if all states are doing it, but these bills aren’t advancing in places like South Carolina or Mississippi (where 40% of the population is black and the entire state leadership has been white for decades); try Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania instead. For the moment, they’re stalled by Democratic governors, but as you would expect, all will be up for re-election between now and 2024. Does anything really sound alarmist anymore? If so, know that this won’t be the first time the anti-democrats have tried to push this through in those states and others–all swings.
By now, you could be forgiven if you’re wondering if there’s anything that isn’t voter suppression.
There is, and it’s called “voter suppression.”
We “suppress” smiles or grins, laughs or giggles, belches and hiccups–such gentle and comical associations come to mind with the word; these are the associations those who have never experienced what’s called “voter suppression” are likely to make, no matter how seriously they take the problem. And note, in every case of common everyday use, that the suppression is something we do ourselves, to ourselves, and often for our own sake. As a result, there’s a not so subtle (and so American, in ways both admirable and very dark) implication that people whose votes are suppressed suppress themselves, that in some way they have only themselves to blame for the fact that they were unable to vote or were tricked into throwing away their vote or into voting against their interests.
- Got Facebook posts that looked like they were from Hillary Clinton or one of her well-known surrogates telling them they could “avoid the lines” by voting “by text or tweet”
- Just like they’d been doing for a decade on reality TV
- With helpful instructions on just how to do it–in seconds–instead of taking unpaid time off from work, and possibly losing their job or an opportunity for promotion
- No matter what the law says about political retaliation, because let’s face it, such laws are de facto unenforceable and everyone on the front lines has seen an “essential” co-worker let go, punished (and gaslit) capriciously, if they haven’t experienced this themselves
- In order to stand in line at a polling place that’s expected to serve ten times or more the number of voters than similar stations in the suburbs
- With old machines that malfunction at regular intervals throughout the day, making the lines even longer…
Those fools have only themselves to blame. L. O. L. ROTFL, LMAO. They should have known better.
But friends, when caveat emptor, and not e pluribus unum, applies to our most sacred rite as a nation, we’re well ahead of schedule on the road to political perdition. The same goes for anything that makes voting sound like an affirmation of character rather than the air we breathe.
So what we’re talking about isn’t voter “suppression.” And it isn’t “disenfranchisement,” either, that antiseptic, arid, emotionless, colorless word with the strong, but delicate parfum of eu phemisme. We’re talking about voter repression, voter oppression, voter denial, voter deception, voter intimidation, voter rooking or screwing or swindling (to cover the various forms of “suppression” that violate the cardinal principle of one person, one vote). Voter robbery, voter abduction, voter assault, voter battery. How about calling it vote theft or ballot burning? Because that’s what it is, by any reasonable definition. When it comes to taking away life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, there are no style points involved, at least there shouldn’t be, and even if there were, what we call “voter suppression” is no different, no less brutal, no less clumsy, graceless, and maladroit than the tinpot dictators of the developing world and ex-Soviet states who want only to play at democracy and, hoist by their own petard, find themselves compelled to dump ballot boxes full of hope, considered judgment, and righteous anger into rivers or set them on fire.
To put it in terms our friends on the right will understand, it’s the real voter fraud, the voter fraud that actually exists, cheating by any definition; those who deploy it have no more legitimate right to govern our country than Trump supporters believe Biden does now.
Imagine how quickly this problem might be solved if, in every context where the word “voter suppression” would normally be used, the speaker or writer had to use one of the words above instead, or better yet, at least three (the rule of threes, after all, should make that go down easy). That is if using all the above–and then some, while more honest, is a bridge too far, an overreach/not overreach that results in nobody talking about the moveable scandal at all. Of course, it will take more than words to root out a problem so deeply entrenched, but in politics words are a powerful weapon, and should not be underestimated.
- Loose the dogs of data to bring home proof after additional proof that not only was there “suppression,” but that it was more than sufficient to account for the polling disconnect that caused so many so much finger-pointing angst
- Spread our theory over multiple elections, just to watch all other explanations further stretch and snap, freeing pollsters from their democracy-destructive guilt
In Part III, we’ll
- Demolish the main alternative explanation for pollstergeddon, the so-called ‘Trump effect,’ and do so with what would be an unhealthy mix of extreme prejudice and glee, were it not for the fact that this alternative reality also continues, in the eyes of millions of his supporters, to justify the destruction of democracy.
- Crush Democrats’ self-sabotaging mirroring of Trumpist reasoning, including, hot off the presses, the latest variant, as we endeavor to suss out what’s really behind it.
And in Part IV:
- Generously explore the one alternative accounting that does fit at least some of the facts of the 2020 election as well as suppression does–call it the anti-suppression exception–and how it can and should be expanded to help rid us, once and for all, of our nation’s “original sin.”
- Convince you, if you’re not already in the bag, why it’s vital we further convince our friends in the media that “the polls were wrong” is not just inaccurate, but arguably the worst thing you can say in a democracy you want to stay that way.
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- The case for Russian interference as an explanation for the poll malfunction, in brief:
- The Russians have been our most implacable foe for decades (and they’ve increasingly become a cut-out for our new No. 1 contender, the Chinese)
- They’re notorious and inveterate hackers, from a culture that prides itself on leaving no fingerprints (except when it wants to send a message)
- The same decentralization that supposedly prevents mucking with our elections also means a diffusion of expertise that leaves its local protectors no match for them, especially in the Internet era when, ironically, virality knows far fewer borders than existed when the Net was first deployed–we’ve just exchanged radioactive fallout for information packets, and the packets are a lot smarter.
- Thanks to the Electoral College and the divisions in the country, only a limited number of precincts really need to attacked, all in the swing states.
- There’s a prior history of not wanting to look too closely for cyberprints1, at least partially out of justifiable fear that what’s found might discredit the entire democratic process (not to mention an even longer history of officials telling us–guilelessly, even–that there’s no way X could happen that has, in fact, happened, often in the form of Xn).
- Did we mention they’ve been cultivating Trump as an asset since the 1980’s? It’s worth reading a few pre-political profiles of him like Mark Singer’s Trump Solo with this in mind; there it be, hiding in plain sight.
- We now know they’ve been hacking at will into virtually every government agency we’d especially want them not to, all of which probably have higher levels of security than the election machinery of Raleigh-Durham or Volusia County. We already knew they’d hacked into our energy grid two years ago, news that was conspicuously not followed by any reassurance that this problem had been or would be solved.
- As good as the Russians are at this kind of thing, they can’t avoid the overarching level of disorganization and incompetence that accretes on autocracies; hence the fundamental error of not changing enough votes to win the election.
- QED. Back (to part 1) Back (to part 2)
- 1 Much has been written about this phenomenon, and if you’re interested, a good place to start are the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election, especially volume 1 and volume 3. Originally the public was led to believe that only two states were hacked, Illinois and Arizona, a number that rose in fits and starts to 21 states by the end of 2017 (after briefly rising as high as 39). It took ten months after the election for the authorities to even begin to start telling the states what had happened. By the time the committee released volume 4 in late 2019, three years after the fact, it had learned, and revealed, that all 50 had been targeted for hacks, in many cases involving multiple jurisdictions in each. And this only included the most obvious targets and means of impact.
The insurrectionists and their supporters claim that their actions were motivated not by a mere dislike of the election results, but by the fact, and more specifically their belief, that those results were fraudulent, that the election was stolen. Their actions argue otherwise. If they truly believed a majority of Americans actually voted for Donald Trump, their carefully planned insurrection—there was very little of it that was truly ‘in the moment,’ as we continue to learn–would have adopted the same tactics people around the world have for three plus decades now when they were certain an election was fraudulently stolen from them, beginning with the precedent-setting overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Phillipines in 1986 and continuing with the series of “color revolutions” that have followed: massive, peaceful demonstrations, typically in the capital city, even in the face or threat of violent repression (which the insurrection had no reason to fear here) until the would-be (or actual) despot feels compelled to step down. There would have been a second Orange Revolution, with “Maidan on the Mall,” not an armed attack on the Capitol building with legislators inside. It seems likely that the so-called “Million MAGA March,” which by all objective accounts was even less well-attended than Trump’s inauguration, convinced them they did not really have popular backing, which caused them to resort to the time-honored tactic of minority factions instead, violence, the great equalizer. One of the leading militia groups in the Trump coalition, the “Three-Percenters,” explicitly endorses this in their name, which comes from their belief that only 3% of the population is required to successfully prosecute a revolution, a belief that finds some significant support in history, e.g. only 2% of Russians were Bolsheviks at the time of the 1917 government overthrow that led to the creation of the Soviet Union. Back